The billowing skirts and abundant locks of the woman in this painting date it to circa 1795. Boilly came to Paris ten years earlier and quickly gained popularity from genre scenes such as this one, celebrating the quiet joys of family life. A young mother tenderly embraces her little boy as he pulls away, frightened, from the family dog. An older sister, too grown up for infant terrors, gazes out at the viewer.
Solicitude for children and the idea of molding them by love and care had been stimulated by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who abandoned his own children on the steps of the nearby orphanage). The idea of the 'good mother' and the 'woman of feeling' gained currency in philosophy and literature in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and was reinforced by French Revolutionary ideas about the strictly domestic sphere of women. A Revolutionary viewer would have found nothing to object to in this demure mother, although Boilly's more erotic genre pieces fell foul of the Comité du Salut Public in 1794 and the artist barely escaped with his head.
This painting is characteristic of the works which Boilly painted after his series for the Avignon collector Esprit-Claude-François Calvet de la Palum (1728-1810) between 1789 and 1791. The subtle eroticism of the Calvet series is replaced by a more moralizing tone, befitting the spirit of the Republic, which in 1795 was still reeling from the Terror. The theme of maternal love was also spurred by Boilly's recent second marriage, which produced several children, including the future painter Julien-Léopold Boilly (1796-1874).
Boilly practised an exquisite, almost miniaturist technique reminiscent of seventeenth-century Dutch genre painters such as Gerard Terborch (1617-1681) and Gabriel Metsu (1629-1669), whose work he collected, and Leiden fijnschilders such as Gerrit Dou (1613-1675). The treatment of the light on the young mother's satin skirt especially recalls Terborch's delight in the same material in paintings such as The letter, 1661-2 (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace). Boilly also took from the Dutch masters his placing of figures in a shadowy, box-like room and his beautifully gradated, subtle tones. The palette is animated with touches of lilac, lilac-browns, dusty pink, soft blue and olive green, offset by the subdued gold of the chair and by the white sheen of the mother's skirt.
The mother and child are based on a drawing of the pair seen outside (Sotheby's, New York, 27 January 1999, lot 117). Boilly also set the same figures in a landscape in La sauvegarde de l'enfance or La peur du chien (oil on canvas, 32.5 x 24 cm; Cognacq sale, Paris, 14 May 1952, lot 6; engraved by Maradon). He used the child again in Le frère et la soeur (oil on canvas, 40 x 32 cm; Anonymous sale, Basle; photograph in Witt Library).
This painting will included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Louis-Léopold Boilly by Etienne Bréton and Pascal Zuber.