L'Union Paisible (The Peaceable Marriage) was one of the seven paintings Lépicié exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1777; although it would be difficult from the terse livret entry alone to ascertain with certainty that the present lot was the exhibited painting, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin's marginal illustration in his copy of the catalogue (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale) confirms that they are one and the same. The painting depicts the rustic but clean and well-ordered interior of a peasant family's house: seated beside a crib is a young mother whose good-humoured, happy baby turns from its mother's breast to receive the kisses of its kneeling grandmother; standing above the group and joining it in an embrace is the baby's devoted, affectionate father, who gazes lovingly into his wife's eyes. Nearby, we see a large cabbage that will feed the family and a fat, napping cat lying asleep on a chair.
The painting is almost a textbook illustration of the new ideas advanced by Enlightenment philosophes in the 1760s and 1770s that established childhood as a unique phase of human growth and that of the family as an intimate and harmonious social unit. In novels, on the stage and in philosophical, medical and educational treatises, the new ideals of the happy, healthy family - often embodied by a rustic, peasant family -- were dramatized and expounded. Chardin's genre scenes of the 1730s are sophisticated forerunners of these ideas, but it was the immensely popular novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau - in particular Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise (1761) and Emile (1762) - that served to spread the Enlightenment ideal of the 'Happy Family' beyond an intellectual elite. In painting, with the encouragement of Diderot's criticism, Greuze would expound the cause in The Beloved Mother (Lisbon, private collection, 1765), as Fragonard would in the rustic Happy Family (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, c. 1777) and the aristocratic Happy Household (New York, private collection, c. 1778), and Etienne Aubry would in a variety of canvases including Fatherly Love (Birmingham, Barber Institute of Arts, 1775) and Farewell to the Wet-Nurse (Williamstown, Clark Art Institute, 1777)
Lépicié - who was pious and modest, gave generously to the poor, and took to wearing monk's robes - was naturally sympathetic to the moralizing, socially instructive genre painting of the period. Beginning around 1773, he took up painting genre works inspired by the vogue for 17th-century Dutch cabinet pictures and the neo-Dutch domestic interiors of Greuze and Chardin (in fact, Lépicié's father had been the principal engraver of Chardin's paintings). It is probable that L'Union Paisible is Lépicié's masterpiece in this mode. It explores the issue of child-rearing with delight but also dignity, depicting a husband who displays affection toward his wife and child; a mother who rejects the 'unnatural' substitution of a wet nurse in favour of breast-feeding her child herself and a grandmother, whose own loving behaviour toward the baby reinforces the message that caring adults beget caring children. The young mother is the centrepiece of Lépicié's painting, and of the Enlightenment ideal of the 'Happy Family', eulogized by Diderot as the central attraction of family life. As Carol Duncan observed in a seminal article on the subject of 'Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in French Art' (Art Bulletin, vol. 55, no. 4, December 1973, pp. 570-83), this mother is 'pretty, modest and blushing, her happiness [consisting] in making her husband happy and in serving the needs of her children. Indeed, everything in her make-up, including her personality, is determined by her situation in the conjugal family. She is coquettish for her husband, whose physical and emotional needs she fulfills and to whose will she gladly submits; she is thrifty, skilled in the domestic arts, and a good mother and nurse to her children. She has been educated to find personal and emotional fulfillment in the execution of her duties.'
Lépicié prepared his composition with care, and two preparatory drawings for L'Union Paisible are known: a study for the seated mother and child executed in chalks and signed in ink (see Gaston-Dreyfus, no. 436, in the Bureau Collection as of 1923, illustrated between pp. 122-3); and a study for the head of the baby, in trois crayons, signed in ink, mounted by François Renoud (sold in these Rooms, 19 April 1988, lot 115).