Recognised since the eighteenth century as one of Philips Wouwerman's 'chefs-d'oeuvre', the importance of this picture was signalled most recently by its selection for the first major monographic exhibition of the artist's work held at the Mauritshuis in 2009-10.
This is a quintessential example of Wouwerman's most refined late style, generally dated to the last few years of his life (1665-8). Given the great extent of Wouwerman's painted oeuvre (over six hundred works have been attributed to him), it is often forgotten that he died relatively young, before he reached the age of fifty. Hunting scenes featuring richly attired figures attended by pages, grooms and dogs provided the artist with a favourite source of subject matter during the 1650s and '60s, and this is one of his most eloquent treatments, which amply illustrates his versatility as an outstanding painter of architecture and landscape in addition to his pre-eminence as a horse painter. The main action is overlooked by a party on a terrace, attended by musicians and pages serving food. A courting couple are shown on a balcony below, alongside a monkey who signifies their amorous intentions. The group on the terrace, together with the figures on the steps below, occur, in the reverse sense, in a sheet in the British Museum, thought to be a counter-proof of a preparatory study in red chalk (see fig. 1).
Pictures of this type by Wouwerman were especially prized in France in the eighteenth century, and this example has the distinction of having been owned successively by the two most illustrious French collectors of this artist--Jeanne-Baptiste d'Albert de Luynes, comtesse de Verrue (1670-1736) and Pierre-Louis-Paul Randon de Boisset (1710-1776). The former, who was among the earliest collectors in France to buy Dutch pictures, owned more than a dozen paintings by Wouwerman, the majority of which are now housed in museums, including five in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, and such masterpieces as the Stag Hunt (Louvre, Paris), Horses watering (Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam) and the Horse Fair (Wallace Collection, London; for a full account of her collecting, see J. Scott, 'The Comtesse de Verrue: A lover of Dutch and Flemish Art', Apollo, January 1973, pp. 20-4). The comtesse's prediliction for Wouwerman was disseminated by virtue of engravings made by Jean Moyreau after some of her best works by Wouwerman, and the present picture was among the first to be reproduced in this way in 1734 (see fig. 2). Her taste helped inspire unparalleled levels of interest in the artist and no doubt influenced the taste of Randon de Boisset, who acquired the present work at, or soon after, the comtesse de Verrue's estate sale in 1737. His own sale, held after his death forty years later, contained twelve paintings by Wouwerman, of which this picture achieved the highest price.
Until 1784, this painting was always sold with another, on canvas, described as its pendant; but, as Quintin Buvelot has recently made clear, this owed simply to the fashion for presenting Wouwerman's paintings as pairs, made easy by the frequent similarity of size and subject in his oeuvre (see Buvelot, op. cit., pp. 131-2).