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A mallard and a bitter orange

A mallard and a bitter orange
signed 'chardin' (lower right)
oil on canvas
31 ½ x 25 ½ in. (80 x 65 cm.)
(Possibly) Maurice-Etienne Falconet (1716-1791), Paris, sculptor at the Royal Academy in Paris (according to a label on the reverse), and by descent to his daughter-in-law,
(Possibly) Anne-Marie Falconet, née Collot (1748-1821), Paris and St. Petersburg, sculptor at the Russian Imperial Academy of Arts, and by descent to her duaghter,
(Possibly) Marie-Lucie Falconet, baroness of Jankowitz (1778-1866).
Private collection, France, since at least 2000, where acquired by the present owner.

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Jonquil O’Reilly
Jonquil O’Reilly Specialist, Head of Part I

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Lot Essay

According to the – no doubt somewhat embellished – story told by the engraver and French Academy historiographer Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790), Chardin apparently came to the attention of Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746), chancellor of the French Academy, while trying to pass off his paintings as Flemish. One day in 1728, Largillière visited the young Chardin, eager to see the famous works of a modest painter who was becoming the toast of Paris. Chardin, portrayed as somewhat mischievous by Cochin, is said to have displayed his paintings in the front of his apartment, while he waited for Largillière in the back. The chancellor described the canvases in the front room as 'de très bons tableaux. […]. Sûrement de quelque bon peintre flamand. C’est une excellente école pour la couleur que celle des Flandres [very good paintings. […]. They must be by a great Flemish painter. The Flemish school is excellent for colour.]' When Largillière then asked to see Chardin’s work, our painter apparently replied that he already had and that he had just commented on them. The almost deceitful anecdote does not really fit with the reserved personality of the painter and can be more easily attributed to Cochin’s own playful nature. But apocryphal or not, the story does still reflect the genuine interest and undeniable shock that Chardin’s paintings generated at a time when such a perfect degree of simplicity, in the finest sense of the word, was so unusual.

Did Largillière see our painting of a mallard hanging in the master’s apartment that day? It almost certainly dates from the beginning of the artist’s career and would have been one of the works that justified his admission to the Academy as a 'peintre dans le talent des animaux et des fruits [talented painter of animals and fruit]'. The Flemish influence, allegedly highlighted by Largillière, remained very prominent. It is true that the restricted color palette and meditative silence are more closely associated with the protestant austerity of northern Europe than Paris under the reign of Louis XV. But though it may borrow these muted qualities from the Flemish artists, our painting is nonetheless more than a simple pastiche of their work. One can already sense through this early painting the future ambitions of an artist who was determined to express so much using so little artifice.

This duck lying on a faintly sketched stand and floating at a slanted angle resembles other works from early in his career, which used this same kind of fragile base, 'd’une stabilité précaire [with a precarious stability]' as Pierre Rosenberg would say. This sloping base tells us a lot about this period of the painter's work, when, in his own words, he was mostly interested in a 'real' depiction of animals. Focusing on an animal, which was meant to robustly express a grandiose simplicity, in contrast to the prevailing still lifes of the time, he was in dogged pursuit of the perfect positioning. He sketched as vibrant a representation as possible of a hanging animal, with an enthusiastic intensity. Wanting to create a painting that would contain nothing but the essential, Chardin overlaid his canvas with different composition attempts, leaving some of the retouches visible. It is true that a still life from not much later in his career portrayed a rabbit and a fowl tied together. The artist was concentrating on game still lifes at the time and tried various animal compositions, the results of which are visible today in our public collections. But the painting with a composition closest to ours is still the painting from the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris, Un canard col-vert attaché à la muraille et une bigarade (fig. 1). In this museum painting, the duck stands out in the same way against a brown and ochre background, accompanied by these textured bitter oranges, the roughness of which would have appealed to Chardin. With the base once again askew, the painter’s early technique is plain to see, a technique that Rosenberg dated to before 1728 in reference to the only still life dated by the artist and which has a similar interest in form. We can also see that this mallard from the Musée de la Chasse will be used again in a very large and accomplished painting, Le chien barbet, held in a private collection, and dated 1730 by Chardin. In both these works, the painting from the Musée de la Chasse and the painting from the private collection, the duck is nevertheless hanging from the other leg, leading us to suppose that our painter is once again preparing for the other paintings and revealing the artist’s creative process. These various works, classified as pre-1728, are among the artist’s most moving. They offer a glimpse, to those of us who know the rest of the story, the already considerable hints of a style that would have a lasting influence on European still life.

This painting is a real find, even if Chardin’s painted oeuvre has already been well studied, but its origin remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. We know how celebrated Chardin’s early paintings were by the artist’s French Academy entourage and this work seems to have followed in the same vein. Along with some of Chardin’s other still lifes, it seems to have hung on the walls of other artists of the day. His innovative and actually quite experimental painting style was warmly received by Chardin’s contemporaries and often, his colleagues in the Académie. The aforementioned painting from the Musée de la Chasse therefore ended up in the collection of the painter Joseph Aved (1702-1766), one of the first rabbit still lifes, now in the Louvre, was conserved by the brilliant sculptor Jean-Jacques Caffieri (1714-1774), and of course Louis-Joseph Le Lorrain (1715-1759) and the engraver Le Bas (1707-1783) also kept a number of works. Our painter maintained this following and a label on the back marked 'collection de Madame Falconet', reminds us that there were many artists, even those with a style quite far from Chardin’s own, who appreciated his work. Indeed, Etienne Falconet (1716-1791), a sculptor very much of his time, a time of graceful, smiling Rococo Venuses, does not at first glance seem the most likely early admirer of the austere paintings of Chardin. But we know that he liked the artist and was even tasked with taking an important Chardin work to Russia, following an order from the Empress for a painting he had just completed, Les attributs des arts et les récompenses qui leur sont accordées. The label on the back referring to 'Madame' and not directly to Etienne Falconet reveals a little of the sculptor’s private life: towards the end of his life he disinherited his son, the painter Pierre-Etienne Falconet (1741-1791) in favor of his daughter-in-law Anne-Marie Falconet, née Collot, Pierre-Etienne’s wife. Anne-Marie was also a sculptor and forged her career with the Tsars of Russia, whom Etienne Falconet also frequented - Catherine II commissioned him to sculpt the equestrian statue of Peter the Great. Etienne Falconet’s will named her as the sole beneficiary and also included his granddaughter in the future succession, in the event of the death of his daughter-in-law. This granddaughter, named Marie-Lucie Falconet, would become, by marriage, the baroness of Jankowitz, and the sale of her large private collection in 1866 at the Drouot auction house in Paris revealed a considerable number of eighteenth-century works by contemporaries of Chardin.

Over 200 years since Chardin’s death, this touching label tying our canvas to the Falconet family continues to pay homage to the painter and shows how the works of a great artist transcend the fashions of the day.

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