Louis-Léopold Boilly (La Bassée, near Lille 1761-1845 Paris)
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Louis-Léopold Boilly (La Bassée, near Lille 1761-1845 Paris)

'La Lettre' or 'L'Évanouissement' - en grisaille

Louis-Léopold Boilly (La Bassée, near Lille 1761-1845 Paris)
'La Lettre' or 'L'Évanouissement' - en grisaille
signed '...Boill..' (lower left)
oil on canvas
18 x 15 in. (45.7 x 38.1 cm.)
Salvatore Tresca (1750-1815), engraver; (+), Félix and Regnault-Delalande, Paris, 13 March 1815, rescheduled to 2 April 1816 [=1st day], lot 13.
Vincent collection, 1882.
Ren Panhard collection, circa 1900.
Anonymous sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 16 October 1989, lot 10 (1,000,000 francs).
Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 29 January 1999, lot 42 ($151,000 to the present owner).
H. Harrisse, Louis-Léopold Boilly, Paris, 1898, pp. 73 and 102.
(Probably) Paris, Palais du Louvre, Exposition de tableaux, statues et objets d'art au profit de l'oeuvre des orphelins d'Alsace-Lorraine, 1885, no. 601, as 'La mauvaise nouvelle'.
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Lot Essay

This seductive, highly finished picture is characteristic of Boilly's early work in the popular genre of scène galante, teasing domestic scenes depicting the pleasures and turmoil of love. In a bourgeois interior, an elegantly dressed lady has fainted after reading a letter now discarded on the floor. In her distress, her body strikes an elegant arabesque pose, incidentally offering the - intended male - viewer a glimpse of her risqué cleavage. An alarmed gentleman, presumably her husband, comes to the dishevelled beauty's rescue, and anxiously rings a bell for the servants, while a worried looking child observes the unfolding drama. The content of the letter remains a mystery to the audience, inviting them to complete this titillating story. The sensual appeal of the picture is further heightened by the painter's attention to textures, brilliantly rendering the lady's satin dress, light translucent gauze veil and porcelain skin, achieving an almost tactile effect.

This atmosphere of romantic intrigue would have appealed to late eighteenth-century French collectors, such as the Avignon lawyer and Boilly's first patron, Joseph François Calvet de Lapalun, who commissioned the artist with some eleven of such gallant scenes between 1789 and 1791. With its small dimensions and smooth surface, L'évanouissement would have echoed the fashionable Dutch Golden Age cabinet pictures that then filled Parisian mansions and hôtels particuliers. In this work, Boilly is referencing a specific sub-genre within seventeenth-century Dutch cabinet painting: the love letter iconography, often showing a lone woman lost in thought after reading a message from a distant lover. The theme is ubiquitous in the oeuvre of Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch and Gerrit Dou. However, in L'évanouissement Boilly goes beyond the muted eroticism of his Dutch predecessors to deliver a more dramatic and provocative image. During the troubled time of the French Revolution, the erotic charge of such pictures would not have eluded the righteous defendants of Republican virtue. In 1794, at the height of the Terror, Boilly was accused by fellow painter Jean-Baptiste Wicar of 'corrupting the morals' of the new regime. As a token of his fidelity to the Republic, Boilly went on to paint The Triumph of Marat the same year.

This picture is one of the most interesting and accomplished examples of Boilly's grisailles, monochromatic works made 'à la manière de l'estampe', meant to mimic an engraving. The artist would often repeat an existing composition en grisaille, in imitation of an engraving - in essence painting a print of a painting. This painting is a version of a work Boilly exhibited at the 1791 Salon in Paris, the first Salon to be opened to all painters and not just members of the Academy (now in the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). It is believed that these grisailles were painted to provide models for engravings to be made to scale after his paintings. An accomplished lithographer, Boilly would have many of his most popular compositions engraved as a way to publicise his work and complement his income. It is therefore not surprising that this picture was owned by his friend, the engraver Salvatore Tresca, who translated many of his paintings into print, including L'évanouissement. The painting was part of a set of four gallant scenes en grisaille sold under the same lot in Tresca's deceased sale: Le cadeau délicat, L'instruction maternelle (both in Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, on permanent loan from the Musée du Louvre), and Le billet de loterie (Anonymous sale; hôtel Drouot, 16 October 1989).

Although he clarifies his composition by heightening the contrasts between light and shadow, Boilly endows this painting with much more than a mere guideline for an engraver. The grisailles were indeed a way for the artist to show off his skills as a consummate painter of trompe-l'oeil. Though largely self-taught, Boilly received his only documented training from the well-known trompe-l'oeil specialist Dominique Doncre. After working for a short period in Douai and Arras, Boilly moved to Paris in 1785 and throughout his entire career he retained a particular fondness for such games of optical deception. In L'évanouissement, the artist created a highly polished image with a transparency and enamel-like quality would have been almost impossible to render in print. Other notable examples of such illusionary grisailles, to which L'évanouissement can be compared, include A girl at a window (London, The National Gallery), or the equally famous Les galeries du Palais Royal (Paris, Musée Carnavalet). In both these paintings, Boilly pushed the artifice so far as to replicate the white borders of a mounted engraving, and there he inscribed his signature imitating printed letters. Similarly, L'évanouissement bears such a fanciful signature on a white margin that, originally larger, seems to have been reduced at a later date.

The present painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Boilly's paintings by Etienne Breton and Pascal Zuber.

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