‘This is Autumn,’ explains Christie’s specialist Alan Wintermute, introducing a painting long recognised as one of the seminal achievements of French painter Nicolas Lancret — and one of the greatest early 18th-century French paintings still in private hands.
Set to be a highlight of Christie’s Old Masters auction on 27 April 2017, the painting is described by Wintermute as ‘the most beautiful’ of Lancret’s series The Four Seasons. The specialist enthuses: ‘It’s a celebration of sex and drink and love and nature; it’s everything he aimed to do, and one of the finest works he ever made.’
Born in Paris in 1640, Nicolas Lancret was six years younger than his ‘genius’ contemporary Antoine Watteau, who was credited with inventing an artistic genre known as fête galante. The term described compositions that celebrated nature and youthful exuberance, depicting elegantly dressed figures frolicking in bucolic settings.
‘The Four Seasons are really in the style of what Watteau would have done, but on a much grander and more ambitious scale,’ Wintermute continues. Although Watteau had invented the genre, Lancret quickly became a master of the fête galante in his own right, producing works whose quality and scale rivalled those of his peer.
Lancret’s career-defining series wouldn’t have come about at all were it not for the support of Leriget de la Faye, one of the most enlightened and distinguished patrons in 18th-century Paris. ‘He was famous for his generosity, which was a point of pride,’ explains Wintermute. ‘If he loved what you were doing, there was no limit to how much he was willing to pay for it.’
When de la Faye saw the first of Lancret’s Four Seasons, he was so taken with it that he immediately offered to pay the artist double the fee they had first agreed — dramatically ripping up the contract he had made before the project began. The finished works hung in a dedicated room in de la Faye’s house, becoming the centrepiece of one of the greatest collections of the day.
‘This was Lancret’s first really big commission, and would be one of the biggest commissions he would ever have in his career,’ Wintermute observes.