This gentle and moving image was long attributed to Antoine Watteau; once a treasure of the celebrated Cook Collection, the painting was praised as “of singular beauty and distinguished by an intimate pathos.” Painted around 1720, The Duet likely predates Watteau’s death and stands at the start of the career of Nicolas Lancret, Watteau’s most talented and original acolyte; with its creamy brushwork and sensitive luminosity, it can be recognized as one of the artist’s most pleasing confections.
Although its debt to the master is pronounced, The Duet is a rare candlelit scene from the circle of Watteau. In fact, only one painting by Watteau himself is set to candlelight, the famous Love in the Italian Theatre (c. 1718; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). In The Duet, a young man and woman study a musical manuscript that is illuminated by the light of a single taper. Absorbed in their singing, their figures drawn close to each other, the boy’s left hand, holding the candlestick, engages the woman’s exposed right arm in a gesture of tender affection. This type of nocturnal genre scene was a specialty of 17th-century Dutch painters such as Gerrit Dou and Gottfried Schalken, whose works were widely collected in France throughout the 18th century, and contemporary French painters including Jean Raoux and Jean-Baptiste Santerre supplied nocturnal subjects in the Dutch manner to satisfy the popular demand. Indeed, the taste for this type of picture was promoted by Watteau’s friend and supporter, Edme François Gersaint, and actively marketed by the art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, who himself would at one time own the present painting.
Although the correct attribution of The Duet was eventually forgotten, and from the 19th century onward it was given to the more famous Watteau, the painting was recognized as a superior example of Lancret’s art when it appeared in the Verrier Sale in 1776 and was copied in a marginal illustration by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin in his copy of the catalogue. In a rare editorial commentary, Saint-Aubin noted beside his sketch that Lancret’s original was “très beau.”