Purchased from Wildenstein & Co. in 1957, this anonymous painting decorated the ceiling of a vestibule in the Wrightsman’s apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue. It was acquired along with boiserie paneling that had been carved around 1775 for the Hôtel de Cabris at Grasse, now installed in the Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In an open sky, nine winged putti disport themselves playfully on white and gray clouds. The putti are nude and hold garlands of flowers forming the letters ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘P’, ‘M’, and an interlocking ‘C & M’. The significance of the letters has not been conclusively deciphered, but they likely refer to the names of the original owners of the Hôtel de Cabris, Jean Paul de Clapiers (1750-1813), Marquis de Cabris and his wife, Louise de Mirabeau (d.1807). The most prominent initials, the interlocking ‘C’ and ‘M’ in the center of the composition, could allude to the Marquis de Cabris himself, or to the union of the Cabris and Mirabeau families.; indeed, ‘M’ is executed in pink, a color consistently associated by family tradition with Louise de Mirabeau’s name.
The painting probably decorated the central salon on the ground floor of the Hôtel de Cabris (now the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Grasse), in rue Mirabeau. It was replaced by a chandelier and plaster decorations in a renovation of the building around 1900. The painting was sold with the boiseries (subsequently gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Charles and Jayne Wrightsman; see F. J. B. Watson, The Wrightsman Collection, New York, 1970, III, pp. 32-39) in the E. M. Hodgkin sale, Paris on 29 May 1937.
The identity of the author of the ceiling has never been convincingly determined, but its style certainly suggests a dating of circa 1775. The names of Hughes Taraval (1729-1785) and Antoine-François Callet (1741-1823) have been suggested, and both artists trained with Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre (whose style is reflected in the Wrightsman painting) and are known to have painted ceiling decorations early in their careers. Perhaps the most intriguing name posited is that of Nicolas-Guy Brenet (1728-1792), the French history painter who trained with François Boucher, and whose brother, André Brenet, was the Parisian sculptor who was engaged by the Marquise de Cabris to obtain in Paris the boiseries, decorations and furnishings for the hôtel. Might it be that he engaged his brother to execute the ceiling painting, as Georges Vindry, curator of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire proposed in the mid-1970s?