Huet was the son of an armorial painter in the king's household who spent his childhood among the artists lodged in the Louvre; it was there that the young man (who had studied briefly with Dagomer, a minor animalier) would have first met François Boucher and Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, the talented pupil of Boucher who became Huet's master in 1764. Something of a prodigy, Huet was accepted into the Academy in July 1768 and was elected to full membership the following year as a painter of genre scenes with Mastiff Attacking Geese (Musée du Louvre, Paris), an accomplished and spirited animal painting in the manner of Oudry.
Eligible to exhibit at the Salon for the first time in the summer of 1769, Huet organized an impressive debut of about fifteen works, including his reception piece and other animal paintings, such as A Fox in the Henhouse (1766; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco); a lost picture of exotic birds; several landscapes among which was a moonlit scene; two still lives of flowers in vases; sketches of animals; a drawing of the Adoration of the Shepherds; and the large pastoral composition called simply 'Une Caravanne'. Happily, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin copied this last composition in a marginal illustration in his copy of the Salon livret, permitting us to confirm that no. 137 in the exhibition was the present painting, which is signed and dated 1768. Like any ambitious young painter, Huet wanted to display his skill and versatility and make his name with an attention-getting Salon debut, goals which he more than achieved. Almost every reviewer mentioned his eye-catching arrival on the public stage including Diderot, who observed that 'here is a M. Huet, who has been given a great page and then some in the Salon livret.'
'Une Caravanne' is one of the most spectacular accomplishments of Huet's career. In a large and complex work that affects an effortless poise -- itself a remarkable achievement for a twenty-four year old - Huet managed to orchestrate an almost fantastical abundance of standing, seated, moving and stationary figures; squawking, chirping and mooing animals; and toppling cornucopias of enormous cabbages, leeks and eggs, into a harmonious symphony of bright colors, opulent fabrics and verdant, enveloping landscape. The painting is also an unapologetic tribute to Boucher, whose two great 'Caravan' paintings of the mid-1760s served as Huet's models. The central figural group of a mother seated on the ground with her baby swaddled on her lap, her husband standing over her protectively with outstretched arms in which he carries cumbersome baskets and holds the reins of his donkey, is adopted by Huet with only small variations from the central group in Boucher's late masterpiece Halt at the Spring (1765; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). It is possible that Huet would have seen that painting, which began life in 1761 as a 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt', in Boucher's studio in the Louvre in 1765 when the artist was enlarging it (it now measures 82 x 114 inches) and transforming it into a secular subject (perhaps at the request of its owner, the immensely rich collector and receveur général des finances, Pierre-Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret de Grandcourt). But it is also clear from even a cursory glance at 'Une Caravanne' that Huet must have been given access to the vast Return from the Market (also Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) that Boucher painted in 1767 as a pendant to the Halt at the Spring, which hung with it in Bergeret's Paris townhouse. The general disposition of Huet's painting, its pyramidal piling up of figures, their massive sweep across the picture plane and into the left background, the atmospheric landscape setting, all follow the example established by the Return from the Market. Huet could also have seen this painting in Boucher's studio, but equally he might have encountered it in Bergeret's house: we know from another citation in the livret of the 1769 Salon that young Huet himself counted Bergeret among his patrons, for no. 144 in the exhibition, a small painting of 'Un petit Chien', is listed as belonging 'to M. Bergeret'.
Ironically, Huet's 'Une Caravanne' and Boucher's Return from the Market, upon which it is so dependant, both appeared to acclaim in the Salon of 1769. Féron, in his review in L'Année Litteraire praised Huet's effort. 'M. Huet, who shows for the first time at the Salon,' he wrote, 'exhibited several paintings to advantage. He seems principally attached to the genre of animal painting, but he knows how to introduce figures with taste. The painting of a Caravan has many aspects that are very well made. His manner is broad, his brush is soft, and his execution is very agreeable. One esteems particularly his studies of animal heads. Taking nature as his guide, he strives to be true.'
Denis Diderot, who had attacked Boucher's work in previous reviews, praised Return from the Market, Boucher's only submission in what would be his final Salon appearance. 'The old athlete has not wished to die without showing himself one last time in this arena. .... Exhibited by this artist was a Marche de Bohémiens. .... In it one still remarked fecundity, facility, and energy...nothing felt forced, the brushstrokes were bold and lively; one sensed everywhere the great master.' Diderot praised the young athlete too, and was alone among the critics to draw an explicit connection between 'Une Caravanne' and Boucher's art, when he noted that Huet's picture 'is not without merit, and painted better than Boucher.' As Diderot seems to implicitly understand, he was witnessing the handing down of a tradition, as Boucher made his valedictory public appearance and Huet, his truest successor, stepped into the limelight for the first time.