Charles and Jayne Wrightsman first visited the Soviet Union in 1956 and Jayne Wrightsman returned on numerous occasions during the Cold War and after the opening of Russia to the west, developing close relations with curators at the Hermitage, a museum she generously supported until her death. Le Prince’s delightful depiction of a Russian musician served as a memento of a country and people for which she maintained great personal fondness.
An innovative painter, printmaker and draftsman, Jean Baptiste Le Prince made two consequential contributions to the artistic culture of his time. He was one of the earliest practitioners – if not the actual inventor – of an aquatint printing process that revolutionized printmaking in the late 1760s. And he popularized a type of genre painting known as ‘russeries’ – picturesque renderings of Russian subjects, settings and costumes – that was comparable to the better-known genres of ‘chinoiserie’ and ‘turquerie’ and appealed to the widespread French interest in ‘exotic’ foreign cultures.
Le Prince was born in Metz, a city in northeast France near Nancy, in 1734; his father was an ornamental sculptor and at least one brother was a musician. After studying art briefly in his hometown, Le Prince was taken to Paris around 1750 by the maréchal de Belle-Isle, the military commander of Metz, to enter the studio of François Boucher, the most successful and celebrated painter in France. Boucher’s influence on Le Prince was profound, and during his brief apprenticeship with the master, the young artist would form the foundations of the painting style – bright coloring, cheerful subject matter, fluid and creamy brushwork – that he maintained throughout his career.
In 1752, aged 18, Le Prince married Marie Guiton, a rich woman twice his age. It was an unhappy union and after two years together, he left his wife for study in Rome, a trip presumably paid for with her support. He was, by all accounts, little affected by what he saw in the Eternal City, and few traces of Italian influences are discernable in any of his subsequent works. Back in Paris by 1758, Le Prince decided to escape his failed marriage permanently and seek his fortune in Russia, a country whose recent emergence as one of the great powers in Europe made it a site of increasing fascination to the French. The success of other French artists who had recently travelled to Russia may have encouraged Le Prince to make the trip, including that of the painter Louis Joseph Le Lorrain (1715-1759), the young draftsman Jean Michel Moreau le Jeune (1741-1814), and the celebrated portraitist Louis Tocqué (1696-1772), who was working in Russia in 1757-1758, to considerable acclaim. Perhaps even more appealing, Le Prince had relatives who had already made the move. His brother Marie François Le Prince, a musician, had received commissions from the Imperial court and seems to have resided in St. Petersburg, and his sister and brother-in-law were also in Russia, the latter serving as a professor of Languages at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Carrying an introduction from his old protector, the maréchal de Belle-Isle to the Marquis de l’Hôpital, French Ambassador in Russia, Le Prince soon received a large decorative commission for the newly constructed Winter Palace. Although Le Prince remained in Russia for at least four years, little is known of his movements there. He seems to have travelled widely, perhaps as far as Siberia, and made a large body of drawings and sketches of contemporary Russian life, its customs, rituals and costumes that he used as the basis for much of his later work.
Le Prince returned to Paris in late 1763. According to Mariette, he had left France a mediocre painter and come home a master. In February 1764, the artist presented himself to the Académie Royale, where he was received as a member on 23 August 1765, upon the presentation of his painting The Russian Baptism (Louvre), perhaps his first – and certainly best-known – painting of Russian subject matter. The Russian Baptism was one of 15 paintings that Le Prince included in the Salon of 1765 – indeed, all of the pictures he exhibited that year would be russeries, as would most of those he showed in each of the subsequent two Salon exhibitions (in 1767 and 1769), a clear indication of the popularity of the genre with collectors and the public, and the degree to which his rising reputation was associated with it. In addition to ‘The Cabak’ a tavern Outside Moscow (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), the highlights of the Salon of 1769 were the charming pair of oval paintings depicting The Russian Dance and The Seesaw (sold, Christie’s New York, 30 October 2018, lot 48), and a small canvas of Une Russienne jouant de la Guitarre (lost).
The Wrightsman picture also depicts a young Russian woman playing an instrument – what the artist referred to as a ‘balalaye’, similar to a dömbra, a lute-like stringed instrument that has a pear-shaped form – and is dated ‘1769’, but is not the same canvas that was exhibited in the 1769 Salon. That painting was only slightly larger than half the size of the Wrightsman picture and situated its subject in an interior setting, as Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s marginal illustration of it in his copy of the Salon livret demonstrates. Instead, the Wrightsman painting is related to the artist’s most ambitious venture of the 1760s, his full-scale cartoons for the six-panel series of tapestries produced at the Beauvais manufactory and representing Jeux russiens, or Russian entertainments. Le Prince’s tapestry series of richly detailed exotic pastorals followed closely in the tradition of Boucher, whose previous series of tapestry decorations, the Fetes italiennes and La tenture chinoise, had both been great commercial successes for Beauvais. Full sets of Le Prince’s Russian series would prove equally popular and were woven at least thirteen times between 1769 and 1793.
The Wrightsman Musician relates to a figure standing to the left in The Repast, one of the six compositions that made up the Jeux russiens. The tapestry – an example of which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 1) -- is a large, multi-figural outdoor scene depicting colorfully dressed Russian figures who picnic and make music beneath the wings of a great tent that has been erected amid a copse of trees near the banks of a river, on which a small pleasure boat is moored. The revelers put aside their own instruments to watch the pretty musician strum her ‘balalaye’. The tapestry would have been woven in reverse from a painted cartoon by Le Prince (measuring over 11 feet high and almost 20 feet wide), which had to be cut into strips to accommodate the weaving process.
The success of his russeries inspired Le Prince to reproduce the most popular subjects in different media for a variety of audiences. The Wrightsman painting derived from the figure that Le Prince first created in 1767-1768 for The Repast tapestry cartoon, which he then also translated into a single-figure aquatint version that is dated ‘1768’ (fig. 2). As Everett Fahy noted (2005), “the date of the Wrightsman canvas – 1769 – would appear to preclude it as a model for the print and would also make a preparatory role for the tapestry highly improbable, as weaving began in 1769.” Most likely, he continues, “the Wrightsman Musician and the smaller Salon version were created as independent cabinet paintings, perhaps based on the large cartoon before it left the studio or after a common preparatory drawing.”