This remarkable, life-sized portrait of a doe suddenly alerted to an unseen danger is among the early masterpieces of Jean-Baptiste Oudry, the greatest and most celebrated animalier of the 18th century. Its reappearance in 1991 marked it as the most important addition to the artist's oeuvre since the Second World War.
Oudry trained under his father, a master painter in the Académie de Saint-Luc, but it was his five years of study with the Franco-Flemish portraitist and still life painter Nicolas de Largillierre (c. 1705-1710) that determined his early career; until 1719, when the artist made his first modest depictions of living animals, Oudry worked principally as a portrait painter in Largillierre's manner.
Oudry's initial public success was meteoric and came with the exhibition at the Exposition de la Jeunesse in the Place Dauphine of an enormous canvas depicting eleven hounds taking down a nearly life-sized stag in an extensive landscape (The Stag Hunt, 1723, Royal Castle, Stockholm), a five-meter-wide masterpiece that he undertook on speculation. The tremendous popular attention that his first great hunting picture elicited was responsible for attracting his three most significant early patrons: Louis Fagon, intendant des finances; the Marquis de Beringhen, premier écuyer du roi; and, finally, the most avid hunter in the land, the young king, Louis XV, each of whom soon commissioned works from the artist, making his career and establishing him as the uncontested master of hunt and animal pictures. The following year brought Oudry's first French royal commissions, for three hunt subjects for Chantilly (including the famous Roe Hunt, now in Rouen), followed in 1725 by the first of his many portraits of the royal hounds painted as overdoors for the king's hunting lodge at Compiègne.
The exquisite Watchful Doe is signed and dated in the 1720s, but the final digit in its date is unclear. It closely matches a description of a painting that Oudry exhibited in 1725 at the Salon du Louvre; if the present work is not that painting, it must be a closely related variation of Oudry's Salon entry. The sensitive and alert doe stands at quivering attention, looking off into the distance at an approaching sound. The animal is exquisitely recreated, with every detail of her stance and coat closely observed and meticulously rendered. Immediately evident is Oudry's disarming empathy with the animal, which was recognized by the artist's contemporaries as his signal and distinguishing characteristic as an animal painter. The landscape setting is rendered with equivalent care, and creates an atmospheric setting for the nervous deer. It is typical of Oudry's subtle blending of rigorous naturalism and poetic lyricism that a half obscured cross can be glimpsed -- cast in a golden glow -- in the right background behind the deer, suggesting both the spirituality and innocence of the animal and the martyrdom that may await her.
Although no drawings connected to the painting are known, the doe would have been based on a chalk study of an animal in the royal Ménagerie (where Oudry often worked) or seen in the Bois de Boulogne (as suggested in the 1725 Salon livret). The success of the present painting inspired Oudry to incorporate its central subject in a more complex composition depicting Three Does Watching Two Stags Fighting; our doe is reproduced almost stroke for stroke in that latter canvas which was commissioned in 1734 by Christian Ludwig II, Duc de Mecklembourg-Schwerin (130 x 172.5 cm.; formerly Schwerin, Staatliches Museum; missing since the Second World War but known from old photographs).