Winner of the Rome Prize in 1776, Jean-Baptiste Regnault established himself in the 1780s as one of David's principal rivals. While he displayed enormous gifts in all registers of history painting, his reputation hinged mainly on his virtuosity in graceful subjects and the female nude. In opposition to David's radical modernity, Regnault embodied the continuation of a mythological tradition going back to Correggio and the seventeenth-century Bolognese masters. In parallel with his large works he produced numerous cabinet paintings whose success he ensured by having engravings made. The different versions of his compositions that have come down to us testify to the considerable demand triggered by this strategy.
Thus his career was studded with variations on the theme of Danaë, whose first recorded appearance in his oeuvre dates from the Auguste-Gabriel Godefroy sale of 2 April 1794: "A half-length Danaë, oval-shaped widthwise". The picture was withdrawn from the sale, perhaps for reasons that turned up twenty years later, at the time of the collector's posthumous sale on 14 December 1813, when it was described as a "vividly colored, meticulously painted piece after Monsieur Regnault. 23 x 19 p [approx. 62 x 51 cm]." The presence of this supposed copy in Godefroy's collection is surprising, given that he was also the owner of two of Reganult's most famous pictures, both now in the Louvre: The Deluge and Socrates Tearing Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure. A licked finish copy sold in 2008 and titled La Petite mort ('Climax') fits closely with the idea of the "meticulously painted" Godefroy picture.
At the Salon in 1795 Regnault presented another oval work, a Head of Danaë, together with a more narrative but smaller version of the subject: the heroine on a bed, receiving Jupiter transformed into golden rain. The latter was engraved by Chaponnier in 1804, together with its pendant, Io and Jupiter. In the catalogue of the artist's posthumous sale of 1 March 1830, late replicas of these two erotic subjects are followed by two busts of Danaë: no. 18 is described as "Danaë receiving the golden rain. Head and bust only; oval shape", and no. 74, as "A young female nude, sleeping in the pose of a Danaë". One of them had mostly likely served as the model for the engraving published by Loquemin and Gigoux in 1829.
While all these factors do not make identification of our picture easy, its quality unarguably points to the hand of Regnault. The transparency of the shadows, the delicate details of the lips and hands, and above all the suppleness of modeling whose small brushstrokes give the flesh its vibrancy, correspond closely to his late manner, and demonstrate that he was capable until the end of virtuoso portrayal of the voluptuous female nude.
Our thanks to Mehdi Korchane, for confirming the attribution of the present lot to Regnault on the basis of a photograph, and for his assistance on the preparation of the entry.