In one of the wittiest and most captivating of his trompe-l'oeil compositions, Boilly has depicted the back of an old, torn painting through which a hungry house cat pokes its head in search of two smoked herrings that hang from a nail driven into the top bar of the wooden stretcher. Beneath the cat's paw, a log cut for an unseen fireplace also breaks through the old canvas, and on the right side of the central stretcher bar, a plate with a wine bottle can be glimpsed behind another great tear. In some ways, the composition defies common sense: why are fish hanging on the back of an old painting? Why is a log apparently sitting on the same surface (a tabletop?) that holds a plate and a wine bottle, and why was the log pushed through the canvas? And yet Boilly's illusion is so convincing that we hardly think to raise objections to its casual disregard of logic.
Trompe-l'oeil painting was popular in Flanders and the provincial centers of northern France, especially in Lille and Arras where Boilly was born and spent his youth and where he befriended Guillaume-Dominique Doncre (1743-1820), a successful local painter who specialized in the genre. Few painters anywhere had skills better suited for the genre than Boilly, who had developed an uncanny naturalism, derived from the close study of 17th-century 'little Dutch masters' such as Ter Borch and Metsu, and honed through years of portrait painting. For Boilly, trompe-l'oeil was no low genre, and his efforts grew more complex and sophisticated in the first years of the new century. His painting from 1800 known as A Collection of Drawings (Musée du Louvre, Paris), is just what its title suggests: the illusionistic rendering of a sheaf of drawings, in red and black chalks, in sepia, in oil paint, on different colored papers, that have been randomly stuffed into a frame which is glazed with broken glass. When it was exhibited in the new, open Paris Salon of 1800, A Collection of Drawings was so popular with visitors -- who could hardly contain their amazement at its entirely convincing painted effects -- that the museum had to install a special balustrade in front of it to control the crowds.
Boilly's trompe-l'oeil paintings contain inside jokes that would probably have been understood by initiates only, and some of them were painted for close friends. The present work is first recorded in the sale of the art collection of Simon Chenard (1758-1837), for whom it was undoubtedly made. Chenard was the principal soloist of the Théâtre Italien, and he put his property on the block in 1822, shortly after he ended his singing career. He was arguably Boilly's best friend, and their relationship dated back to the 1780s when Boilly first arrived in Paris and the two men shared lodgings at the Hôtel de Bullion. Both men were members of the Société des Amis des Arts, and when Boilly's first wife died suddenly in 1795, Chenard was appointed guardian of his children. Boilly often painted his friend, who appears dressed as a sans-culotte in the artist's most famous portrait, The Standard Bearer (Musée Carnavalet, Paris), which depicts Chenard at the Festival of the Liberty of Savoy, 14 October 1792, where he introduced the anthem 'La Marseillaise', which the Convention had decreed be sung as part of the festivities. In Boilly's masterpiece, The Reunion of Artists in Isabey's Studio (Salon of 1798; Musée du Louvre, Paris), he depicts himself with his arm around Chenard's shoulder.
Might we be permitted to ask if the hungry cat in the present painting was a beloved pet in Chenard's household? The singer and his family were well acquainted with Boilly's brand of humor and well disposed to his illusionist paintings. In 1799, Boilly made a small, oval bust-length portrait of Chenard as a snarling Revolutionary and a pendant of Chenard's mother as a grim, Madame Defarge-like 'Woman of the People' -- both quite obviously intended as satirical, and given as gifts to the sitters in that year. He then repeated the portraits in grisaille as trompe-l'oeil paintings of engravings set behind broken glass, with the grisaille of Chenard inscribed "Dédié à l'Amitié' (Dedicated to Friendship).
We are grateful to Etienne Breton and Pascal Zuber for confirming the attribution after inspection of the original. It will be included in their forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Boilly's paintings.