In a scene calculated to amuse, titillate and embarrass the viewer all at once, Boilly presents a young woman who seems to be struggling both to hold off the advances of a young suitor, and against her own inclination to give in. Staging the scene like a theatre director, Boilly is working to capture the sense of wide-ranging human émotion that the philosophers Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau prescribed as their ideal in painting. In his choice of an emotionally engaged moment, his attention to the disposition of the figures and his virtuoso rendering of fabrics, Boilly is consciously emulating 17th-century Dutch masters such as Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu.
Like many of the most notable 18th-century French painters, Boilly came from a family of skilled artisans; his father Arnould Boilly (1764-79) was a Douai wood-carver. After spending some time in Arras in order to receive instruction from the trompe-l'oeil specialist Dominique Doncre (1743-1820), Boilly moved to Paris in 1785. His early work in the years circa 1790-1800 was characterised by an output of moralising, amorous and sentimental subjects that catered to a taste established by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805); between 1789 and 1791 he executed eight small scenes on moralizing and amorous subjects for the Avignon collector Esprit-Claude-François Calvet (1728-1810), including The Visit (1789, now in the Musée Hôtel Sandelin, Saint-Omer). His work Lovers and the Escaped Bird (Paris, Louvre) tends, like the present picture, toward a more explicitly erotic reading; it was because of such pictures that Boilly was condemned by the Comité du Salut Public in 1794, at the height of the Revolutionary Terror, for painting subjects 'of an obscenity repugnant to Republican morals'. Thereafter he turned increasingly to history, urban and rural genre and portraiture in his painting.
Like comparable works by Fragonard and Greuze, this composition entered the estampe galante tradition when it was engraved by Mathias in a large format (43 x 34.3 cm.); it was also engraved by de Gouy in a smaller format as a decoration to be stuck onto box-lids. This picture will be included in Étienne Bréton and Pascal Zuber's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Boilly's wroks. We are grateful Pascal Zuber for his identification of the picture and his confirmation of the attribution.