The attribution of this recently rediscovered oil on paper has been confirmed by Pascal Zuber and Étienne Breton, who will include it in their upcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work. The authors date the painting to c. 1789-1793, just before Boilly was publicly denounced to the Société Républicaine des Arts by fellow artist Jean-Baptiste Wicar, who accused him in March 1794 of producing works of art that were deemed 'd'une obscénité révoltante pour le moeurs républicaines' ('a revolting obscenity to republican morals') and should be 'burned at the foot of the Tree of Liberty'. A few months later, Wicar would be overseeing the commission set up by Napoleon to loot artworks from the Austrian Netherlands for France; in August of that year, an initial convoy left Antwerp filled with paintings by Rubens for the Louvre.
In this characteristically intimate scene, Boilly shows two young women in the dim light of a doorway. The girl to the left, whose loose attire reflects their private setting, ushers in a maid carrying a saucer and porcelain cup, presumably filled with hot chocolate. Drinking chocolate was a luxury strictly reserved to the aristocracy in 18th-century France, and was often poured in the evening just before bed or first thing in the morning. Indeed, Marie Antoinette is said to have preferred hers before breakfast, topped with whipped cream, and served with a brioche, and even brought her own chocolate-maker with her when she arrived at Versailles in 1770 upon her marriage to Louis XVI.
Our Tasse de chocolat is a preparatory study for one of Boilly's major early pictures, La malade intéressante (fig. 1, location unknown), which will also be included in the forthcoming publication by Zuber and Breton. In that work, the two women in the present composition appear at right; the chocolate-bearing figure is clearly being ushered into a sick room to comfort a swooning patient. Our study was used again as preparation for a second early picture, L'Amante déçue, and similarly datable to c. 1789-1793. That work, which is known only through an engraving, shows our bonnetted lady again at a doorway, this time without a companion. Her cup of chocolate has been replaced with a quill pen, which she is about to hand to an elegantly dressed woman who holds a letter that appears to have caused her great distress.