The present lot, apparently unknown previously and unpublished, is an important rediscovery. Despite its comparatively modest dimensions, this rare work on copper by Pater represents an exceptionally ambitious variation on the artist's favorite and most novel theme: the female bather.
Remembered as Antoine Watteau's only true pupil, Pater built his career on the shoulders of his teacher, mastering the genre of the fête galante, and quite naturally stepping in to fill the void left in the market by Watteau's untimely death. While he devoted himself principally to painting fêtes galantes, military encampments and commedia dell'arte compositions in the manner of Watteau, he enlarged the range of his subject matter to include depictions of village fairs, such as his masterpiece, the so-called Fair at Bezons (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), comic genre scenes illustrating the tales of La Fontaine, and a series of bathers, rarely if ever found in the works of his mentor.
Although Watteau had painted a monumental Diana at her Bath (Musée du Louvre, Paris), the frank nudity of his model was rendered fully respectable under the guise of mythological history painting. In Les Baigneuses, however, Pater subtly suggested the ancient erotic myth of Diana and her nymphs and invoked its most celebrated art historical antecedents while making no attempt to disguise the contemporaneity of his scene or his objective in titillating the viewer.
In a large park beside a marble arcade nearly a dozen young women undress and frolic in a small pond fed by a baroque fountain. The clearing is enclosed by great, curving bowers, and in the distance are some rustic buildings and snow-capped mountains. As is evident by the silk and satin costumes they remove, the women are fashionable parisiennes who could easily have wandered into the glade from a fête galante, as could the three fancifully dressed men on the left who spy on them. On the right, several women who have yet to bathe drink wine and picnic.
Despite refusing to cloak his subject in mythological conventions, Pater was sophisticated enough to recognize its literary and artistic precedents, and allude to them wittily. The enormous rose pink swag of drapery that shades the glade of bathers derives, most prominently, from the memorable and identically colored drape that is pushed aside by the hapless young hunter Actaeon in Titian's celebrated Diana and Actaeon (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Duke of Sutherland Loan). In the eighteenth century, Titian's painting and its pendant, Diana and Callisto, were two of the masterpieces of the Orléans collection, housed until 1791 in the Palais Royal in Paris, and available for study to interested artists and amateurs. In Les Baigneuses, the disposition of the bathers who seem to hold court around a single, dominant woman; the prominence of the carved garden fountain; and the presence of small, yapping dogs all found their inspiration in Titian's painting. But if the seated woman in white and pink substitutes for Titian's goddess, the fully nude bather kneeling beside her and hiding her face must allude to Callisto. The nymph, who had been one of Diana's most devoted companions, had been seduced by Jupiter, and when the shame of her pregnancy was revealed, she was expelled from the company of the goddess. No such fate awaits Pater's bather, who may simply be drying herself, but the nod to Ovid's tale and Titian's canvases would provide a concealed layer of meaning for the sophisticated connoisseurs who collected Pater's paintings. Similarly, while Pater would never darken the mood of his painting by referring to the gruesome death of Actaeon, the actions of the women on the left of his composition who look into the woods at an unseen presence, might be seen to presage the arrival of the hunter who accidentally trespassed Diana's sacred grotto, was transformed into a stag, and torn apart by his own hounds. Florence Ingersoll-Smouse, who published the only extended modern study of Pater's paintings (1928), believed that Pater's more than fifty known depictions of female bathers may have been commissioned by members of private libertine societies, so-called cénacles galants, of the sort that Watteau's friend the Comte de Caylus was a member; in any event, they would certainly have been purchased by an elite group of discerning collectors who would have found their layers of reference amusing.
The present Les Baigneuses is known in another, much larger version (102 x 143 cm.) executed on canvas, that was acquired - probably in the 1730s or 1740s -- by Frederick the Great of Prussia. It was recorded as number 12 in the inventory of Frederick's paintings compiled in 1773 by Matthias Österreich, inspector of the picture gallery at Sans Souci, one of thirty-one paintings by Pater in the royal collection at Potsdam, where it remains to this day (see Ingersoll-Smouse, 1928, no. 329, fig. 89). Size apart, the present lot differs little from the Potsdam version of the composition, although it is slightly more compressed, and the woman in the water in the center foreground has her buttocks covered, rather than fully revealed, due to some overpaint. The only significant differences evident in the Potsdam version occur on the far sides of the painting, which extend several inches further than the present work and include one additional figure on the left - a child - and a bending servant on the right. In manner and handling the two versions are very similar and nothing suggests that they would have been made far apart in time. Although Pater's paintings are difficult to date, both versions of Les Baigneuses are conceived with a maturity and sophistication found in his works of the early to mid-1730s. One immediately recognizes the characteristics that make Pater's later paintings unmistakable: the light, feathery brushwork, used to great effect in the landscape and background and well as the bathers' gowns and undergarments; the subtle, dappled sunlight that unifies and gives structure to his serpentine, ornamental composition; the inimitable palette of pearly pinks, silvery greys and acid blues; and the easy humor that is his hallmark.
Les Baigneuses is unusual in Pater's oeuvre, though not unique, in being executed on copper, and this solid support accounts in part for its superb state of preservation. In her catalogue raisonné, Ingersoll-Smouse listed only sixteen paintings on copper supports that she found attributed to Pater in collections and old sales catalogues, and most of these were unverifiable. However, a fine, small pair of fêtes galantes executed on copper, then in the Paris collection of Baron Maurice de Rothschild and illustrated in her book, are indisputably authentic and were engraved under Pater's name in the eighteenth century (see Ingersoll-Smouse, 1928, nos. 12 & 16, figs.10 & 9). Interestingly, Les Baigneuses is painted on a heavy engraver's plate that was engraved on the reverse with a cavalry scene of the type popularized by Van der Meulen. The engraving has yet to be identified but its style indicates that it is northern French or Flemish in origin, perhaps from the area around Pater's birthplace of Valenciennes; its quality suggests that it was the production of a provincial - and perhaps amateur - printmaker working between 1690 and 1710. As copper was a costly commodity, it was not uncommon for retired plates to be sold to painters who recycled them in this way.
We are grateful to Alan Winternmute for the above catalogue entry.