Born in La Bassée near Lille in 1761, Boilly is documented as being trained by the painter of trompe-l'oeils Dominique Doncre (1743-1820). Then, in 1785, after working briefly in Douai and Arras, he moved to Paris, where he exhibited at the Salon from 1791 to 1824. During this time he became highly sought after as a painter of portraits, scènes galantes, and glimpses of contemporary life.
His son, Julien, also an artist, provided information to August Delsart for the earliest published biographical study of his father, written by Arthur Dinaux in the Archives Historiques et Littéraires du Nord de la France et du Midi de la Belgique (1849). In a letter accompanying the biographical notes, that included a checklist of Boilly's major genre work, Julien explained how his father had worked in two distinct styles. The first, with which the present pair correpond, shows a taste for moralizing, amorous and sentimental subjects inherited from Greuze and Fragonard and delights in the tactile qualities of textiles and draperies. In this, he was inspired by seventeenth-century Dutch masters such as Gerard Ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu; indeed Boilly owned examples by both artists that were sold along with the great part of his picture collection in Paris in 1824.
After 1800, his compositions tended to become more complex, with more figures, often depicting street scenes with an enhanced sense of spontaneity.
Le Cadeau délicat and La lettre are comparable in style and technique to the eleven pictures commissioned from Boilly from about 1787 by Calvet de Lapalun who owned the Malheurs de l'Amour, now in the Wallace Collection, London. The latter was one of four pictures by Boilly bought in Paris by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1864 of which three remain in the Wallace Collection. The present pair of pictures were acquired by Beriah Botfield in Paris in 1845, the year of Boilly's death, and are thus one of the earliest examples of the artist's work being bought by an Englishman. Given Beriah Botfield's predilection for Dutch cabinet paintings and the work of Terborch and others, it is plain to see why he bought this pair, even though by a French artist. His picture catalogues reveal that apart from a few pictures by seventeenth-century French artists (Claude, Bourdon, Mignard among others), these were the only French pictures in his collection.
A grisaille sketch with minor differences of Le cadeau délicat of smaller size, is in the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris. Two engravings in reverse also exist; one in colour, by Tresca, another, of lesser quality, by Massard, bearing the title La Surprise agréable. A copy, in the same sense as the engraving is in a French private collection.
This pair of pictures will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Boilly, being prepared by Pascal Zuber and Etienne Bréton.