This delightful duet by Nicolas Lancret has been lost to public view for the better part of a century. It was recorded (under catalogue 145, figure 207) among paintings he had not seen by Georges Wildenstein in his 1924 catalogue raisonné of this artist. Wildenstein knew the painting only from its illustration in the catalogues of its two twentieth century sales, the Reginald Vaile sale of 23 May 1903 in London, and the Fairfax Murray sale of 15 June 1914 in Paris.
The composition is beautifully arranged, a classic fête galante. The five elegant figures are arranged with Lancret's trademark sound grasp of composition - the five figures rise and fall in a graceful rhythm across the front plane, with the main female dancer silhouetted against the sky, the lovers' graceful curve carving out the right side and the hurdy-gurdy player carefully framed by the menuet. The handling of paint is sure, and the treatment of light is subtle and fine. The wonderfully painted hands of the embracing pair, for example, are rimmed in light and shadow in the most delicate way. The figures are graceful and confident. Lancret's entrancing color sense is fully on display, as well, and the painting is a perfectly tuned rainbow of salmons, blues, and a marvelous clear yellow on the apron of the girl to the right. The inscription on the back is in a nineteenth-century hand, but must be based on an earlier inscription, as the information contained therein seems entirely correct. That inscription dates this work to 1732, and that is surely right. It is a decade of great maturity in Lancret's work, and this is a mature painting. The composition, with the reduced number of figures all pushed forward to the picture plane and all large within the space of the painting, is typical of this period. This painting invites comparison to other fine examples of the artist's work of this time, such as Les Amours de Bocage in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich or Le Jeu de Quilles (owned by Frederick the Great, one of Lancret's most ardent admirers, and today in Schloss Charlottenburg).
The subject, a beautiful dance, is characteristic of this artist at his best. The dancing girl bears close resemblance to the two seminal portraits of dancers made by Lancret just a few years prior, those of La Camargo (for example the elaborate version in the National Gallery, Washington D.C., and the simpler version in The Wallace Collection, London) and Mlle Salli (Schloss Rheinsburg). She, like they, testifies to the importance of the female dancer in Lancret's work, and, indeed, of dance at the time. She is wearing the short skirt virtually invented by Camargo and Salli to allow the audience to see the feet of the dancer. She is also a fine example of Lancret's use of his favorite source material, the seventeenth and early eighteenth century French print tradition, especially the fashion plates and theatre/dance role images. Lancret drew from that well repeatedly, and this dancer with castagnets is based firmly on images such as Mlle. Du Fort dansant à l'Opera, published by André Trouvain in 1702. The dancing man is dressed in the ribbons of an actor, a device often used by Lancret to create a tension between the real world and the world of the stage in his paintings. He is very successful at managing that tension and it adds much to the charm and excitement in his work. This dancer is also wearing a more unusual emblem, a garland of grape leaves, which must surely refer to the Bacchic aspect of dance and partying.
One captivating aspect of the subject is the inclusion of the portrait of an existing person among these fictional creations. The initial head of the hurdy-gurdy player has been painted over and replaced with a portrait, a very distinct likeness. Lancret experimented with placing portraits within fêtes throughout his career, certainly inspired by the example of Watteau, who included portraits of members of his circle in some of his fêtes; the figure of Crispin, for example, to the far right of Love in the French Theater (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) is certainly a portrait, probably of the great actor Paul Poisson. Some of the most successful of Lancret's experiments in this genre are the aforementioned portraits of Mlle Salli and La Camargo, and several conversation piece portraits such as The Luxembourg Family in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Lancret's concept here is actually closer to the Watteau work, the insertion of a true likeness within a theme that is not itself a work of portraiture. The idea must have come to Lancret late in the conception of this work, as the portrait appears to have been added over an existing head. One wonders if the painting might have been intended as a gift to the owner of that head, who is identified in the helpful inscription as one M. Mestais, designated by the inscription on the back as an 'avocat au parlement'.
We are grateful to Mary Tavener Holmes for the above catalogue entry and for dating the painting to 1732.