This newly discovered work by Philip Mercier can be added to the small number of known candlelight pictures painted by the artist in England. The depiction of a single figure by candlelight, often a young woman in an erotically-charged situation, had been popularized by seventeenth century Dutch artists, in particular Godfried Schalcken. The medium of mezzotint engraving lent itself to the depiction of these celebrated images of artificial light and, through the dissemination of prints, the genre of candlelights gained widespread popularity. Mercier's candlelight subjects almost certainly influenced those of the next generation of English artists, including Henry Robert Morland and Joseph Wright of Derby.
Mercier, the son of a Huguenot tapestry-worker, was born in Berlin and studied in that city under Antoine Pesne before arriving in London around 1716. He was familiar with the work of Watteau, after whom he etched a number of plates, and although there is no firm evidence to support the assertion that he hosted Watteau during the latter's trip to London in 1719-20, Mercier was pivotal in introducing the fashion for rococo art to London. By 1726 he had painted two small-scale group portraits, The Shultz Family (Tate Britain, London) and Viscount Tyrconnel with his Family (private collection, England), which were the first conversation pieces painted in England, a genre that quickly gained popularity with native-born artists including Hogarth.
In 1729 Mercier was made Principal Painter to Frederick, Prince of Wales who had arrived from Hannover the previous year and in 1730 was made the Keeper of his library. He painted a set of four full-length state portraits of Frederick and his sisters (Shire Hall, Hertford) but was far more successful on a smaller, more informal scale in works such as the Music Party, which depicts the Prince and his sisters playing a concert before Kew Palace (National Portrait Gallery, London). He also taught the young princesses to draw but he seems to have fallen out of Royal favor by the late 1730s when he was replaced as Principal Painter and Librarian. He subsequently retired to the country where he worked extensively for the Sanwell family of Upton, Northamptonshire and the Hesilriges of Noseley, Warckwickshire.
A move to York in 1739 re-invigorated the artist's career, and there he established a successful practice, being widely patronized as a portrait painter by the Yorkshire gentry. During this period he also painted a number of fancy pictures, influenced by Chardin and seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings. These works were frequently engraved in London by John Faber, Richard Houston and James McArdell, suggesting that they were executed for commercial purposes.
Amongst these were a small number of candlelight subjects depicting young women at a variety of nocturnal tasks including Bon Soir (formerly collection of Sir Albert Richardson), which also depicts a young girl reading a book by candlelight, and Woman threading a needle by candlelight (Earl of Wemyss, Gosford House). The same girl appears as the model in a number of Mercier's fancy pictures from this date, including the present one, and she is identified as 'Hannah, the artist's maid' on a print after the work, Portrait of a young woman holding a tea tray (fig. 1), sold at Christie's, London, 10 June 2003, lot 33 (£178,850=$292,238).