Most often remembered today as the inventor of the ‘tableaux de modes’ – a series of small, refined and witty genre scenes that chronicle urbane, aristocratic French society at leisure – Jean-François de Troy trained as a history painter who went on to produce many of the most admired and enduring altarpieces and sensual mythological paintings of the first half of the eighteenth century. Born into the third generation of a dynasty of painters originally from Toulouse, Jean-François de Troy was trained in Paris by his father, the portraitist and academician François de Troy. He was sent to Rome at his family’s expense in the winter of 1698 and would remain in Italy for seven years, the longest Italian apprenticeship of any eighteenth-century French painter. Within two years of his return to Paris in 1706, de Troy was made an associate and full member of the Academy on the same day, 28 July 1708. Rising quickly within the Academy’s ranks, between 1710 and 1720 de Troy painted mostly small-scale religious pictures and mythological subjects of a distinctly erotic character, such as Susanna and the Elders (1715, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) and Bacchus and Ariadne (1717, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin). In 1724, de Troy received his first royal commission, two overdoors representing Zephyr and Flora and Acis and Galatea (Hôtel de Ville, Versailles) for the Versailles bedroom of Henri, Duc de Bourbon. His seven entries to the Salon of 1725 offered a complete survey to date of de Troy’s wide repertory, including two of his most refined ‘tableaux de modes’, The Declaration of Love and The Garter (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and several large-scale mythologies. Throughout the 1730s, de Troy monopolised commissions for the Gobelins, submitting seven enormous tapestry cartoons for the History of Esther (Musée du Louvre, Paris), masterpieces that affirmed his own self-confident claim of being the modern French Veronese. Appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome in 1738, he spent the remainder of his life in the Eternal City, where he continued to paint history subjects in the grand manner for court, ecclesiastical and private patrons until his death in 1752.
De Troy’s Paris and Oenone is a large and impressive erotic mythology from the mid-1720s which was rediscovered only in 2003 (shortly after the publication of Christophe Leribault’s exemplary catalogue raisonné). The painting is presumably the work that passed from the collection of Louis-Jean-Marie de Bourbon, Duc de Penthièvre (fig. 1; 1725-1793) to his daughter, Louise-Marie Adélaide de Bourbon-Penthièvre, Duchess of Orléans (1753-1821), from whom it was confiscated in March 1793 by the National Convention. It invokes the classical tale recounted by Apollodorus in the Biblioteca (3.12.6) and by Horace in Heroides (V.9-25), in which Oenone, a water nymph and daughter of the river god Oeneus, writes an imaginary letter to her husband Paris, Prince of Troy, who had abandoned his wife for the beautiful Spartan queen, Helen of Troy. Oenone reminds her former husband that '…the beeches still keep my name which you carved upon them…and as the trunks grow, so grows my name.' Their story would, of course, take a dark turn: Paris would abduct Helen, forcibly taking her with him back to Troy, the act which provoked the disastrous Trojan War, an event that had been prophesied from the moment of his birth. After the fall of Troy, Paris, who was wounded in the battle, returned to the forlorn Oenone. Although skilled in the medical arts, Oenone refused to nurse him back to health and Paris was returned to Mt. Ida to die. Oenone relented, but too late to save him. Rushing to Troy, she found Paris already dead and, in a frenzy of grief, took her own life.
In characteristic fashion, de Troy chose to depict the happiest and most affectionate moment in the tragic tale, when Paris and Oenone are in love, their bodies tenderly entwined, as Paris attests to his devotion to his bride by inscribing her name into the bark of the nearest tree. In de Troy’s painting, the lovers’ bodies almost entirely fill the canvas, all but spilling from it, their expressions of youthful ardor intensely concentrated on Paris’s poetic act of deathless commitment.