Nicolas Lancret’s Autumn has long been recognized as one of the artist’s seminal achievements and one of the greatest early 18th-century French paintings still in private hands. A remarkably well-documented picture, the story of its commission, its private display, and its rapidly spreading fame and influence, tells us much about the development of the Rococo style and its wide dissemination in the early decades of the 18th century.
Lancret began his career consciously emulating the style and subject matter of the paintings of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). According to his friend and biographer, Silvain Ballot de Sovot, Lancret ensured his success as a genre painter ‘by drawing from the same waters whence Watteau himself had drawn.’ It is not certain when Lancret met Watteau, six years his senior, but both painters trained in the studio of Claude Gillot. Ballot stated that Watteau’s role in Lancret’s developing career was that of advisor and mentor, not teacher and pupil. In any event, Watteau took an interest in the younger painter, advising him to sketch landscapes on the outskirts of Paris and then create paintings by combining figures in them according to his imagination. Lancret made two paintings that so pleased Watteau that he embraced Lancret when he saw them; the young painter was given preliminary acceptance into the Académie on the basis of their success. On 24 March 1719, Lancret was received as a full member of the Académie with the Conversation Galante (Wallace Collection, London), only the second artist – after Watteau, of course – to be admitted into the august institution as a painter of Fêtes galantes.
The perils of mere imitation – regardless of how skillfully achieved -- were soon brought home to Lancret when, at the Exposition de La Jeunesse, he exhibited two widely acclaimed paintings which people mistook for the work of Watteau himself, and on which several of Watteau’s friends complimented the older artist. Infuriated, the moody and irascible Watteau broke relations with his disciple on the spot and their relationship never recovered.
When Lancet received his first major paintings commission shortly thereafter, he seems to have consciously decided to use the opportunity to expand and deepen his pictorial language and develop a manner less dependent on his mentor and more distinctively his own. Following the advice of his friend Ballot, who had previously warned him of the risks of becoming Watteau’s ape, Lancret determined to make a major public success and remove himself from the shadow of his mentor. The career-making commission for four large-scale decorative canvases emblematizing the ‘Four Seasons’ came from one of the most enlightened and distinguished patrons of the arts in Régence Paris, Leriget de la Faye.
Jean-François Leriget de la Faye (1674-1731), was a diplomat, military man and connoisseur of art, music, ballet and theater, who was an amateur poet with enough merit to claim a seat in the Académie Française. The philosophe D’Alembert described him as “a man of true taste” and no less an eminence than Voltaire would remember Leriget as a man who had received “two gifts from the gods, the most charming they can bestow: one was the talent to please; the other, the secret of being happy.” A friend of the banker Pierre Crozat and a member of the immediate circle of the Comtesse de Verrue -- both patrons of Watteau and the ‘new’ painting -- Leriget shared with those celebrated tastemakers a commitment to ‘modern’ art. When he died in 1731, the Mercure de France eulogized him as a great supporter of the Fine Arts; indeed, the journal noted, he was the Arts'…amateur and Benefactor. He spared nothing for their advance…Price would not discourage him at all when he found a work true, beautiful, and, above all gracieux. Distinctions of time, country, and the great or weak reputation of a name, made no impression on him; so that, with exquisite selectivity and without a bias for the great Masters of Italy, he made a considerable collection of excellent Paintings, the majority of medium size, Flemish, French, etc., anciens and modernes…”.
Leriget’s father had been receiver-general of finance for Dauphiné. Turning his back on the world of finance, Leriget first pursued a military career, then diplomatic service, attending the peace negotiations in Utrecht in 1712 and travelling to London for much of the following year. He was named envoyé extrordinaire to Genoa in 1715, although the mission was cancelled after the death of Louis XIV. He travelled to Rome in 1724 where he stayed with the collector and amateur, François Berger, François Lemoyne’s great patron, and may have acquired works by the celebrated painter while in the Eternal City.
In 1717, Leriget purchased a house in the rue de Sèvres with the idea of renovating it to display his growing collection, which by then included paintings as well as books, bronzes, sculpted gems, marble bas-reliefs, prints, and quantities of French, German and Chinese porcelain and Japanese and Chinese lacquer. In October 1719, flush with profits from John Law's banking scheme, he purchased a second house, entered from the rue Cherche-Midi; then, four months later, he bought a third house, adjacent to the first along the rue de Sèvres. Leriget connected the buildings to create a large hôtel particulier with a new gallery stretching along the garden. As Rochelle Ziskin has shown (loc. cit.), the most important rooms faced the garden, with the gallery near the end of a ceremonial route. Opening off the end of the gallery was a large salon with three windows providing ample natural light, the effects of which were to be enhanced by mirrored panels; it was in the salon that Lancret’s ‘Four Seasons’ were installed. According to his earliest biographer, Ballot de Savot (1743), “M. de La Faye commanda quatre tableaux à M. Lancret. Ce sont les mêmes que l’on a vû long-temps dans son sallon.”
It is not known when Leriget and Lancret first met, but it was likely through Crozat or the Comtesse de Verrue, who were patrons of Watteau and the leading collectors of the modern French School. Nor is it known exactly when Leriget proffered the commission to Lancret, but it seems logical to suppose it would have been quite soon after an architectural plan had been established to link and renovate the three houses; presumably at the end of 1720 or the following year. By 1721, Watteau was dead and Lancret would have emerged as his undisputed successor as master of the fête galante. The commission would be the most important of Lancret’s early career – indeed, one of the most important he would ever receive -- coming as he was first establishing himself as an independent artist.
It is likely that Leriget developed the program for Lancret’s paintings. The collector already owned one of Watteau’s early masterpieces, La mariée du village (‘The Village Bride’) (c. 1710; Stiftung Preussische Schlosser und Garten Berlin-Brandenburg), and he would have been familiar with the suite of large oval paintings of ‘The Four Seasons’ painted by Watteau in 1717 for Pierre Crozat’s dining room on the rue de Richelieu. Watteau’s paintings – they are known from engravings, only the original of Summer survives (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) – were allegories of the Seasons rendered in the traditional guise of heroic, mythological figures, with Flora and Zephyr representing Spring, Bacchus representing Autumn, and so on. Beautiful though Watteau’s paintings were, the so-called Crozat ‘Seasons’ were essentially old-fashioned in their conception; Leriget may have intended his commission for a new set of ‘Seasons’ in the ‘modern’ style as a challenge to Crozat, and as a means of establishing himself in the vanguard of the new, anti-academic taste.
Certainly, Lancret’s four paintings are wholly modern. With each canvas measuring four feet high and enlivened with a dozen or more figures, the artist represented each season of the year in lively scenes of contemporary city or country life, cloaked in fashionable dress and surroundings. The paintings are sparkling in execution, bright and richly colored, and filled with carefully observed and often witty vignettes of men and women enjoying the pleasures of leisure time. As Mary Tavener Holmes, the most perceptive modern student of Lancret’s works, has observed, the artist “exemplified each season by its effect on human pleasure and merrymaking, showing the different forms of entertainment they offered: savoring grapes and wine in Autumn, birdcatching in Spring (fig. 1), bathing in Summer (fig. 2), and playing cards by a cozy fire in Winter.” When reproductive engravings after the series were announced in 1730, the Mercure remarked that they embodied Lancret’s “new and highly pleasing style.” It is interesting to note, however, that despite the painting’s modern pastoral setting, the inscription beneath the engraving after Autumn refers directly to the story of Bacchus and Pomona, suggesting that the anonymous author of the verse felt that mythological associations were still required to explicate or legitimize the image.
In Autumn, Lancret is working firmly in the genre that Watteau had invented – the fête galante, in which men and women, including characters from the commedia dell’arte, dance and flirt and make music in a beautiful garden setting – but with a scale and ambition that was rarely found in Watteau’s works. Inspired by Watteau’s recent canvas, Fêtes Vénitiennes (c. 1718/1719; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), Lancret expanded Watteau’s small composition into a monumental celebration of the joys of the season, amid all the (slightly drunken) pleasures of youth and love and wine, and rendered in a golden palette of reds, yellows and roseate pinks.
Lancret would have turned to chalk studies for each of the figures in the four canvases, some made specifically in preparation for the series, others kept around his studio to be employed (or reemployed) in other paintings. A number of these sheets survive, but only a single study known today seems to have been made exclusively in preparation for Autumn (fig. 3). This beautiful, atmospheric drawing in black and white chalks of the central couple seated on a park bench is in a private collection (formerly Patrick Perrin, Paris). We know from their costumes that they are dressed as characters from the commedia dell’arte: he, the gormless clown, Gilles; she, his wife, Columbine, whom he awkwardly tries to embrace. On the same sheet, Lancret sketched a detail study of Gilles’s head, emphasizing his bewildered expression, and warming his cheeks and lips with touches of red chalk. Other drawings associated with Autumn, but probably not executed for it specifically, include a black and white chalk sketch of the pointing Harlequin (Waddesdon Manor), and a study of the male dancer (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille), but showing his inside arm lowered, rather than raised as in the painting. The dark, russet palette of Autumn, enlivened by highlights of silvery-blue drapery, it’s very free and brushy handling, and the occasional awkwardness in its drawing all reveal it to be very close in date to the Conversation Galante (Wallace Collection, London), Lancret’s reception piece for admission to the Acadèmie in 1719; however, the greater sophistication and complexity of the compositions of the ‘Seasons’ accord well with a view that they were executed slightly later, almost certainly in the early 1720s (see Grasselli 1986 and Wintermute 1992).
Lancret’s paintings of the ‘Four Seasons’ were an immediate success and delighted their patron. Leriget was so impressed by the first two of the Seasons that when he was shown them for his approval, he promptly cancelled the terms of his contract with Lancret and immediately doubled the price he had agreed to pay the artist. “Would a Medici have done better?” Ballot asked. Later, Leriget commissioned or purchased several other paintings from Lancret, notably the famous portrait of Mademoiselle de Camargo Dancing (c. 1729; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). Engravings of the Seasons were announced in the Mercure de France in June 1730. Each Season was engraved by a different printmaker: Spring by Audran; Summer by Scotin; Winter by Le Bas (fig. 4); and Autumn by Nicolas Tardieu (fig. 5), and Audran’s engraving of Spring specifies “les 4 sugest du Cabinet de M. de La Faye.” Permission to make the engravings was obtained 6 August of that year, the same day that permission was granted to reproduce Leriget’s painting of Mlle. Camargo, making clear the patron’s participation in the process. The prints proved very popular and were widely distributed, playing a significant role in advancing Lancret’s fame and reputation throughout Europe.
After Leriget’s death the following year, the set of Seasons and their boiserie frames are recorded, without the artist being identified, in Leriget’s estate inventory, drawn up by Ferdinand-Joseph Godefroid and Joseph van Bredael on 26 September 1731 (“Item, no. 87. Quatre tableaux, représentant les quatre saisons, dans leur bordure de bois sculpté doré, prisé 800#”). As Leriget died a bachelor with no legitimate heirs, he seems to have left the Seasons (along with other parts of his collections) in a bequest to his nephew, Jean-François II Leriget de La Faye, who subsequently sold them in 1753 in an uncatalogued Paris auction. Fortunately, the sale was announced with considerable specificity in Affiches, announces et avis divers, where it was cited as containing six paintings by Lancret from the collection of M. de La Faye, including the Four Seasons: Autumn is described as “le troisième, l’auteur a peint une Colation champêtre. Quelques figures théâtrales, tels que Pierrot, le Mezzetin, etc., rendent ce tableau très riant et captivent l’attention du spectateur par des attitudes de caractère extrêmement gracieuses….”
It was in this 1753 sale that the suite of paintings was purchased by the distinguished architect Pierre Vigny (1690-1772), called Vigné de Vigny (fig. 6), who is remembered for the monumental Paris townhouse he designed for Antoine Crozat, Pierre Crozat’s brother. At Vigny's estate sale on 1 April 1773, the set was sold for 1785 livres to Louis-François Mettra (1738-1804), art dealer and agent for the King of Prussia, and subsequently split up. Spring and Summer were acquired on behalf of the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and remain today in the Russian State collections in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; Winter belonged to Eugène Secrétan until his death in 1899, and is today in a private collection in France.
The location of the present painting is uncertain for much of the 19th century, but it reemerged in the celebrated collection of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild (1845-1934) and remained with him, passing by descent to his daughter Baroness Alexandrine de Rothschild (1884-1965), in whose sale it appeared in 1971. It was acquired in 1977 by Chauncey Stillman from the New York dealers, Rosenberg & Stiebel.