Widely travelled in Europe during the first quarter of the 18th century, Mercier settled in England in circa 1716, becoming Principal Painter to Frederick Prince of Wales in 1729. In 1736, however, Mercier was dismissed and escaped London's competitive portraiture market for a more receptive audience in the country. The artist's patrons during this period included the Duke of Leeds, who acquired four pictures; Sir Robert Hildyard of Winestead, who bought a portrait and two 'fancy pictures', and Thomas Worsley, who acquired five portraits (Ingamells and Raines, op. cit., p. 4).
The decade from 1740-50, while he was based in York, was the greatest period of activity for Mercier - over 160 pictures survive from this time. It was during these years that he seemed to turn purposefully towards the 'fancy picture' genre he first started to favour in the late 1730s. The term 'fancy picture' was coined in 1737 by the art critic and historian George Vertue with specific reference to Mercier's work and the influence of French rococo pastoral pictures, such as those of Greuze and Boucher. Employed loosely throughout the 18th century, the phrase 'fancy picture' was used to describe charmingly contrived genre scenes of sentimental realism, incorporating the artist's own whimsy and imagination or references to contemporary literature, with figures shown in various roles and guises.
The rise of the print market at this time furthered the popularity of such pictures, as Hogarth had so successfully demonstrated in the 1730s with The Harlot's Progress and The Rake's Progress. From 1739, Mercier's compositions were widely disseminated through an alliance with John Faber Junior, a well-known printmaker who continued to work with him through the 1750s. Following Faber's death in 1756, Mercier expanded his published work through several other printmakers: McArdell, Purcell, and most notably Richard Houston (1722-1725), who produced single plates of Mercier's work in 1756, 1758 and 1760. Houston engraved The Oyster Girl twice - a testament to its popularity - firstly under the title The Fair Oysterinda and then as Native Meltons. Both were accompanied by the following verse, rather heavy-handedly insinuating that it is perhaps not only the oysters that are for sale: 'The oysters good - The Nymph so fair! Who would not wish to taste her Ware? No need has she aloud to Cry'em Since all who see her Fare must buy'em.'
There are several art historical precedents for the type of composition depicted in this work and the two other important paintings by Mercier included in this collection (lots 52 and 53). The iconography derives in part from the European tradition of portraying street vendors, including the characters popularized by Marcellus Laroon's Cryes of the City of London and more contemporaneously Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl (National Gallery, London), but it also relies on themes explored in Dutch 17th century genre painting, where the preparation of food was often associated with the stimulation of sexual appetites. There are clear parallels between the verses which appear in The Fair Oysterinda and those found in French 18th century engravings after seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. A print after Gerard Dou's Girl Chopping Onions (The Royal Collection), for example, includes a caption inscribed by Pierre Louis Surugue, suggesting that the girl depicted may be far more appetising than the meal she is preparing (P. Sutton, Masters of Dutch 17th century Genre Painting, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1984, p. 185).
The taste in England around 1750 moved towards a more classical simplicity often showing a single figure against a plain background. The subjects changed too, tending towards occupations and orthodox domestic scenes, as seen in the pair Bon Jour and Bon Soir. Whilst the influence of 17th century Holland and French seventeenth-century works by Antoine Watteau (see Mezetin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and then later 18th century works epitomized by Jean-Baptist-Simeon Chardin (see The Soap Bubble, 1731-33, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), remained important to Mercier, his originality was in his ability to entertain without moralizing or instructing. His intent was to grace his patrons with a spirit of domestic, moving sentimentality, and in this he was a pioneer. His contribution to the art of the 'fancy picture' was taken on and evolved by the next generation of artists who included Henry Robert Morland (d.1797) and Francis Hayman.
The Oyster Girl was acquired by William Monckton, 2nd Viscount Galway of Serlby Hall, Nottinghamshire, or Richard Arundel, who is known to have been interested in French pictures and whose widow Lady Frances Arundel bequeathed her property to the 2nd Viscount Galway.