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Friday, November 21, 2014

Nicholas Lancret

A Family in the Garden, 1738, Nicholas Lancret.             
The little girl is getting her first taste of coffee. (Her reaction might be more amusing.)               
Today we take for granted that artists--mostly painters and photographers--deal with the fun and funny stuff from which the best moments of life are derived. We also see this among the often hilarious viral videos popping up every day in the Internet. What we don't often consider is that painters hundreds of years ago also enjoyed this type of art. Most commonly we see it in light-hearted genre from many different countries and eras. But this kind of are was especially prevalent during the French Rococo era (roughly 1700 to 1750). The Baroque had passed away, as had the great "sun king," Louis XIV (in 1715). Louis XV was five years old when he came to the throne. His uncle, Phillip II of Orleans, was his guardian and regent until the child-king came of age in 1723 (at the age of thirteen?). Neo-classicism had yet to rear its sober head. In between, art in Europe, but especially in France, took a light-hearted, playful turn.
 
The Pleasures of Bathing, Nicholas Lancret
Nicholas Lancret Self-portrait
Some art historians consider the Rococo decadent, inconsequential, frivolous, and in modern terms, "silly." I suppose, depending upon your point of view, there were all of these elements, but I tend to think of the Rococo in the most positive light--frivolous. And what's wrong with frivolous? Frivolous is fun. Frivolous is funny. And if that equates to "silly" then so be it. Antoine Watteau is often thought of as "the" French Rococo artist icon, but a friend of his, Nicholas Lancret, could be just a frivolous and perhaps even more "silly." Even his elongated face and fluffy hair (right) look silly.

Breakfast Ham, Nicholas Lancret.
Nicholas Lancret was born in 1690, which means he began as an artist about the time the Sun King abandoned Versailles for a still bigger "mansion in the sky"....or somewhere. Lancret first studied under the Baroque painter, Pierre d'Ulin. However, Lancret's admiration for Watteau induced him to switch to Watteau's master, Claude Gillot, who had been Watteau's master. Watteau was but six years older than Lancret. The important factor here is that Watteau died in 1721 at the age of thirty-six. Lancret didn't. He lived another twenty-two years. He was thus able to, in effect, pick up where Watteau left off, though one look at his work, as compared to Watteau's, would indicate that Lancret was definitely the lesser of the two in virtually all respects, except perhaps his light, dry sense of humor.

The Four Ages of Man: Youth, Nicholas Lancret
The Music Lesson, Nicholas Lancret--
typical of Rococo frivolity.
Nowhere is Lancret's humor more refined and lighthearted than his Breakfast Ham (above, left). Lancret seems to have loved to "picnic in the park," a theme he repeated in various guises many times during his career. By the way, don't expect to find dates attached to Lancret's work. Many of his paintings were, in fact, small murals as part of Louis XV's redecoration and expansion of Versailles (right). Very often secondary artists leave behind little documentation. Likewise, as with Lancret, they have elicited very little study by art historians in establishing much in the way of a chronology to their work. In fact, one of the major reasons we're aware of Lancret's art comes from the fact that over eighty of his paintings were later turned into engraved prints (by Lancret himself and others). Thus, not only did he live longer than Watteau but Lancret's early work was, at the time, more popular, a fact that seems to have driven a wedge between the two artists. Lancret's series, "The Four Ages of Man," dates from 1835. Childhood (above) has a playful charm the easily accounts for Lancret's popularity. An etching based upon the same series, Maturity (below) was rendered by Nicolas de Larmessin. It typifies the translation from painting to print.

The Four Ages of Man: Maturity, etching by Nicolas de Larmessin based upon a painting by Nicholas Lancret (badly in need of restoration).
The Wedding Feast in the Village, Nicholas
Lancret--another "picnic in the park."
Another of the "Four Ages of Man," series, Youth (below), illustrates Lancret's warm affection for young people, especially those in the teenage courting period. The fourth in the series, Old Age (below) is, like so many of Lancret's paintings, very much in need of cleaning and restoration. But standing in the shadow of Watteau, Lancret's Rococo images seem not to place very high on the list of thousands of others in France alone, needing similar costly and time-consuming work. One only has to compare Childhood, and Youth (bottom), which have been restored, to Old Age to quickly see the debilitating effects of age and grime in masking the delightful brilliance of color that were so much a part of Lancret's popularity.

The Four Ages of Man: Old Age, 1735, Nicholas Lancret.
The painting's decrepit condition seems to reflect its title.
The Wedding Dance, Nicholas Lancret.
Although Lancret could not reasonably be said to have "died young," as did Watteau, he was still only fifty-three at the time of his death in 1743 (about an average lifespan for this era). Art historian seem to have allowed Lancret's mature work a grudging admiration. One of his last paintings, A Family in the Garden (top), from 1738, is often considered to be his best work. As for myself, I tend to favor his Four Ages of Man: Youth (below) or The Wedding Dance (right), which appears to be a companion piece to The Wedding Feast in the Village (above, left).

The Four Ages of Man: Youth, 1735, Nicholas Lancret.








 

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