La Fileuse

Entered April 2023

Fig 1

Presumed lost

Oil on canvas

33 x 17.9 cm




Fig 2

Jean Audran after Watteau, La Fileuse, engraving, 1732.


Watteau’s La Fileuse and its pendant, La Marmotte, were engraved by Jean Audran, brother of the painting's owner, Claude III Audran. Both prints were announced for sale in the December 1732 issue of the Mercure, p. 2865.



Paris, collection of Claude III Audran (1658-1734; painter). Audran’s ownership is cited on Bernard’s engraving: “du Cabinet de Mr Audran du Palais du Luxembour.” It and its pendant are cited in the posthumous inventory of his estate dated June 1, 1734: “Item, un tableau de Vateau, aussy dans sa bordure dorée, prisé trente livres . . Item, quatre tableaux, dont un de Vateau, un autre de Stella, dans leurs bordures de bois dorée, prisé quinze livres.”

Paris, Verrier collection. His sale, Paris, November 18ff, 1776, lot 88: “[ANTOINE VATTEAU] . . . Un autre Tableau d’une seule figure, touché avec esprit, & d’une couleur vraie. Il représente une jeune Paysane, ayant une quenouille dessous le bras: elle est debout, & s’occupe à filer. Hauteur 13 pouces; largeur 11 pouces. T.” Sold for 360 livres to Fournel, according to an annotated copy of the sale catalogue in the Bibliothèque nationale.

Fig 2

Gabriel de Saint Aubin after Watteau, La Fileuse, marginal sketch in the November 18 ff., 1776, sale catalogue for the Verrier collection. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale.


A copy of the Verrier sale catalogue in the Bibliothèque nationale has marginal illustrations by Gabriel de Saint Aubin, including one of La Fileuse, but its details are barely sufficient to recognize the painting.

Paris, Basseream collection. This otherwise unknown owner lent the picture to the 1860 exhibition of French art organized by Philippe Burty. Curiously, the measurements of the painting were left blank in the exhibition catalogue.
Paris, collection of Comte de C*** d’A . . . His sale, Paris, December 1, 1868, lot 60: “WATTEAU (ANTOINE) . . . La Fileuse. Une jeune paysanne se promène dans la campagne en filant une quenouille.” Adhémar listed this as the “E. de A.” collection.

Paris, collection M. de Saint-Remy. His sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, March 13, 1869, lot 69: “WATTEAU (ANTOINE) . . . La Fileuse. Une jeune paysanne se promenant dans la campagne et occupée à filer. Ce tableau a été gravé sous le nom de la Fileuse.” Sold for 350 francs according to an annotated copy of the sale catalogue in the Frick Art Reference Library, New York.

Paris, collection of Jules Burat  (1807-1876; economist). His sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, April 28-29, 1885, lot 208: “WATTEAU (ANTOINE) . . .  La Fileuse. Elle est debout dans un paysage, tenant sa quenouille et son fuseau, coiffée d’un bonnet blanc à larges brides, couvrant les épaules, veston rouge et jupe bleue. Toile. Haut., 30 cent.; larg., 22 cm.”



Burty, Catalogue de tableaux (1860), cat. 430 (as by Watteau, La Fileuse, lent by L. Basseream).



Hédouin, “Watteau” (1845), 78.

Hédouin, Mosaïque (1856), cat. 14.

Goncourt, L’Art au XVIIIème siècle (1860), 57.

Thoré-Bürger, “Exposition de tableaux“ (1860), 233.

Goncourt, Catalogue raisonné (1875), cat. 82.

Mollet, Watteau (1883), 65.

Dohme, “Die Französische Schule des XVIII. Jahrhunderts” (1883), 226.

Phillips, Watteau (1895), 11, 38.

Dilke, French Painters (1899), 77.

Staley, Watteau (1902), 7.

Josz, Watteau (1903), 98.

Josz, Watteau (1904), 38.

MacFall, A History of Painting (1911), 6: 115.

Pilon, Watteau et son école (1912), 67.

Dacier, Vuaflart, and Hérold, Jean de Jullienne et les graveurs (1921-29), 1: 26, 27; 2: 37, 58, 63, 94, 96, 121, 131; 3: cat. 123.

Réau, “Watteau” (1928), cat. 165.

Adhémar, Watteau (1950), cat. 17.

Dacier, “Catalogue de la vente Verrier“ (1953), 318, 329.

Mathey, Watteau, peintures réapparues (1959), 68.

Macchia and Montagni, L’opera completa di Watteau (1968), cat. 143.

Leningrad, Hermitage, Watteau and His Time (1972), 106.  

Posner, “An Aspect of Watteau“ (1975), 279-86.   

Roland Michel, Watteau (1981), cat. 183.

Posner, Watteau (1984), 27, 28.

Rosenberg and Prat, Watteau, Catalogue raisonné des dessins (1996), under cat. 226.

Temperini, Watteau (2002), 66-67.

Wyngaard, From Savage to Citizen (2004), 63-64.

Michel, Le «célèbre Watteau» (2008), 230, 233.

Eidelberg, “Watteau, A Good but Difficult Friend“ (2022), 6.



Fig 2

Watteau, Studies of a Woman with a Spindle and the Head of a Woman, red chalk, 16.4 x 12.2 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Anne D. Thomson.


The peasant woman in La Fileuse is derived from a drawing now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Rosenberg and Prat 226). When painting her, the artist remained faithful to his sketch, repeating the details of her pose and clothing with no change.

In the past the juxtaposition of the two studies on the one sheet caused some confusion. The head of the woman is an apparently mature work and this led some critics to believe that the study of the peasant woman (and thus the painting of La Fileuse) must also be late in date, closer to 1717-18. But as Nemilova pointed out, the two studies are rendered in two different hues of red chalk and were not drawn at the same time. Somewhat ironically, despite the difference in dates given for the two sketches, today the majority of critics date the painting to c. 1716.




Jean Audran after Watteau, La Fileuse, engraving (here reversed).


Watteau, La Marmotte, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 32.5 cm. St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum.

As already noted, La Fileuse was painted as one of a pair of pendants; its mate was La Marmotte. They complement each other visually: two rural types, one male and the other female, each set against a distant village and turning at an angle toward the viewer, each holding a prominent implement of their activity. Although the two were together when they were in Claude Audran’s collection, they were soon split apart. By the middle of the eighteenth century they went separate ways. La Marmotte went off to Russia where it remains today, whereas La Fileuse by itself appeared momentarily on the Paris market, then was lost sight of until the middle of the next century, and then entirely fell from view, not to be seen again. La Marmotte is well preserved, but La Fileuse seems to have suffered.  When it was exhibited in 1860, Thoré-Bürger described it as having been cleaned several times by “impious hands” and covered by heavy varnish that was perhaps intended to hide the work’s poor state. There is a noticeable , unexplained difference between the measurements recorded in 1776 (33 x 17.9 cm) and those recorded a century later, in 1885 (30 x 22 cm).

Even if no longer extant, La Fileuse has remained very much in the public sphere. Especially in recent decades when there has been much speculation about possible sexual messages in Watteau’s art. Apropos of its relation to La Marmotte, Posner posited that “Each figure holds a symbol of the other’s sex, and by their occupation they characterize the male and female roles in the sexual act. If the phallic-shaped distaff is readily understood as a symbol, the marmot . . . [is] a synonym for the female pudenda . . . . Together the pair very likely illustrate a now forgotten vulgar proverb or folk-saying.” Likewise, Wyngaard has written that the two pendants “evoke the bawdy sexuality associated with villagers . . . the male and female sexual organs are suggested by the phallic shape of the distaffs and flutes, the appearance of the marmot (an image used at the time to designate the female organ), and the figurative association between spinning and sexual intercourse.“

Reiterations of these interpretations by Temperini and still others have now become the accepted norm, but the validity of these assumptions needs to be questioned. It is all too easy to play games of Freudian interpretation, but not all long objects such as flutes and spindles are necessarily phallic. Whether they are held by men or woman and how they are held should be more carefully considered. Posner’s proof  that “marmot” refers to a woman’s genitalia unconvincingly refers to Restif de la Bretonne’s erotic novel, Anti-Justine, of 1798. Likewise his reliance on linguistic usage in Brittany in the early nineteenth century is not valid.  Hypothecating that there may have been a now-forgotten vulgar proverb is not proof; it merely extends the hypothesis. Whatever evidence is offered should be factual, contemporary to the artist, and geographically appropriate. Also, discussion of possible erotic symbolism should consider the depiction of marmots and marmoteers by Drouais, Fragonard, and other French painters.

At first there was agreement that La Fileuse and La Marmotte were among Watteau’s early works, given their heavy style and Flemish subject matter. Staley, for example, dated the paintings to 1702, while the artist was still in Valenciennes and before he left for Paris. Similarly, Josz proposed 1703, while Zimmerman dated the pair to 1707-08. Adhémar classified them c. 1703-08. In the second half of the twentieth century critics began dating them progressively later. Sterling suggested 1709-10, Mathey proposed 1713, and Rosenberg and Prat chose 1714. Still more recently, Nemilova, Macchia and Montagni, Temperini, Wyngaard, and Roland Michel favored 1716. This wide span of dates vividly registers the vagaries of the Watteau chronology.

As La Fileuse and La Marmotte were originally owned by Watteau’s master, Claude III Audran, it seems likely that Audran received them as a gift from his assistant and friend. There are other examples of Watteau exchanging works of art with artist friends such as Nicolas Vleughels and Gilles Marie Oppenord. Moreover, it is likely that such an exchange with Audran would have taken place while the two men were still closely associated. If Watteau’s two paintings were executed c. 1716 as many scholars now contend, then the two men were still somehow affiliated at this late date. Was Watteau still working for Audran, even if only occasionally, at this late date? The ramifications of this question are intriguing.



For copies of La Fileuse CLICK HERE