X. La Lecture à la chandelle
Entered January 2018; revised March 2020
Oil on panel
19 x 15.5 cm
A Couple Singing by Candlelight
An Elegant Couple Singing by Candlelight
Une Femme lisant une lettre; un jeune homme la regarde
La Lecture à la bougie
Nocturnal Scene: Lovers Reading
Two Figures by Candlelight
Paris, collection of Madeleine Suzanne Goullet de Rugy, Madame Saint Sauveur. Her sale, Paris, February 12, 1776, lot 51: “Nicolas Lancret . . . Une femme lisant une lettre; un jeune homme la regarde; ces deux figures ne sont vues qu’a mi-corps. L’effet bien entendu de la lumiere d’une chandelle rend ce Tableau piquant: il est sur bois & porte 7 pouces 3 lignes de haut, sur 5 pouces 6 lignes de large.”
Paris, collection of Charles Jean Goury de Champgrand, known as the marquis de Champgrand (1732 – 1799; military officer). His sale (sold under the pseudonym Verrier), Paris, November 18ff, 1776, lot 92: “LANCRET. . . . Une jeune femme lisant une lettre à la clarté d’une bougie que tient un homme qui est près d’elle. Ce morceau exécuté chaudement, est d’un excellent effet. Hauteur 7 pouces, largeur 6 pouces. B.” Sold to the dealer Vautrin for 161 livres, according to annotated copies of the catalogue in the Rijksbureau vor Kunsthistorische Documentatie and the Frick Art Reference Library, New York.
This lot was sketched by Gabriel de Saint Aubin at the Champgrand sale, and it corresponds to what we see in the extant work. Evidently pleased by the painting, Saint Aubin noted that it was “Tres beau.”
Paris, collection of Charles François René Mesnard, Chevalier de Clesle (d. 1803). His sale, Paris, December 4ff, 1786, lot 62: “N. Lancret . . . Un petit Tableau composé de deux figures vues à mi-corps, & occupees à chanter à la lueur [sic] d’une bougie. Ce joli morceau, artistement touché, est d’un effet piquant & du bon temps de ce Maître. Hauteur 7 pouces, largeur 5 pouces & demi. T.” Sold for 140 livres to Robert Quesney. Because this painting was (mistakenly) listed as on canvas rather than on wood, Wildenstein listed it separately from the Saint Sauveur and Verrier picture, but such mistakes regarding the support are not unusual in sale catalogues.
Paris, collection of Louis Jean François Collet (1722-1787; author, chevalier de l’Ordre de Saint Michel, chargé des affaires de la France à Parme). His sale May 14-23, 1787, lot 289: “N. LANCRET. . . . Un petit Tableau, composition de deux figures d’homme & de femme vues à mi-corps, près d’une table sur laquelle est une lumière, ils sont occupés à lire une lettre. Ce morceau piquante d’effet est du bon temps de ce Maître. Hauteur 7 pouces, largeur 5 & demi. B.” Sold for 96 livres to Lebrun, according to annotated catalogues in the Frick Art Reference Library and the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie.
Paris, with Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (1748-1813, painter and art dealer).
Paris, collection of Gédéon Alexis Quatresolz de La Hante (1767-1837; painting dealer). This provenance is signaled by an old label pasted on a stretcher. As a dealer, Quatresolz de la Hante imported French paintings into England in the early nineteenth century.
London, collection of Sir John Charles Robinson (1824-1913; curator and collector); sold to Sir Frederick Cook in 1872.
Richmond, collection of Sir Francis Cook, Bart. (1817-1901); by descent to his son, Sir Frederick Cook, 2nd Bart. (1844-1920); by descent to his son Sir Herbert Cook, Bart. (1868-1939).
London, Christie’s, July 6, 1984, Property of the Trustees of the Cook 1939 Picture Settlement, lot 108: ”Attributed to Nicolas Lancret / A couple singing by candlelight / on panel / 7½ x 6½ in. (19 x 16cm) / PROVENANCE: / with de la Hante, Paris, according to a label on the stretcher / Sir J. C. Robinson, from whom purchased in 1872 / EXHIBITED: London, Guildhall, Loan Exhibition of Pictures by Painters of the French School, 1898, no. 53 as Watteau. / London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, French Art of the 18th Century, 1913, no. 6 as Watteau / Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, and Manchester City Art Gallery, on loan / LITERATURE: E. H. Zimmermann, Watteau (Klassiker der Kunst), 1912, p. 118 as Watteau (?) / M. W. Brockwell, A Catalogue of the Pictures at Doughty House Richmond . . . , 1915, vol. III, no. 437, as Watteau / £5,000-8,000.” Bought by Harari and Johns Ltd.
London, with Harari & Johns Ltd.
Paris, Espace Tajan, December 17, 1997, lot 321: “Nicolas LANCRET . . . La lecture à la bougie / Panneau de chêne, une planche, non parqueté / 19 x 15,5 cm / 200 000 / 300 000 FF / Au revers des étiquettes anciennes portant une ancienne attribution à Watteau et une étiquette de Fitzwilliam Museum de Cambridge
Collection Mme de Saint Sauveur, avant 1776;
Sa vente, Paris, (Maître Remy), 12 février 1776, no 51;
Vente anonyme, Paris, 18 novembre 1776, no 92;
Collection Collet, avant 1787;
Sa vente, Paris, (Maître Lebrun) 14-23 mai 1787, no 289 (96 l à Lebrun);
Collection Sir Herbert Cook, Doughty House, Richmond en 1924.
Loan Exhibition of pictures by painters of French School, Guildhall, Londres, 1913: Burlington Fine Art Club, Londres, 1913.
Anonyme, Burlington Fine art Club, French Art of the XVIII century, Londres, 1914, p. 23, no 6, reproduit pl. V;
G. Wildenstein, «Lancret» , L’Art Français, Paris, 1924, p. 105, no 540; reproduit fig. 201.”
The painting sold for 150,000 francs (US $25,148).
New York, with Wildenstein and Co.
New York, Christie’s, sale, April 14, 2016, lot 158: “NICOLAS LANCRET . . . An elegant couple singing by candlelight (‘The Duet’) / oil on panel / 7½ x 6¼ in. (19 x 15.6 cm.) / $80,000-120,000 £57,000-85,000 / €74,000-110,000
Madame Saint Sauveur (presumably Madeleine Suzanne Goullet de Rugy, wife of Jean Anne de Grégoire de Saint-Sauveur, Marquise de Saint-Sauveur (1720-1777)); her sale, Hötel d'Aligre, Paris, 12 February 1776 and days following, lot 51.
Verrier collection; his sale, Hötel d'Aligre, Paris, 18 November 1776 and days following, lot 92, where acquired by
"Vautris" or "Vautrin" (according to an annotation in the Frick Art Reference Library copy of sale catalogue).
Charles Francois René Mesnard, Chevalier de Clesle (d. 1803); his sale, Paillet, Paris, 4 December 1786, and days following, lot 62 (incorrectly lists painting support as canvas).
Louis Jean Francois Collet (1722-1787), Paris; his sale, (†), Paris, 96 rue de Cléry, 14-23 May 1787, lot 289, where acquired by
Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (1748-1813), Paris.
Probably with Alexis Delahante, Paris, according to an old inscription, as recorded in M.W. Brockwell, 1915 (loc. cit.).
Sir John Charles Robinson (1824-1913), London, from whom acquired in 1872 by
Sir Francis Cook, Bart. (1817-1901), Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey, and by descent to his son
Sir Frederick Cook, 2nd Bart. (1844-1920) and by descent to his son
Sir Herbert Cook, Bart. (1868-1939) and by descent to
The Trustees of the Cook 1939 Picture Settlement; Christie's, London, 6 July 1984, lot 108, as 'Attributed to Nicolas Lancret', where acquired by the following.
with Harari & Johns, London.
Anonymous sale; Tajan, Paris, 17 December 1997, lot 321, where acquired by the following.
London, Guildhall, Catalogue of the Loan Exhibition of Pictures by Painters of the French School, Spring 1898, no. 53, as 'Watteau'.
London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, French Art Of the Eighteenth Century, Spring-early Summer 1913, no. 6, as 'Watteau'.
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1940s, on loan (according to a label on the reverse).
Tokyo, Gallery Iida (in association with Harari & Johns, Ltd.), An Exhibition of French Painting, 1600-1800, 7 June-2 July 1988, no. 15.
Tokyo, Odakyu Grand Gallery; Umeda-Osaka, Daimaru Museum; Hakodate, Hokkaido Hakodate Museum of Art; Yokohama, Sogo Museum of Art, Three Masters of French Rococo: Boucher, Fragonard, Lancret, 4 April-12 August 1990, no. 48.
E. Bocher, 'Les Gravures françaises du XVIIIe siècle, ou catalogue raisonné des estampes, eaux-fortes', part 4, Nicolas Lancret, Paris, 1877, pp. 95, 97.
E.F.S. Dilke, 'L'Art français au Guildhall de Londres en 1898', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 3e pér., XX, no. 496, October 1898, p. 330.
E.F.S. Dilke, French Painters Of the XVIIIth Century, London, 1899, pp. 85-86, where attribution to Watteau questioned.
E. Staley, Watteau and His School, London, 1902, p. 146, as Watteau.
E.H. Zimmermann, Watteau: des Meisters Werke, Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1912, p. 118, where listed among rejected attributions to Watteau; erroneously lists support as canvas.
M.W. Brockwell, 'A Catalogue Of the Paintings at Doughty House, Richmond & Elsewhere in the Collection of Sir Frederick Cook, Bt...', H. Cook, ed., Ill, English, French, Early Flemish, German and Spanish Schools and Addenda, London, 1915, p. 56, no. 437, pl. VII, as Watteau.
G. Wildenstein, Lancret, Paris, 1924, p. 105, no. 540, fig. 201.
Abridged Catalogue of the Pictures at Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey in the Collection of Sir Herbert Cook, Bart., London, 1932, p. 7, no. 437 (13), as 'Antoine Watteau'.
H. Adhémar and R. Huyghe, Watteau, sa vie-son oeuvre, Paris, 1950, p. 234, no. 237, as possibly by either Jean Raoux or Jean Baptiste Santerre.
É. Dacier, 'Catalogues des ventes et livrets de salons illustrés et annotés par Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. 12. Catalogue de la vente Verrier (1776)', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6e pér., XLl, nos. 1012-1013, May-June 1953, pp. 307, 317, 318, 331, n. 7.
'Two More Watteaus?', The Watteau Society Bulletin, no. 2, 1985, pp. 17, 18.
This gentle and moving image was long attributed to Antoine Watteau; once a treasure of the celebrated Cook Collection, the painting was praised as “of singular beauty and distinguished by an intimate pathos.” Painted around 1720, The Duet likely predates Watteau’s death and stands at the start of the career of Nicolas Lancret, Watteau’s most talented and original acolyte; with its creamy brushwork and sensitive luminosity, it can be recognized as one of the artist’s most pleasing confections.
Although its debt to the master is pronounced, The Duet is a rare candlelit scene from the circle of Watteau. In fact, only one painting by Watteau himself is set to candlelight, the famous Love in the Italian Theatre (c. 1718; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). In The Duet, a young man and woman study a musical manuscript that is illuminated by the light of a single taper. Absorbed in their singing, their figures drawn close to each other, the boy’s left hand, holding the candlestick, engages the woman’s exposed right arm in a gesture of tender affection. This type of nocturnal genre scene was a specialty of 17th-century Dutch painters such as Gerrit Dou and Gottfried Schalken, whose works were widely collected in France throughout the 18th century, and contemporary French painters including Jean Raoux and Jean-Baptiste Santerre supplied nocturnal subjects in the Dutch manner to satisfy the popular demand. Indeed, the taste for this type of picture was promoted by Watteau’s friend and supporter, Edme François Gersaint, and actively marketed by the art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, who himself would at one time own the present painting.
Although the correct attribution of The Duet was eventually forgotten, and from the 19th century onward it was given to the more famous Watteau, the painting was recognized as a superior example of Lancret’s art when it appeared in the Verrier Sale in 1776 and was copied in a marginal illustration by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin in his copy of the catalogue. In a rare editorial commentary, Saint-Aubin noted beside his sketch that Lancret’s original was “très beau.” "
The painting sold for $81,250.
London, Guildhall, Painters of the French School (1898), cat. 53 (as by Watteau, The Duet, lent by Sir Francis Cook, Bart.).
London, Burlington Fine Arts, French Art (1913), cat. 6 (as by Watteau, Nocturnal Scene:
Lovers Reading, lent by Sir Frederick Cook, Bart.).
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum (on loan), c. 1940-50.
(Probably) Hamstead, London, Kenwood House, c. 1950-1960.
Manchester, Manchester City Art Gallery, c. 1960-84 (on loan).
Tokyo, Gallery Iida, An Exhibition of French Painting (1988), cat. 15.
Tokyo, Odakyu Grand Gallery, Three Masters of French Rococo (1990), cat. 48 (as by Lancret, La Lecture, lent by Harrari & Johns, Ltd., London).
Dilke, “L’Art français au Guildhall” (1898), 330.
Dilke, French Painters (1899), 85-86.
Staley, Watteau (1902), 146.
Abridged Catalogue of the Pictures at Doughty House, Richmond (Belonging to Sir Frederick Cook, Bart., Visconde de Monserrate), London, 1907, p. 7, no. 13.
Zimmerman, Watteau (1912), no. 118.
Brockwell, A Catalogue of the Paintings at Doughty House (1913-15), 3: 56.
Wildenstein, Lancret (1924), cat. 540, 541.
Cook, Pictures at Doughty House (1932), 7.
Adhémar, Watteau (1950), cat. 237.
Dacier, “Catalogues de ventes et livrets de salons” (1953), 307, 317-18, 331.
Whittingham, “Two More Watteaus?” (1985), 17-18.
This painting has enjoyed a curious critical history. Throughout the eighteenth century it was rightly recognized to be by one of Watteau’s most inventive followers, Nicolas Lancret. But in the early nineteenth century, after it had been taken to England, it was ascribed to Watteau himself, and in that guise entered the distinguished collections of Sir Joseph C. Robinson and Sir Frederick Cooke. It was praised in the London Times “as a genuine work by Watteau . . . fine in quality” (June 6, 1898). The noted critic and Watteau expert Claude Philips declared it “Of singular beauty, and distinguished by an intimate pathos.” But whereas Philips thought “the woman’s face and the hands of both personnages are . . . equivalent to a signature,” he was also aware that other critics were questioning the attribution. In 1898, for example, Lady Dilke vigorously denied Watteau’s authorship. In 1912, Zimmerman was equally negative; he found that neither the rendering of the man nor the whole of the ensemble seemed typical of Watteau’s work.
The tide of opinion turned considerably after World War I when Wildenstein included the painting in his catalogue raisonné of Lancret’s works and pointed out that the painting has been sold as a Lancret several times over in the eighteenth century. Remarkably, this was the first time since the French Revolution that Lancret’s name was associated with the painting. Réau did not include the picture in his catalogue of Watteau’s work. Although Adhémar also rejected the attribution to Watteau and classified it under Lancret’s name, she nonetheless thought it might be by Jean Raoux or Jean-Baptiste Santerre. When the painting was sold from the Cook Trust in 1958, it was cautiously listed as “Attributed to Nicolas Lancret.” When auctioned in 1997 and again in 2016, the attribution to Lancret was proposed without hesitation. Indeed, there can no longer be any doubt that this painting is his: authorship by Lancret was well attested in the eighteenth century and it closely resembles Lancret’s established oeuvre.
That the false attribution to Watteau managed to stand for most of the nineteenth century serves as a forceful reminder that much of nineteenth-century criticism is unreliable. Many paintings by Pater and Lancret were accepted as genuine works by Watteau, just as many copies after the master’s works were accepted as originals. In turn, these works justified the acceptance of still weaker examples. In short, it was a self-perpetuating system that led critics ever further from the central core.
Ultimately, Lancret’s tenebristic scene depends heavily on the innovations of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, but as reinterpreted in a minor key by more subdued late seventeenth-century genre painters such as Gerrit Dou (1613-1676) and Gottfried Schalcken (1643-1716). French eighteenth-century genre painters such as Jean Raoux (1677-1734) and Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1651-1717) made this type of subject their specialty, creating still more intimate scenes. But this was not a genre that attracted Lancret or other artists in the Watteau circle. In fact, no other candlelight scenes by Lancret are known. Why on this occasion did he turn to this typology? Was he possibly commissioned to paint a pendant to another such work, perhaps by an older master?
Curiously, when the picture came up for sale in the eighteenth century it was generally misinterpreted as showing a woman reading a letter—a not uncommon theme in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art. However, the catalogue of the 1786 Mesnard sale more correctly interpreted the scene as one of singing. The horizontal format of the pages that the woman holds indicates it is a musical part book; her slightly parted lips indicate that as well. In recent times the title of the picture has shifted back and forth between reading and singing, seemingly without consideration of the subject.
A word should be said about the present condition of the painting. Whether through rubbing of the surface or overzealous cleaning, the young man’s face has been damaged. The placement of his eyes evidently changed during the course of execution but now both states are visible, giving him an unfortunate third eye. But if nothing else, the revelation of this pentimento reinforces the notion that this picture was executed by Lancret himself.