Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743): French, Painter
Nicolas Lancret was born in Paris on 22 January into a lower class family; his father was a coachman and his mother came from a shoemaker family. His parents wanted him to follow into his older brother’s step and be an engraver but after being placed in apprenticeship, young Lancret realizes that his true calling is in painting. In 1707, he is placed under the tutelage of Pierre Dulin, drawing instructor at the painting academy. In 1708, he is suspended for three months from the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture for his lack of discipline but his behavior worsens and he is dismissed permanently. However, in January 1709, he apologizes, makes amend and is reinstated.
In 1712, he becomes Gillot’s student. The master’s influence is incontestable, in his studio, Lancret meets Watteau, Antoine and develops an interest for the theater, the Fête Galante and the Commedia dell’arte. During this period, Lancret and Watteau are close enough to discuss their paintings. The latter advises the former to choose Nature as its model and inspiration; an advice that Lancret would follow for the rest of his life. However, Watteau’s difficult personality does not let their amity survive for long. In 1718, two of Lancret’s paintings exhibited at the Place Dauphine gain him great success and entrance at the Academy of Painting but sparks Watteau’s jealous streak that permanently ends their friendship. In 1719, Lancret is made full fledge member of the Academy. He exhibits many of his painting in which Watteau’s influence is undeniable and is often viewed as a Watteau’s imitator.
From then on, Lancret’s success increases tremendously which allows him to insure comfortable financial security. His accomplishment is confirmed by the many calls he receives for specific paintings ordered by the court as well as by many wealthy aristocrats, for instance the Duc d’Antin in 1725 requests the painting L’Accident de Montereau which brings him a considerable sum of money. During this period, Lancret produces numerous paintings among the most famous are Portrait d’une danseuse, Les Douze Mois de l’année, Les Quatre Saisons, or La Camargo. In 1732, Lancret finishes Mlle Sallé considered as the match to La Camargo. Mlle Sallé is so popular that many great personnalities want to see it; Voltaire will go to Lancret’s house and judge it the artist’s best work. Larmessin, a famous engraver, will take care to engrave many of Lancret’s paintings which not only endorses his achievement but becomes another source of wealth for the artist.
In 1735, Lancret presents his Bal Champêtre and is named Advisor to the Academy. In 1736, the court orders many paintings which are all destined to Versailles. In September 1740, Lancret meets 18 year old Marie de Boursault (granddaughter of Edmé Boursault, XVIIth Century French dramatist) who lives with her mother in poverty, he marries her two weeks later but unfortunately dies childless of a pneumonia on 14 September 1743.
Early in his career, Lancret attempts to be a painter of History, which at the time is considered the most “noble” painting style, but failing to win an award in this category, dedicates himself to the Fête Galante. Even though, most of his themes are based on the Fête Galante, Lancret himself does not lead a libertine’s or dandy’s life but rather devotes his time mainly to painting. In 1736, after Pater’s death, he starts a series of paintings, Contes, based on the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, the renowned XVIIth Century French poet. In 1738, he moves away from the Commedia dell’arte’s subjects for the French theater and chooses his themes from popular French tragedies and comedies.
La Fête Galante, similarly to Gillot, Watteau and Pater, is the main theme of Lancret’s masterpieces. If for Watteau, it can be considered as an open door to human dream and imaginary, it is often regarded as a pictorial expression of a radiant, joyful and beautiful masquerade, symbol of the Regency period where playful dissipation and game dominate. Imitating Watteau, Lancret introduces in his countryside scenes, characters and situations specific to the Italian and French theaters. In addition to painting, Lancret draws a lot, he leaves after his death over 2,000 drawings. Comparing his drawing and paintings, his art is striking by its realism. The superiority of his skills can be seen through the perfect balance reached in his composition, a balance in spite of the recurrence of his themes that is not monotonous but very harmonious. The success of his composition again comes from the realism that transpires in his work, whereas Watteau presents characters and scenes that are timeless and eternal, Lancret’s are first and foremost men, women and scenes that can only belong to the French XVIIIth century.
The behavior, movements, gestures of his subjects are true and precise such as in the Chasse au léopard, the Camargo, or the Comédiens à la fontaine. Lancret’s colors are soft and warm, his red, brown, blue and pink are rather deep than bright, which bring great balance to the tonality of his work. The stability of his colors gives a natural rather than superficial lighting to the atmosphere that reigns in his painting, the perfect illustration of the impact produced by the color balance is specially captured in his series of Contes. These skills made him a very faithful and gifted portraitist and allowed him to seize a psychological truth in his models such as in Mlle Sallé, La Camargo (also painted by La Tour, Maurice-Quentin de), or La Maréchale de Luxembourg. The bearing, mannerism, gracefulness and posture of his characters together with the soft energy and unity of the background or landscape transmit an impression of musicality such as in La Camargo, Le Déjeuner de jambon, Le Moulinet, Danse devant une fontaine, or Les Agréments de la campagne.
The only reproach that can be made to Lancret is that he might have sacrificed originality for the desire to please. The influence of Gillot and his interest in emulating Watteau may have limited his talent and creativity, and whereas Watteau’s genius offers masterpieces where time is eternal and his scenes and subjects boundless, Lancret proposes exact and precise XVIIIth century French customs.
Georges Wildenstein, Lancret, 1934.
Guy David Toubiana