Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 120 x 172 cm
Signed: Signed and dated lower-centre: J. B. Oudry 1739
Collection of the artist; Louis-François Mettra’s inventory after death in 1763: ” un peint tableau peint sur toile par Oudry représentant un Pêcheur…prisé 60 livres” [Mettra was agent for the King of Prussia and it may have been originally intended for the collection of Frederick the Great]; Collection, Mme Steinberg, Paris, from the 1950s; to her nephew M. Garnier ; to Galerie Aveline and Galerie Segoura, Paris; private collection UK (Sir E…. J…), 1996-2015.
Jean Locquin, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre de Jean-Baptiste Oudry peintre du roi (1686-1755), in Archives de l’Art français, nouvelle periode, VI, 1912, no. 383, as Le Pêcheur et le petit poisson, with the 1739 Salon catalogue description above; Hal N. Opperman, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 2 volumes, Chicago, 1972, p. 355 as ‘Le Pêcheur et le petit poisson, present whereabouts unknown. 1.3 x 1.62 m. Ex. : Salon of 1739. Bibl. : Locquin, no. 383.’ Francois Marandet, in the Symposium, Art français et allemand, Paris, 2008, pp. 265-281 (for the reference to Mettra’s inventaire).
: Salon of 1739, as ‘Un Tableau en largeur de 5. Pieds fur 4. De haut, représentant la Fable du Pêcheur & du petit Poisson tirée de la Fontaine: Ce Tableau appartient à M. Oudry.’
By the 1730’s Oudry was working on the notable series of illustrations he made for Scarron’s Roman Comique and Les Fables by La Fontaine. The fable depicted here, remarkably for Oudry, was painted in oil, and on a large canvas for the Salon (a different Le Pêcheur et le Petit Poisson illustrates his series for Les Fables, see below). Equally extraordinarily, the painting portrays a male nude in a dramatic pose as full of tension as the bowed pole on which the titular poisson is caught. The decorative exuberance in the foreground of the painting disseminates into cooler, darker and more subdued greens and earth colours in the background. The palette overall contrasts markedly with the vivid pinks, hot oranges and blues of Oudry’s earlier work. If there is a rococo charm to the painting stylistically, it has a drama and depth that the artist’s other representations of Les Fables conceivably lack.
Aesop first told the story of The Fisherman and the Little Fish, retold by and known to Oudry through the fable written by La Fontaine. Divided into 12 books, La Fontaine collected and wrote no fewer than two-hundred of these moral metaphors. The first collection of Fables Choisies was published in 1668; it contained six books over two volumes and was dedicated to le Grand Dauphin, the six-year-old son of Louis XIV of France. These first books were mainly adapted from the classical fabulists Aesop, Babrius and Phaedrus. What gave La Fontaine’s fables their distinction was the freshness of their narration, beautiful language and suppleness of metrical structure. Their unfailing humour entertained whilst giving keen insight into the foibles of human nature.
Le Pêcheur et le Petit Poisson narrates a small fish being caught by a fisherman (or angler); the fish begs for its life on account of its size and suggests that should the fisherman wait until it is larger, when the fish would make a more filling meal. The fisherman refuses however, giving as his reason that every little amount helps and that it is stupid to give up a present advantage for an uncertain future gain. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. La Fontaine had no such English proverb in French, and ends on the reflection that one possession is better than two promises: Un ‘tiens’ vaut mieux que deux ‘tu l’auras’.
François Desportes, Oudry’s great rival, never included figures of hunters in his compositions. However, Oudry was an accomplished portraitist and master of the human form, portraying noblemen, hunters and peasants as participants in his hunts and pastorals. Nevertheless, the nude pêcheur here remains rare in the artist’s oeuvre, despite the fact that the sinewy figure is very much in line with taste – which had moved on from the previous generation’s more Herculean male bodies. The water spaniel, who stares fixedly at the fish, and the lusciousness of the leopard pelt, are both elements that relate to sketches and other oil compositions by Oudry. If the raison d’être of Oudry’s paintings and their astounding variety was a result of the artist’s obsession with the notion of singularité, this is certainly a remarkable instance of it in a long career. The idea in fact lay at the heart of the Rococo style and remained the primary distinction between the art of Oudry and that of Desportes.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s father, Jacques was a painter and art dealer on the Pont Nôtre-Dame, as well as a modestly prominent figure in the craftsmen-painters’ maîtrise. He provided a solid grounding to the younger Oudry, before, showing promise, he was sent around 1705 to live for five years with the celebrated portraitist Nicolas de Largillière. Perhaps it is from these two influences that a tension in Oudry’s work between an instinctive naturalism and a deep sense of theatricality developed. His marriage of the two elements allowed the technically brilliant younger painter to excel stylistically – at portraiture, still lifes, landscapes and genre paintings – a remarkable diversity for any artist. Oudry rose from bourgeois artistic beginnings to a place of distinction within the French Royal Academy during his long career. For the first decade of his artistic independence, Oudry, still under Largillière’s influence, naturally specialised in portraiture – with modest success. The young artist was admitted to the Academy in 1719 as a history painter, however, likely more in deference to Largillière than on the merits of Oudry’s few large-scale church paintings.
In the 1720s Oudry discovered the animal as subject, employing them in still lifes, hunting scenes, and genre pictures with striking results. The artist treated animals as both sitter and splendid decoration in turn and led – with Le Moyne, de Troy, Lancret, Restout, and Nattier – the invention of the genre pittoresque or Louis XV style. Oudry received his first royal commissions in the 1730s, painting the eccentrically named favourite royal dogs, and was appointed director of the Royal tapestry manufactory at Beauvais. His work at Beauvais making cartoons for tapestries would dominate the next decade of his career and it was as director there that he first encountered the paintings of François Boucher, whose pastorals would influence Oudry’s landscapes. As a professor at the Academy the painter delivered two pivotal lectures late in his life; Oudry was appointed director of the Gobelins, as well as Beauvais. The artist was at the same time an assiduous (and esteemed) contributor to the Salons – Oudry enjoyed an international reputation and clientele.
In his day Oudry was unsurpassed for pictures like La Ferme, an extraordinary landscape extolling agricultural France (commissioned by the Dauphin, Salon of 1751; Paris, Louvre) and the mythic White Duck (formerly Houghton Hall, Marquess of Cholmondeley), a veritable tour de force of illusion, purchased sight unseen by Oudry’s eminent Swedish patron, Carl Gustaf Tessin, even before it could be shown in the Salon of 1753. If Oudry’s reputation was eventually eclipsed by the younger artists Chardin and Boucher – each owed a debt to Oudry, one of the most versatile, fecund and inventive artists of eighteenth-century France.