In the early 18th century Dutch painters found their prestige on the rise among French art lovers. What became a veritable passion was reflected in Paris collections, with many French artists finding inspiration in it and responding in their own works. Among the most illustrious representatives of this new vogue, with its attempt to wrest the secrets of silence from the still life, was Jean-Baptiste Oudry, who had studied under Nicolas de Largillière. His father Jacques Oudry, himself a painter and a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, had gone into business as an art dealer; in his boutique the young Jean-Baptiste learned the rudiments of painting, before being taken in hand by Michel Serre, just back from Rome and a regular visitor to the shops on the Pont Notre-Dame bridge, where Oudry père had set up. Two years later Jean-Baptiste was enrolled at the Saint-Luc choir school, where he is known to have taken out several drawing prizes. At twenty-one he began studying with his father’s friend Largillière, and over the next five years this new teacher would initiate him into the use of colour. After leaving Largillière, Oudry seems to have spent two years working for the art dealers on Pont Notre-Dame, then the heart of the Paris secondhand trade.

Known to have begun as a portraitist, Jean-Baptiste soon turned towards the still life and animal painting, genres for which he seemed more gifted. In this he was following in the footsteps of Dutch painters like Brueghel de Velours, Jacques de Gheyn II and Balthasar van der Ast, whose natural history illustrations of animals and insects have remained their trade-mark. Our painting is part of a series of small canvases – among Oudry’s earliest – of which at least three are known today: two still lifes of a dead bird and insects, signed and dated 1712, originally from the Château d’Aiguillon and now in the museum in Agen; and a Nature morte aux deux oiseaux morts (Still Life of Dead Birds), signed and dated 1713, now in the museum in Marseille. Whether skilled exercises or painterly explorations, these four works seem to replay the same
scene, using tiny variations as part of a reciprocal quest
for an ever more perfect equilibrium.
Here the songbird, a Great Tit, is hanging by one
leg from a nail; on the shelf, next to a vase of jasmine,
the artist has placed two mice nibbling walnuts; in
addition there are five flying insects, including three
butterflies. The work’s apparent simplicity only underscores
the perfection of its arrangement and the profession
of faith it seems to voice. Its appeal lies in the
ease of Oudry’s trompe l’oeil and the creation of a
camaieu dominated by blues and greys and enlivened
by muted tints and vivid whites. Depth within this
restricted space is made palpable by the subtlety of the
shadow areas and the kind of halo they form around
the bird and the fieldmice. The insects, by contrast,
seem to be fluttering between our viewpoint and the
wall. The mice accentuate the homeliness of a picture
in which the bird and the butterflies are also familiar
creatures. It would seem that the painter has set out
to reveal the beauty of the ordinary, as Chardin would
do later. The mouse is also a symbol of the vanity of
things: associated here with the corpse of the bird, this
small rodent conjures up the all-devouring action of
time; it appears in a similar context in Dutch still lifes.
This delightfully delicate painting deploys a wide
range of subtle tones. Free of all tendency to ostentation,
the young Jean-Baptiste Oudry displays a total mastery
of his art in a foreshadowing of a brilliant career. (P.R.)


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