34.8 x 32.1 cm. (13 11⁄16 x 12 5⁄8 in.)
Black chalk, sanguine, grey and sanguine wash on watermarked paper with a crowned fleur-de-lys blazon
Signed and dated lower right: le Prince 1769
• France, Private Collection.
Jean-Baptiste Le Prince spent his childhood in the city of Metz, and was the son of a master cabinet maker-sculptor and gilder, a fact which probably caused his precocious taste for the arts to develop. By adolescence, the young man’s skill in drawing was noticed by the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, military governor, and it is undoubtedly under his protection that Le Prince entered François Boucher’s studio in Paris. His first drawings can be dated to the years 1755-1757, when the artist did some work on the Abbé de Saint-Non’s etchings under the patronage of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Hubert Robert.
The first examples of his graphic work attest to his master’s influence in their depictions of French landscapes enlivened by figures. His personality is already asserted in the precise rendering of nature which he conserved throughout his career.
At the age of 22, Le Prince went to Saint Petersburg upon convocation by the Imperial Chancellery of Buildings to join the workshop of painters decorating Empress Elisabeth’s apartments in the Winter Palace. Commissions for him to do 45 over doors for the Tsarina and 39 for Peter III in the fashion of the day – that is to say, allegories, mythological scenes and landscapes – can be found in the archives. Following Catherine II’s ascension to the throne, the painter traveled throughout the Russian Empire before returning to France in 1763:
“Le Prince’s delicate health did not adapt well to this rigorous temperature, and near the end of 1763, he had to return to France under the threat of succumbing to the effects of an illness that got worse every day.”
After these ten years spent abroad, Le Prince returned with an ample collection of drawings from nature which was then useful to him when he introduced himself to the Academy. He was received there “with general approval” as a master of genre scenes, as is mentioned in the Correspondance littéraire of 1765.
His “Russeries” were highly appreciated, especially by Diderot who encouraged the artist on the occasion of his first Salon the same year. Le Prince was broadly praised for his talents in the graphic arts.
With the engraver Gilles Demarteau, specialist in facsimiles of pencil work, the artist brought out Principes du dessin dans le genre du paysage (Principles of Drawing in the Genre of Landscape). The work demonstrates the importance the artist gave to studying nature that our work also evokes, in that nature takes up most of the composition. His production reveals the influence of Dutch art from the preceding century, especially that of Rembrandt, of whom the artist owned 73 engravings by or after the master, and of Wouwerman, [a record of] whose entire oeuvre he owned in the form of engravings by Jean Moyreau. In Le Prince’s landscapes, the place given to figures is minimal. They enliven the scene without ever supplanting the role of Nature. Among the drawings in the original holdings of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, the work entitled Landscape with Shepherds, is an example. At the Salon of the same year, Dupont de Nemours found he had “the merits of the French and Flemish Schools combined.”
Without real certainty, it is possible that the iconography of our drawing could be related to an episode in the New Testament of the Rest of the Virgin, Joseph and the Child in his cradle, accompanied by their donkey during their flight from Judea to Egypt (Matthew, 2, 13-23).
From his Nordic influences, Le Prince retained the foreshortening of figures seen from behind, such as the man depicted here in the foreground. As opposed to his contemporaries, Vigée-Le Brun, Tocqué, and Doyen whose work had been exported from France to Russia, Le Prince did the opposite. Diderot, at the Salon of 1767, while praising the artist’s concern for precision in the depictions of his figures’ attire, evoked his main merit as “the one who dressed well.” In the group of figures in the lower left, the female figure facing the viewer wears a headdress framing her face similar to a Kokochnik reminiscent of popular Russian costumes.
In terms of Dutch influence, the conception of the foliage is comparable to that of Salomon van Ruysdael, van Goyen and even Cornelis Decker, some of whose paintings were in his possession. Le Prince “had his own manner of rendering the foliage of oaks with art and great verity.” The compositional balance is established through a few skillful masses of tufted branches rising and forming verdant fans which seem to move with the wind, thus energizing everything. After that, the artist works on foliage details with fine strokes of wash and sanguine which give the desired volume. Willows, beaches, oaks, Le Prince observes Nature which he sketches on site. His hand renders the particular shapes of leaves, as well as those of the tree trunks with great acuity, thus making it possible to distinguish the different tree species, such as the beech in our composition.
Friends with Renou, Pajou, Wille, and Fragonard among others, Le Prince was a painter who enjoyed a great reputation in his lifetime. He was also associated with the art of tapestry for which he produced six cartoons of Russian Games for the Beauvais Manufactory.