· Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince of Conti (1717-1776), Paris.
· His sale, Paris, April 8th, 1777, lot 2072 (“Picture with a fine finish and distinguished merit, painted by M. Wille the Son; it was seen with great satisfaction at the last sallon [sic] in the Louvre.”)
· Acquired for 1072 pounds.
· France, Private Collection.
· Salon of 1775, no 185 (“picture 2 feet 9 inches wide by 2 feet 3 inches high.”)
Engraved by Jean-Georges Wille.
The Artist and his Father
On August 25th, 1775, Jean-Georges Wille, famous German engraver established in Paris, noted in his journal: “I went to the assembly of the Royal Academy. I stopped in the salon where my son had placed four pictures for the first time.” The father’s modesty actually conceals young Pierre-Alexandre Wille’s first participation in the Salon, the Academy’s biannual major event which attracted crowds and impassioned critics.
Pierre-Alexandre grew up in a house dominated by etching and Dutch painting: Wille the Father’s collection of masters from the Golden Age was one of the most famous in Paris. Many works by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, a close family friend, could also be seen there, and thus it was natural that Jean-Georges chose him as his son’s master. In 1761, he wrote in his journal: “Our son went to our friend Mr. Greuze for the first time to be his student. Happy if he wishes to make the most of being under such a master of painting.” Pierre-Alexandre pursued his apprenticeship in Joseph-Marie Vien’s studio without any real impact on his style, which was already profoundly marked by German engravers’ precision in drawing, by Dutch genre scenes, and especially by Greuze’s sentimental art.
Our Picture at the Salon
In 1774, Pierre-Alexandre was approved for the Academy with “almost universal applause.” The following year, he sent four canvases to the Salon: a Village Dance, two studies of heads, and a Return to Virtue which we present here and which was noticed by critics. La Harpe, in his Correspondance littéraire, summarized general opinion for this “dramatic picture:” “There is expression and interest in this picture; it is well composed, the distribution is fortunate, but it lacks coloring” (vol. I, p. 266). Lesuire, in Coup d’œil sur le Salon de 1775 par un aveugle (A Blind Man Casts an Eye on the Salon of 1775), continues: “This artist promises talent and personality which make one hope that he will carry this genre to a distinguished level able to satisfy both amateurs of a fine finish and people with taste” (p. 48). Among people with taste, the Prince of Conti has to be mentioned, one of the most important collectors in the second half of the 18th century, as he acquired the picture for his Palace of the Temple.
For his first big canvas as an approved artist, Wille the Son chose a subject drawn freely from the Marmontel’s moral stories. Constructed on a single plane and thus more theatrical, the scene did not have any need to be explained in the Livret to be easily “read” by the Salon visitors. Louis Petit de Bachaumont who qualified the picture as “a real poem well conceived, well developed” also gave a very literary description:
“All of the heads, seven in number, have their own pronounced character and concur in unification of the action. A Village Woman, who has escaped from paternal authority, seeks to return to favor: her brilliant attire announces the motive and fruit of her escape. Behind her, the guiltiest, The Ravisher, increases interest in that he indicates real repentance and honest intentions to repair through marriage the wrong he has committed against this family. The Father’s first movement is to push her away; the more indulgent Mother, wants to calm him. Behind them are the two Sisters: the older one implores and seconds the wife’s efforts in a respectful manner; the younger one throws up her hands in surprise: she doesn’t know enough about the consequences of the event to feel as afflicted as her elder sister. Finally, the brother, who is still a child, only has the emotions that any sensitive being feels automatically when he sees pain or distress in others. Without eclipsing the main subject, a small dog, who recognizes his former mistress and shows his joy at her return with the caresses of an animal who is a symbol of fidelity, rectifies and tempers an impression which would otherwise be too distressful.”
Wille, Student of Greuze
To give body to this moralizing subject, Wille the Son replicates his first master’s procedures, especially in the Village Bethrothal on which Greuze was working when Wille was in his studio. The young artist concentrates on each figure’s pose and doesn’t hesitate to exaggerate mimicry and gestures in the quest for better effects. Like Greuze, he had prepared his picture with sketches from life. The mother in mid-speech and her back bent by daily labor can be seen in reverse and with more ordinary clothing in a black chalk drawing signed P.A. Wille filius, dated 1772 (27 x 20.5 cm. private collection). An earlier sanguine bearing the date 1768 had helped the artist depict the head of one of the sisters, even if in the painting he accentuated the expression of surprise (30 x 22 cm.)
Openly nordic, Wille’s technique is nonetheless very different from that of Greuze. His light is colder without genuine direction and creates shadows which are as profound as they are uncertain. His chromatic range is intense and contrasted, with passages of pure tonalities, as here in the brick red and pastel blue in the bourgeois couple’s apparel. Their modest condition does not, for that matter, prevent the artist from imagining dress with a certain refinement, for example in the father’s yellow striped vest or the mother’s checkered apron which seems to be silk. The artist especially preferred these warmly colored striped fabrics with which he even clothed miserable peasants, as in Alms or the Unhappy Family, presented in the 1777 Salon (Angers, Museum of Fine Arts).
For Wille, the overlapping stripes in the apron folds are a pretext for displaying a rare masterly technique which delights in the multiple deliberately superfluous details of an assumed realism, such as in the still life at the foot of the table. The painter enjoys describing the reflections in the young offender’s white silks, the fine lace of her sleeve ruffles, the gilt galloons on the young man’s suit, the ledger with the tiny date of 1773 inscribed on the top of the page, the ink well’s reflection on the shining pewter pot, the cat’s whiskers, the folds in the father’s stockings, and the least stitch in the luxurious brightly colored tapestry covering the table.
Bibliography of the Work
Emma BARKER, Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 223-225.
Louis Hautecoeur, "Pierre-Alexandre Wille le fils (1748-1821?)," Mélanges offerts à M. Henry Lemonnier, Paris, É. Champion, 1913, pp. 448, 452, 463.
Journal des Beaux-Arts, November 1775, p. 349.