· Guy et Christiane de Aldecoa Collection, Paris.
Larger autograph version, Young Girls with Mirror, (105 x 128 cm. / 3 ft. 5 5⁄16 in. x 4 ft. 2 7⁄16 in.) Mauguio, private collection; see Hilaire, Zeder, p. 197, no 35, ill.)
Two young women, one blonde with a sky blue dress, the other brunette with a mustard yellow bodice and cranberry skirt, calmly admire themselves in the mirror with some satisfaction and curiosity. Light, coming from the right front side of the blonde, scatters reflections across her satin dress, traverses the delicate pearls around her fine neck, reddens her cheeks, caresses her hair and bounces off the mirror to illuminate the soft faces and white throats, then disappears in the opaque brown background. Only an ochre drapery suggests an interior, and gives the canvas the character of at least an allegory, if not a portrait – as the two coquettish faces are not individualized – but removes it from all the banality of a genre scene.
This interpretation of our picture, more poetic than realistic, is corroborated by the lack of accessories and the simplicity of the presentation of the two young ladies. Moreover, the initial oval elongated format of the canvas and a very slight da sotto in su effect confirm that the work is a decorative element, probably to go over a pierglass rather than to be used as an overdoor. Formerly crowning a real mirror, our picture makes sense and adds liveliness to the refined interior of a French Regency dwelling. At the same time, these allusions to the brevity of beauty and youth remain discreet and appear diluted by the pictorial charm and gracefulness which are characteristic of Jean Raoux’ art.
This painter’s hand is easily recognizable here. In his work, he combined Venetian colorito, Flemish themes, Dutch light, and late Louis XIV French gracefulness. A student of Antoine Ranc in Montpellier and Bon Boullogne in Paris, he won the first prize at the Academy in 1704 which made it possible for him to stay a long time in Italy. In Venice, he became close to Philippe de Vendôme, Grand Prior of the Order of Malta. With this prince’s protection, Raoux was able to lodge in the Temple Commandery when he returned to Paris in 1711. Received into the Academy in 1717 as a history painter with Pygmalion in Love with his Statue exhibited the same day as Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera, Raoux, according to Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Angerville, became fashionable: “he was requested to do portraits, overdoors, and small subjects drawn from history and fables […] and capricious subjects showing a woman reading a paper which hid a letter, [or] a young girl representing silence […], a singing beauty.”
In 1719, Philippe de Vendôme resigned from his position in favor of Jean Philippe d’Orleans, the natural son of the Regent, and settled in a mansion on the rue de Varenne. Raoux followed him and lived at the new address until his benefactor’s death in 1727, when he returned to the Temple at the invitation of the Grand Prior, Jean Philippe d’Orleans. For him, the artist decorated the apartments in the Prior’s Palace of the Temple with several pictures: “half figures of Vestals; two girls looking in a mirror; a peasant carrying figs which a shepherdess would like to have; two singers holding a music score, and several personifications of the Arts and Sciences, such as Astronomy, Geometry, History, and Music, which were placed in the salon paneling.”
Our picture reflects the composition painted for the Grand Prior of Orleans, with larger dimensions and whose location is unknown, as opposed to its pendant, The Duet, conserved today in a private collection. Another pair of paintings, also in private hands, is known of a comparable size to those of the Temple: one is a replica of the Duet, while the other is an almost literal revival of our work. Raoux was used to painting several versions of his most successful compositions. Nonetheless, aside from a few insignificant details like the presence of an armchair behind the blonde in blue, the subject itself is very different and narrative. In fact, in this second picture, the blonde woman is arranging a small bouquet of flowers in her bodice: she observes the result in the mirror held by the brunette who is only a servant, as can be seen by the soberness of her attire in contrast to the luxurious blue dress. In contrast, in our painting, the two companions wear similar clothing and the young woman in blue lays her right hand on the shoulder of the other who appears to be a beloved friend.
It is tempting to hypothesize that our version is the more exact remake of the picture painted for the Prior’s Palace. In fact, the pair were apparently separated very early, because The Duet already appeared alone at the Vassal De Saint-Hubert Sale on January 17th, 1774: “picture known under the denomination of the blonde and the brunette, remarkable for the admirable light effects” (lot 81). It’s easier to imagine a pendant which picks up on this idea of a gentle close affinity between “the blonde and the brunette,” rather than a subordinate relationship. Moreover, the mellow treatment of our canvs, its laconic character and rich poetry recall not only The Duet;, but even more The Allegory of Music which also came from the Temple.
Our painting fits in with a whole series of Raoux’ works which were highly sought in his lifetime and displayed full- or bust-length young women who were either coquettish or contemplative, alone or accompanied by a servant, as they gazed into a mirror. Under Raoux, this theme, which came out of Northern genre painting, assumed a new consonance based on the subtle play of light, reflections, shadows, and transparencies, as can be seen in our painting whose modeling and blending of colors constitutes one of the most finished and sensitive examples of his finesse.
General Bibliographie (Unpublished Work)
Michel Hilaire, Olivier Zeder et al., Jean Raoux, 1677-1734, un peintre sous la Régence, exh. cat. Montpellier, Musée Fabre, Somogy, 2009.