Sully wing – 2 nd floor – La Caze Collection – Room 37
In a landscape of greenery mingled with the golden hues of autumn, a merry picnic takes place on the grass. The setting of this country party is delicious. A bright sun illuminates the sky and casts its light over the countryside, whose undulations and wooded parts are seen climbing the hills that close the horizon. It is the time of the harvest, the joyous harvest par excellence; the laborious swarm of harvesters fused laughter and songs. We see them here, on the left of the painting, busy picking bunches, but their attitude suggests they chat at least as much as they reap. The group in the foreground seems to be interested only very little in the work of the harvest; he seems more preoccupied with honoring the bountiful dinner spread on a napkin in the thick grass. Of the two women who take part in the meal, one is almost entirely stretched out on the ground and, leaning on his elbow, bows down on a well-trimmed plate; the other, seated, has no doubt calmed her hunger, for she looks before her in the attitude of repose. In front of them, a guest fills his plate. Next to the tablecloth is a bottle of respectable size and the basket from which the edible products were extracted. Behind this group lying, stands a young woman, her basket of grape harvester in hand; on the left, a donkey and its driver are placed, waiting for the picking to come and garnish the double meal intended to receive the grapes. On the right, a peasant, with a glass in hand, flirting with a girl seated who, the basket passed in the arm, seems to listen with interest.
All the graceful art of Lancret blossoms in this charming canvas. The composition is clever and perfectly distributed, perhaps even with a little too much symmetry. With first-rate gifts, Lancret has more know-how than spontaneity; he orders his canvases with meticulous care which recalls the manner of the little Dutch masters. A pupil of Watteau, he did not possess the suppleness, the unforeseen, nor especially the inspiration of the master, but he has brilliance and virtuosity. Sometimes his characters are frozen, they look a little too much like pretty Saxon figurines embarrassed in their porcelain clothes, but they are so dapper, so fresh that one feels watching them a pleasure that never tires. In this, Lancret is well of his century. He seems to have seen the world and the things of his time through a veil of pink gauze that tinted all soft colors and kind. He was born and lived at the time the most superficial but also the most brilliant in the history of the world, a charming time that made tell Talleyrand that those who did not know it do not know what is the joy of living . Never was the spirit finer, politeness more refined, elegance more exquisite; virtue did not appear austere, vice itself had an amiable exterior. At court and in the city the tone and the manners were always of the best quality: one talked, one intrigued, one madrigalised, always with spirit; the less educated women wrote gallant notes in an adorable style, the secret of which is forever lost. And, in favor of so many pretty qualities, one feels full of indulgence for the frivolity they masked so well.
From this delicious and futile century, Lancret was one of the most characteristic painters. With him, too, one must not look for the depth, the elevation of ideas, but he possessed in the highest degree the art of pleasing, an art not available to all. Whether he is combing marquises or peasant women, one always feels floating around skirts and bodices a heady perfume of powder to the Marshal; that it represents the groves of Versailles or the trees of a village campaign, it is always the same neat nature, pretty, without dust or mud. Look at his picture of Autumn: do not it seem to you that these grape harvesters bent over the vines have well-starched caps and shiny bodices for the hard work they do? As for the pretty gourmands in the foreground, peasants too, we would rather take them, if not for big ladies, at least for maids more accustomed to evolve in the boudoir of their mistress than to handle the basket and the sickle of the harvester.
But what is the point of emphasizing these improbabilities? In the eighteenth century, the countryside did not exist, it was confined entirely within the limits of the royal parks. This period of refinement required elegance even in the farmer’s clothes.
We must not judge the paintings of Lancret with the same eyes that saw the paintings harsh and rough of Millet. The times are not the same, nor the tastes. And the admiration we have for some must not make us unfair to others. It can not be denied, in fact, that Lancret’s work is charming. If it were necessary to prove its worth, it would suffice to recall that many painters, after him, tried to resuscitate the genre without succeeding. Elegance and grace are not acquired; they are a gift of nature. Do not own them who wants.
The Autumn was part of a series of four seasons painted by Lancret for the castle of Muette. He was exhibited at the Salon of 1738; he is now in the Louvre, in the 18th century room.
Height: 0.68 – Width: 0.88 – Figures: 0.25.