Lot 207
  • 207

Joseph-Marie Vien

120,000 - 180,000 USD
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  • Joseph-Marie Vien
  • a young woman watering a pot of flowers, "La Jeune Athénienne"
  • signed and dated center right: Vien, 1762

  • oval, oil on canvas


Commissioned by the Abbot of Breteuil;
sale X..., 5 May 1900 sold for 325 francs (see Mireur, loc. cit.);
Private Collection, France.


Salon, Paris, 1763, no. 30 (as "Une Femme qui arrofe un pot de Fleurs")


Livret du Salon de 1763, no. 30, (see Collection des livrets des anciennes expositions depuis 1673 jusqu'en 1800, ed. J. Guiffrey, Paris, 1869 – 1871, vol. XXII, p. 15, no. 30);
D. Diderot, Salons, ed. J. Adhémar et J. Seznec, Oxford 1957-67, (1975), vol. I, pp. 165, 166, 210, 211;
C-J. Mathon de la Cour, Lettres à Madame **sur les peintures les sculptures et les gravures, exposées dans le Sallon du Louvre en 1763, Paris, 1763, p. 20;
Mercure de France, October 1763, I, p. 191;
H. Coziac, "Vien, sa vie et son oeuvre", in Revue de France, Paris, 1865, p. 180ss;
J. Locquin, La Peinture d'histoire en France de 1747 à 1785, Étude sur l'évolution des idées artistiques dans la seconde moitié du XVIII siècle, Paris 1912, reprinted 1978, pp.195 and 248;
H. Mireur, Dictionnaire des Ventes d'Art faites en France et à l'étranger pendant les XVIIIme et XIXme siècles, Paris 1912, pp. 369;
E. M. Bukdahl, Diderot, critique d'art, Copenhagen 1980, vol. I, p.77;
T.W. Gaehtgens, J. Lugand, Joseph -Marie Vien. Peintre du Roi (1716-1809), Paris 1988, p. 174, cat. no. 191 (Oeuvre disparue), and p. 156, under no. 120.


The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc. 502 East 74th St. New York, NY 212-734-3920, simonparkes@msn.com , an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This painting has been quite recently restored, although the lining is old. The paint layer seems to have been recently cleaned and varnished. A slightly fresher varnish might bring out some depth but in general the condition is impressive. The painting is only lightly restored in a few spots in the face and hardly anywhere in the remainder of the picture. The retouches in the face are very minor and although the paint layer is slightly thin here, the condition is beautiful nonetheless.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This charming depiction of a young woman watering a pot of flowers had disappeared after its sale in 1900 and has only recently come to light. Painted in 1762, it was exhibited the following year at the Salon where it received a rapturous reception, most notably from the notoriously severe critic Denis Diderot who described it in the following glowing terms:

Celui qui j'aime entre tous est la jeune innocente qui arrose son pot de fleurs. On ne la regarde pas longtemps sans devenir sensible. Ce n'est pas son amant, c'est son père ou sa mère qu'on voudrait être. Sa tête est si noble ! Elle est si simple et si ingénue !  Ah ! qui est-ce qui oserait lui tendre un piège ?1

He continued to describe it as "le tableau... le plus charmant". Another critic, Mathon de la Cour, found it equally compelling and also described it as his favourite painting which, given its company that year (see below) is quite an accolade :

Il y a un tableau de M. Vien, représentant une femme qui arrose des fleurs; c'est celui qui m'a fait le plus de plaisir.2

The composition was previously known only through a small oval preparatory oil sketch (see fig. 1), formerly in the collection of Vien's descendants and acquired by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Béziers in 1963.3 That sketch has been dated by Gaehtgens to circa 1755 on the basis of a comparison with other works from that date, in particular the Prêtesse brodant pour l'ornement d'un temple (also Béziers, Musée des Beaux-Arts) which is a preparatory sketch for the painting exhibited at the Salon in 1755.4 If Gaehtgens' dating of the sketch is correct then it must have remained in the Vien workshop until 1762 when the artist revisited it. Either that, or Gaehtgens' dating is wrong and it was executed circa 1762, which is equally plausible.

Vien began his career in the studio of Charles-Joseph Natoire in 1740 and, after winning the Prix de Rome in 1743, went to study at the Académie de France in Rome until 1750. History and religious painting dominated these years but after 1750, with his return to France, Vien adopted a growing interest in the Baroque and, in particular, the work of early 17th century Bolognese painters such as Guido Reni, whose interest in nature and the antique he shared.  Encouraged by the existing taste in the 1760s for charming, undemanding antique subjects, for a few years Vien produced a number of works, many of them à la grecque, that seem to reject the formal classicising works of his past and instead project a poetic expressiveness, a delicacy and a simplicity which mirror the work of such artists as Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

During this time, Vien frequented many private salons, notably that of the famed Mme. Geoffrin who on a weekly basis received the great connoisseurs and collectors of the day, including the Comte de Caylus and the Duc d'Orléans. It was presumably in one such salon shortly after 1760 that the Abbé de Breteuil encountered Vien and commissioned the present work. It was exhibited at the Salon of 1763 alongside seven other works à la grecque, all but one of the same dimensions, and all of which had been bought or commissioned by famous amateurs; in addition to the present Jeune Athénienne  were Les Quatre Saisons, which belonged to Mme. Geoffrin herself, M. de Julienne's La Glycère, and the Duc d'Orléans' La Jeune Circassienne au bain; the eighth work was La Marchande d'Amours, perhaps the artist's most celebrated work which, by 1788, was in the collection of the Duc de Brissac.5

1. See Gaehtgens, op. cit., p. 174. The one I love above all others is the innocent young who is watering the pot of flowers.  We do not watch her for a long time without becoming sensitive.  It is not her lover that we want to be-- it is her father or mother that we would like to be.  Her head is so noble! She is so simple and so sweet!  Ah! Who would dare to trap her?
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., pp. 156-7, no. 120, reproduced fig. 120. There is a painting of M. de Vien representing a girl watering flowers; it is the one that gives me the most pleasure
4. Ibid., p. 156, nos. 116 & 117, the sketch reproduced fig. 117.
5. Ibid., pp. 170-174, cat. nos. 191, 181-4, 180, 189 & 187 respectively.