Having described the drawing in 1911 as a key work by Saint-Aubin, when Dacier published it again in his 1931 catalogue, he placed a star symbol beside the title of the work, his mark signifying that although the drawing had previously been considered autograph, "..cette attribution est considérée par l'auteur comme fausse, ou tout au moins sujette à caution". Despite this, the author goes into some considerable detail regarding the scene depicted, noting the shallow balconies, which in his view indicated an auditorium far too small to be either of the larger theatres of the period, the Opéra and the Théatre Français. On the evidence of other early images, he also rules out the theatres of Fontainebleau, the Petits-Appartements and Choisy, and the Gabriel Theatre at Versailles.
On the other hand, Dacier noted the existence of another, monochrome drawing of the same theatre, by Cochin, which was formerly in the Goncourt and Bourgarel collections1, and which the Goncourts described as showing 'la salle de spectacle de Versailles'.2 He says that this identification cannot be retained, but the attribution possibly can, comparing the present drawing also with the great watercolour of Mme de Pompadour jouant "Acis et Galathée" sur le théatre des Petis-Appartements à Versailles, now in Ottawa.3 That drawing is, however, dated 1749, but the costumes in the present work suggest a somewhat later dating, possibly to around 1770.
Perhaps the most relevant stylistic comparison that has so far emerged is with a fine drawing, May Ball, executed by Jean-Michel Moreau, called Moreau le Jeune, in 1763.4 The subject of that drawing is a ballet performance staged for the court in February 1763 in the Salle de comédie at Versailles. It is one of the earliest of Moreau's depictions of theatrical and court events, but this was a field in which he became something of a specialist, and in 1770 he was appointed draughtsman for the royal Menus plaisirs, and in 1781 became draughtsman and engraver of the King's cabinet, positions in which he was frequently called on to make drawings recording performances and events at court.
Although the Washington drawing and the others like it that are known are generally a little more linear than the present work, there are clear similarities in the handling of many of the details, notably the faces and costumes of the figures, and it seems perfectly possible that Moreau was also the author of this engaging and intriguing, large drawing.
1. Sale Paris, 15-16 June 1922, lot 32, reproduced p. 67
2. E. and J. de Goncourt, L'Art du XVIIIe Siècle, 2 vols., Paris 1880-82, p. 129
3. Sale, New York, Sotheby's, 26 January 2005, lot 158
4. Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, inv. 2000.9.25; see M. Morgan Grasselli, Renaissance to Revolution, French Drawings from the National Gallery of Art, 1500-1800, exhib. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 2009-10, no. 94
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