Lot 21
  • 21


150,000 - 200,000 EUR
bidding is closed


  • Jean-Baptiste Leprince
  • The Futile Lesson
  • 73,2 x 92,5 cm ; 28 3/4 by 36 1/3 in.
Oil on canvas; signed and dated bottom left: Le Prince 1772


- Collection of duc Renaud César Louis de Choiseul-Praslin (1735-1791) ; 
- His sale, Paris, 18-25 February 1793, lot 170, with its pendant, « Le médecin aux urines » (adjudicated 861 pounds to Gendrier) ; 
- Collection Aimé Gabriel d'Artigues (1773-1848), director of the Saint-Louis glassworks ;
- His daughter Anne Gabrielle d'Artigues (1833-1889), who in 1853 married Comte Charles-Édouard de Ribes (1824-1896), mayor of Belle-Église (Oise) ; 
- Their son, comte Charles-Aimé-Auguste de Ribes (1858-1917) ; 
- His son, le comte Jean-Édouard de Ribes (1893-1982) ; 
- His son, le comte Édouard-Auguste-Édouard de Ribes (1923-2013) ; 
- To current owners


- Paris, Salon of 1773, n°54 with the following description : Une mère, ayant surpris une cachettte qui renferrmait un portrait, des lettres et des bijoux, faits les plus vifs reproches à sa fille, qui malgré l'apparence de son repentir, reçoit encore une lettre qu'une servante lui donne en cachette; le père cherche à lire les sentiments de sa fille dans ses yeux, tandis que la grand-mère lit une de ces lettres


- Eloge des tableaux exposés au Louvre, Paris, 1773, p. 42-43
- L.-P. de Bachaumont, Mémoires Secrets pour servir à la République des lettres, Lettre II, 14 septembre 1773 (éd. 1995, p. 41)
- Le Mercure de France, octobre 1773, t. I, p. 169

Catalogue Note

Engraving by Isidore Stanislas Helman (1743-1806) from 1781, titled The Futile Lesson (fig. 1)

The early provenance of this work, which has been uncertain up until now, is established by two pieces of evidence, hitherto overlooked: the catalogue of the Choiseul-Praslin sale in 1793, and Helman’s engraving after the painting. The catalogue lists two paintings by Leprince as lot 170, the first of which can be identified as The Doctor’s Visit (preceding lot in this catalogue), while the second, in the same format and seemingly a pendant to the first, is described as ‘a marriage proposal’. In fact it refers to the present painting, whose subject was incorrectly interpreted by the auction house specialist. This theory is corroborated by the inscription on Helman’s engraving, with its dedication to the Duchesse de Gramont, specifying that it was ‘drawn from the Cabinet of M. le Duc de Praslin’. The two paintings, although probably painted several months apart, very rapidly came to be seen as pendants, and there is every reason to suppose that the first, which was surely commissioned by the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin himself, so pleased its owner that he immediately commissioned a second from Leprince as its counterpart.

In a luxurious interior a little family drama is being enacted before our eyes. The box in which a young girl had hidden the letters and portraits of her suitor has been discovered by her parents. Having gathered to confer, mother and father are preparing to reprimand their daughter, who stands before them with an unconvincing air of contrition.

Jean-Baptiste Leprince clearly followed the example of Greuze in the composition of this delightful comedy. He has arranged the various actors as if on a stage set, in such a way as to help the viewer to comprehend the scene, which is described in detail in the catalogue of the 1773 Salon, where the painting was exhibited.  

An even more detailed description was written by Louis-Petit de Bachaumont in his Mémoires secrets: ‘All the actors in this little Drama play their roles in keeping with their character, their age and their type. The mother, naturally, seems the angriest; she holds the surprise portrait; she glares at her daughter. The father, less impulsive, addresses the matter with greater sang-froid; he wants to be sure that his daughter is guilty before he chastises her. The grandmother is indulgent, no longer sharing her daughter’s aspirations; consumed by curiosity, the last passion that endures in her sex, she reads one of the letters, wanting to find out if love is still conducted as it was in her day. The young girl’s air of contrition is infused with mischief; her secret joy is evident as she receives the love letter that her maid-servant is handing to her, with all the subtlety and dexterity that her role requires.’ (Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, Letter II, 14 September 1773).

Leprince is not content here with a simple case of family discipline. With subtle cunning, he introduces another scene within the scene. Unseen by her parents, the young girl reaches behind her to receive a new love letter from her suitor, which her servant accomplice discreetly places in her left hand. The reprimand is futile, the parents have been duped, the young girl pays them no heed.

Here too, the artist’s work reflects a variety of influences. However, in terms of style, Leprince leaned mostly towards Dutch genre painting of the preceding century. The fine finish of the fabrics, the young woman’s lustrous silk dress and the taste for refined detail recall the art of Gerard Ter Borch or Frans van Mieris the Elder, while the grandmother is an almost direct reference to Gerrit Dou’s many portrayals of old women reading – a theme that seems to have appealed to Leprince, who reprised it in a drawing that is now lost but can be seen in an engraving by Demarteau (fig. 2).

As in the case of The Doctor’s Visit (preceding lot), the ambience depicted by Leprince is suffused with elements recalling his recent stay in Russia. The artist took pleasure in re-using clothing and decorative details (such as the trophy hanging in the background) taken from the repertory of motifs that he had gathered on his travels.

The painting’s remarkable condition allows the exquisite quality of execution to be fully appreciated. Leprince has here created one of his most enchanting and accomplished compositions.