From 1699, François Desportes distinguished himself as an animal painter, choosing for the subject of his reception piece for the Académie royale a Self-portrait as a huntsman, surrounded by his dogs and dead game1. Soon thereafter he became the Painter of the Royal Hunt and Pack first to Louis XIV and then to Louis XV, who entrusted him with many commissions for decorative schemes themed around the hunt (notably for the Château de Meudon, the Menagerie and for the Royal Pavilion). The painter accompanied the king on hunts and made numerous drawings and oil studies in which he captured the animals’ attitudes on the spot. These sketches executed from life provided him with the basis of his impressive animalier compositions, in which he was sometimes assisted by his especially productive and talented workshop.
Pierre Jacky has drawn attention to a preparatory sketch for the first painting2 (G. de Lastic and P. Jacky, Desportes, catalogue raisonné, Saint Rémy en l’Eau, 2010, no. P 384) as well as to a study of a pheasant3 made in 1711, which Desportes used here (see G. de Lastic and P. Jacky, op. cit., no. P 516). Other studies for the second painting identify Mite4 (see G. de Lastic and P. Jacky, op. cit., no. P 416).
Different variants of these compositions with dogs and pheasants are known, notably the version in the Musée de Marly5 and those in the Abbaye de Châalis6 in Ermenonville (see op. cit., no. P 622 and P 623).
The role of François Desportes’s workshop remains to be clarified, and we cannot exclude the possibility that it was involved in both of our signed and dated compositions. Of the two dates (1719 and 1730) that appear on the works, only that of 1719 seems coherent; the second date shows visible signs of retouching, and seems in any case to be too late.
The format of both works has been modified over the course of the centuries: the canvases were enlarged at the top, likely in response of the needs of an owner who wanted to integrate them into a decorative scheme different to that for which they were originally made. The very similar palette of one of the upper parts (the median section) may well be contemporary and added by the workshop of the artist himself.
In these previously unknown paintings we recognise Desportes’s delicate and precise touch in the still lifes, as well as his realistic treatment of animals. As a painter of hunting scenes, François Desportes became the originator of the art of animal painting, which he endeavoured to endow with the same qualities as the genre of portraiture.
We are grateful to Mr Pierre Jacky for confirming the attribution to Desportes on the basis of firsthand inspection. In his opinion the date of 1719 concurs largely with the dating of the paintings.
1. François Desportes, Portrait of the artist as a huntsman (197 x 163 cm), Musée du Louvre, Paris (inv. 3899).
2. François Desportes, Dog before a pheasant, Musée international de la Chasse, Gien (inv. D 53 31 21 ; S 92).
3. François Desportes, Pheasant, grey and red partridges, Musée de la chasse et de la nature, Paris (inv. S 78).
4. François Desportes, Mite, Musée de la chasse et de la nature, Paris (inv. S 110)
5. François Desportes, Dog before a red partridge and a pheasant, 1724, musée-Promenade de Marly-le-Roi Louveciennes, inv. 86.14.1.
6. François Desportes, Dog before a pheasant, Abbaye de Châalis, Ermenonville (inv. 256 et 257).