Dr. Claus Virch,
from whom acquired in 1979
The fable illustrated here describes how an owl, too lazy to pursue mice on the wing, bites their legs off, but then keeps them, well fed, in the trunk of the tree that is his home, to dine on at his pleasure. Just as Lafontaine told his rather gruesome story in beautiful verses, so Oudry, very typically, gives no hint, in his charming and decorative image, of the sinister side of the tale he is illustrating, making his image all the more powerful, when contrasted with the text of the fable.
In 1752 Oudry sold the complete set of drawings to Montenault (see provenance), who announced their forthcoming publication, engaging Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger to produce copies of Oudry's freely drawn originals for the engravers. Appearing in four volumes between 1755 and 1759, the Montenault edition of La Fontaine is widely recognised as a monument of 18th-century French book illustration.
Around 1755-60, the original Oudry drawings were bound into two albums, the first of which has remained intact, in its original dark blue calf binding, labelled on the spine: DESSINS DES/FABLES DE LA/FONTAINE PAR/I.D. OUDRY/PREMIERE PARTIE.1 The second album, from which the Barnet drawing originates, was broken up after the Esmerian sale in 1973. Having spent more than two centuries in the safety of the bound album, this drawing is in pristine condition, the blue paper retaining all its vibrant original color. All the drawings in the series were also attached, presumably either by Oudry himself or by Montenault, to a distinctive, rich blue mount, which has not always survived intact, but here remains in perfect, original condition.
1. Sold, London, Sotheby's, 3 July 1996, lot 96
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