Unknown Netherlandish artist and Nicolas Lancret, A Young Woman in a Kitchen, c. 1720-25
This kitchen interior is the work of two artists that were probably not even contemporaries. Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743) has painted the figure of a seated woman in a striped dress into an existing painting of a rustic kitchen. The interior is close to the style of the artist Willem Kalf (1619-1693) who lived and worked in Paris for several years around 1640, but an attribution of the interior to Kalf himself has been doubted. The figure of the young woman, however, is definitely a work by Nicolas Lancret who, in the spell of Antoine Watteau, became – from the late 1710s, one of the leading painters of genre scenes in France.
The addition of a figure by an important painter to an existing painting might seem surprising to us today. Since the beginnings of modern art, we tend to believe that great paintings are the work by only one person and an expression of a very individual vision. This belief is contrary to the practice around most of the great painters where several artists would work under the supervision of the master. In Rubens workshop, for example, specialists for landscape, animals or fruit were brought in in addition to studio assistants and apprentices to contribute their skills to more complex works.
This painting would even go beyond this practice, as Lancret here added to an already existing painting. Even this practice – far from our ideas of respect towards an Old Master – was common in the eighteenth century for several reasons. Lancret as a fully trained figure painter would have been able to add the woman to a scene whereas a still-life or interior painter might not have had the same skills. A more modern figure might have been seen as an improvement or update of the work. But even more important was the eighteenth-century’s deep-seated interest in comparison and rivalry. Lancret was here measuring up to the highly appreciated art of the seventeenth century, adding a contemporary touch to it and also ‘improving’ the work from a much revered period. The share of the different painters was known to contemporaries, and numerous examples were recorded in inventories and sale catalogues with the names of two artists.
In this particular case, the X-ray reveals the degree of Lancret’s intervention:He added the seated woman to an empty chair and largely painted over the chair and the still-life on the small table to the right. A small dog was originally examining some food on the seat of the chair but was painted out when the female figure was added. Because in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this practice was no longer understood, the figures by important later artists like Watteau and Lancret were often removed from earlier paintings. A Young Woman in a Kitchen is a rare survivor of this once common practice that was enjoyed by collectors and connoisseurs.
Monday 7 and Monday 28 July at 1pm with Dr Christoph Vogtherr, in the Small Drawing Room.
Georges Wildenstein, Lancret, Paris 1924, p. 104-106.
John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection. Catalogue of Pictures III: French before 1815, London 1989, p. 219-220.