Boilly at the Wallace Collection
Boilly at the Wallace Collection
Fig. 4 / Original stretchers
in Boilly portraits as follows:
Portrait of a Young Boy
Wearing the Décoration
du Lys (top left); Portrait of
Isaac Cox Barnet (top right);
Portrait of a Young Girl in a
Grey Shift (bottom left).
Fig. 5 / Cross-sections taken
by Ryder and analyzed by
Chaplin in reflected white
light at x200. The samples
were also examined under
UV light and FTIR analysis
was carried out to look at the
possible varnish layers.
The Sorrows of Love
French art treatises of the period uniformly recommend
a double ground of a red lower layer underneath
a white or grey second layer.15 It is thus likely that
standard-sized canvases were sold already prepared
according to these specifications. However, some artists
also appear to have made their own preparations,
particularly when they needed specific formats that were
not commercially available. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, for
instance, seems to have used self-prepared canvases for
his large-scale decorative ensembles in addition to preprimed supports. In some cases, he may have tailored
such supports to his own needs with the application of
imprimatura colour washes.16
Given the appearance of the preparations for The
Visit and The Sorrows of Love, it is worth wondering
Dark grey surface paint with
carbon black, lead white
and earth pigments
Lead white paint layer
By regularizing his portraits in this fashion, Boilly would
have been able to adhere to a clearly fixed budget while
meeting clients’ expectations as to the scale and look
of his works.13 Similarly, it is logical that he would have
opted to employ standardized supports in his earlier
commission for Calvet de Lapalun: this was a complex,
multi-work production in which standardization of
sizes would naturally have promoted a sense of visual
uniformity while streamlining costs for materials and
framing. Each of the Calvet de Lapalun paintings were
priced at about 300 francs plus twenty francs for the
frame.14 Hidden fees for labour – such as those for
the studio assistants who would historically take on the
work of cutting and stretching canvases – would also
have been eliminated in this manner.
The question of whether standard-sized canvases
were primed – and not simply cut and stretched – in
the colourman’s shop also bears consideration. Crosssectional analysis of The Visit and The Sorrows of Love
suggests that both canvases were prepared with a
reddish-orange lower ground containing lead white
and ochres in oil covered by a second, thinner layer
predominantly comprised of lead white paint (fig. 5).
Orange ground containing
lead white and ochres
The Visit Returned
Brown surface paint with
earth pigments and vermilion
Lead white paint layer
Orange ground containing
lead white and ochres
whether Boilly may not have played some role in
their confection, perhaps dictating instructions to his
suppliers. The priming is clearly intended to enhance
the final results. The white ground shining through the
paint surface lends a spot-lit luminosity to the scenes,
particularly in the more translucent passages. Moreover,
the relative thickness of the priming preparation in
comparison with the visible paint surface eliminates
the appearance of canvas weave and texture, creating
a smooth, flat working surface similar to a prepared
panel. Boilly thus used a surface intended to showcase
his technique, one that channels the refined precision
of the Dutch finschilders whose work he had ample
opportunity to study during his upbringing in northern
France. The background of The Visit is thinly painted
with smooth brown tones interposed with linear
architectural motifs. These sombre tones are contrasted
with the bright pastels used to depict the figures where
the application of creamy paint evokes a wide range
of fabrics and textures, from fur and silk satin to
transparent muslin, stiff taffeta, and lush velvet.
The use of a preparation evoking the surface of a panel
may hint at the importance Boilly attached to the
commission for Calvet de Lapalun. As a counterpoint,
The Dead Mouse, made some years later, appears to
have a slightly different lead white ground preparation,
one that has now resulted in the eruption of abundant
tiny craters probably caused by the formation of
lead soaps.17 While the only definite conclusion to be
derived from this observation is that the preparations
differ in some fashion, it is a fact that The Dead Mouse
does not quite approach the exquisite refinement of the
Calvet de Lapalun commissions.18
Boilly’s preparation may belie an awareness (whether on
the part of the preparing colourman or the artist himself)
of the artists dominating the art market. The soughtafter society portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
began to paint on wooden panels regularly following a
visit to Flanders in 1782, with the result that many of her
major works, including Madame de Perregaux (London, The
Wallace Collection), are painted on this support.19 Perhaps
even more relevant is the fact that Jean-Baptiste Greuze,
the most expensive artist of his day, also used panel with
regularity from the early 1780s onwards.20 At the same
time, Boilly’s version of a panel-like preparation betrays a
concern for expense. Panel was an expensive support; we
must admire the way in which this preparation managed
to recreate its effect, presumably at a fraction of the cost.


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