Boilly at the Wallace Collection
Boilly at the Wallace Collection
Boilly’s conceptual interest in the melding of artistic
techniques and media is amply demonstrated in his
trompe l’oeil compositions, in which paint is seamlessly
made to evoke the look and texture of paper or crayon
or grisaille. It is equally evident that he prized his
practice of draughtsmanship on its own terms.31 His
highly finished, carefully planned drawings fetched high
prices on the art market and were engraved. He also
made compositional studies for paintings. For instance,
John Hallam published a compositional sketch made
by Boilly for Calvet de Lapalun, a pen and ink line
drawing for The Improvised Concert (Saint-Omer, Musée
de l’Hôtel Sandelin).32
However, the relationship between Boilly’s drawings
and paintings is frequently confused precisely because
so many of his sheets are highly finished and larger
than his paintings, implying that they cannot be
easily categorized as preparatory sheets. For instance,
The Dead Mouse may be seen in conjunction with two
related sheets, both of which feature the same elegantly
dressed mother and frightened child. In La Peur
Fig. 8 / Jacques-Louis David,
Psyche Abandoned, ca. 1795,
oil on canvas, 80 x 63 cm,
Private Collection.
Fig. 9 / Jacques-Louis David,
Study after Crouching Venus (f.
8r from Album David JacquesLouis-1, RF 4506, 13), drawing,
18.9 x 13.3 cm, Paris, Musée
du Louvre, Département des
arts graphiques.
Fig. 10 / Louis-Léopold Boilly,
La Peur enfantine, black chalk
and stumping, heightened
with white chalk and touches
of red chalk, 58.5 x 44.7 cm,
Private Collection.
His Psyche Abandoned is generally dated to ca. 1795,
making it too late to serve as a reference for Boilly.
However, at several reprises throughout his career,
David associated Psyche Abandoned with his Vestal (Private
Collection), a work that seems indisputably to have
been completed prior to 1789.26 It has thus been
suggested that David conceived both pictures prior to
the Revolution, finishing the Vestal and returning to the
figure of Psyche at a later period.27
David’s engagement with the formal aspects of this
composition may indeed predate the Revolution, since
he made a study after Crouching Venus (fig. 9) in a carnet
dated to his return to Rome (1784-1785) to work on
the Oath of the Horatii.28 Could Boilly have seen some
sort of untraced, early study for David’s desperate
heroine? His good relations with David in ca. 18081810 – when he requested and received permission to
study the painting universally known as Le Sacre or The
Coronation of the Emperor and Empress (Paris, Musée du
Louvre) – are well established.29 But there would have
been earlier opportunities for Boilly to cross paths with
the artist who, even in the final days of the ancien régime,
was widely acknowledged as the leader of the French
school. Both were averred and active members of
Paris’s Freemasonic milieu.30 If so, it would be entirely
in keeping with Boilly’s enterprising habit of citation
to have wittily referenced David’s crouching and wildeyed Psyche in his own representation of contemporary
enfantine, the pair is seen in a loosely rendered outdoor
setting (fig. 10). And in L’Effroi they are shown indoors
(fig 11).33 Should The Dead Mouse be considered a final
step in a traditional working process beginning with
these two drawings? Each appears to function as an
independent work of art in its own right. However, in
light of the fact that the mother and child travel from
one composition to the next, it is reasonable to look for
a certain logic governing their (re)appearance. What
follows is a proposal for an order behind the repetition
of this motif.
An infrared reflectogram of The Dead Mouse shows
extensive underdrawing throughout (fig. 12). This
drawing resembles the outlined sketch for The
Improvised Concert. Ruled lines delineate architectural
elements such as the window, and fine, lightly sketched
lines outline parts of the figures such as the young
boy’s back.34 Once Boilly drew in the placement for
fundamental elements directly atop the prepared white
surface, he seems to have augmented his underdrawing
with a broader, liquid medium applied with a brush.
Signs of this technique are particularly apparent
in the figures, where it adds a sense of contour and
Subsequently Boilly seems to have followed a fairly
straightforward order of operations. First, he painted in
the architectural background. Then he painted primary
subject matter – the figures and other compositional
elements such as the chair – into areas already left
in reserve. He made several final adjustments. For
instance, he painted a curtain across the chair. The cat
is also painted directly onto the background suggesting
that it was not part of the original plan. Moreover, as
the infrared reflectogram makes clear, he also changed
the position of the feline’s head as he worked.
The fact that the cat was a late addition implies that
the mouse – the source of the little boy’s fear – was also
conceived further into the process. And indeed, while
the arm and hand of the figure holding the mouse were
painted in an area of reserve, some of the fingers extend
over the background, suggesting that Boilly was still
working out the placement of the arm when he began.
Perhaps Boilly envisaged the original source of fright
to be the child who leans abruptly into the window to
the discomfort of his younger sibling. He may have
decided mid-course that this scenario was not sufficiently
convincing and chosen to add the mouse and cat.


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