Study of an elegant Lady and her maid
This charming oil sketch is related to a genre scene with four figures in seventeenth-century costume by Louis-Leopold Boilly, which was formerly in the Youssoupoff Collection, St. Petersburg (for additional information see S. Ernst, Youssoupovskaya Galerya Frantsuskaya Skola, 1924, pp. 204-5). Set in a palace interior, the Youssoupoff picture shows an alarmed man with a drawn sword on the left and a weeping woman on the right. Between them is a toppled chair, indicating that they have been surprised by the two women who leave the room from behind a screen, where they - the ladies - have been listening to an intimate conversation between the two lovers. The elegant lady is heavily veiled but her expression of sorrow and disdain is clear, while the maid turns and stares, pointing to the enraged man with a mocking smile on her lips. They are obviously an unforeseen intrusion from the past; hence the title of the picture, The Ghost. The two women in the present sketch correspond to the unwelcome visitors; in the final composition, the bottom part of the maid’s figure is partially hidden by the woman weeping in the chair.
The present sketch is characteristic of Boilly’s practice of working up highly finished figure studies in oil on either paper or canvas for important multi-figured genre scenes. A series of sketches for both A Group of Artists in Isabey’s Studio (1798) and The Sculptor’s Studio (1804) are in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, while the Louvre houses the study for the celebrated Unveiling of the “Tableau du Sacre” in the Mrs. Charles Wrightsman collection.
After studying in Douai between 1775 and 1779 and then at Arras as a young man, Boilly moved to Paris in 1785, where he spent the remainder of his life. In the 1780s and 1790s he painted modest cabinet pictures, often with erotic undertones, works for which Boilly was threatened with imprisonment during the French Revolution. These pictures, with their smooth, refined surfaces and engaging attention to details, show his admiration for the seventeenth-century Dutch masters. He exhibited at the Salon between 1791 and 1824 and received a gold medal at the Salon of 1804. In 1833, at a time when his popularity was declining, he was admitted to the Légion d’honneur and the Institut de France.