Louis XV’s Painter of Royal Hunts and Canines
Few artists impel me across Europe to see a single work. Certainly not my subject’s French rococo contemporaries — Watteau, Fragonard, or Boucher—whose romping court ladies and pampered lapdogs characterize Baroque’s last frivolous fling under Louis XV (1710-1774) and his style-setting mistress, Madame de Pompadour. But I’ll go anywhere to see a monumental hunt scene or game-bag still life by the painter, engraver, and book illustrator, Jean-Baptise Oudry (1686-1755).
At least on canvas, court pursuits during Louis’s reign turned from Mars to Venus; courtesans replaced goddesses, and flowers had no thorns. Although Oudry produced his share of such works, he also followed in the footsteps of the older Alexandre-François Desportes (1661-1743), who’d painted the hunts and hounds of Louis XV’s great-grandfather, Louis XIV.
Disciplined and prolific, Oudry produced some 1,000 oil paintings, 3,000 drawings, and 13 children during his 45-year career; and as both financial and art director of royal tapestry manufacturers Gobelins and Beauvais, he produced detailed, full-sized colored designs (or “cartoons”) for works such as the nine-panel Royal Hunts of Louis XV.
Although Oudry dedicated only a fraction of his oeuvre to hunting and dogs, the significance of his glorious tributes to the royal sport was great, because ownership of land and the right to hunt it formed the very foundation of the French Crown. Even for a king, Louis XV was hunt-crazy, with different royal dog packs for hunting stag, boar, and fox. Oudry even painted the 12 panels of Louis’s open carriage with hunt scenes.
Although Oudry was one of the most successful and productive artists of his time, he is absent from any fine-art history labeled “concise,” primarily because many of his works were inserts into the decorative carved and gilded panels typical of 18 th-century royal residences. For example, his captivating portraits of the young king’s favorite bitches—Blanche, Petite Fille, Charlotte, and Lise—were painted as over-doors for the King’s private appartement at Compiègne, his favorite hunting grounds whose royal forests date back to the reign of Charlemagne. In addition, Oudry’s hand is noticeably absent from some works completed by his studio assistants; and some motifs, such as the distinctive head and stance in Blanche Pointing a Pheasant, were repeated in other “Setter Pointing . . .” works in castles in England and Germany.
Yet Oudry’s artistic greatness is ably demonstrated by his huge and complex masterpieces of Louis XV’s hunt scenes and in arresting animal portraits such as Indian Blackbuck and Bitch Hound Nursing Her Pups, painted in several versions in the last years of his life. Here, he translated direct observation of nature into the thrill of hunting dogs and prey flying through the forest in the ardor of the chase, of the individual characters of beloved chiennes, or the pure physical beauty of the hunt’s bounty.
His hunt scenes usually comprise a dozen identifiable figures and several packs of excited hunting dogs, all set within a recognizable and topographically accurate landscape. Oudry uses abundant details to establish each plane of action within such paintings’ profound depth of field. Or he uses a diagonal stream of light pouring through the window casement to both structure a work and to communicate the human-like spirituality of canine maternity, a controversial idea at a time when rationalist thinkers like Descartes maintained that animals had no souls.
Although he experimented with different genres, Oudry showed an early talent for painting fur and feathers in his 1712 still lifes. H is skill at figure painting and (leaden) allegory qualified him adequately as an “historical” artist to be admitted into the Académie Royale in 1719.
By 1723, he’d been given his own studio, and later his own quarters, in the Tuileries. Three years later, he was asked to bring the entire contents of his atelier—26 paintings in all—for a private showing to the 16-year-old king, his 23-year-old Queen Consort Maria Leszczynska, and their entourage in his “apartment” in Versailles.
Oudry was then ordered to follow the royal hunts, highly organized spectacles with as many as 24 hunt captains, 780 grooms, and 400 to 900 dogs in a single outing. He quickly received commissions to decorate the King’s offices and banquet halls with b loodthirsty packs taking down wolf, wild boar, and red stag. In the strongly composed Roe Hunt, the terrified deer and snarling dogs leap lyrically across the canvas, epitomizing the fervor of the chase; his charming portraits of the King’s English greyhounds, Misse, Turlu, and Luttine, their names in gilt capital letters, convey the high-strung personalities of this nervous breed even within a park-like setting.
Recalling the innovative Desportes, whose place Oudry usurped when the King paid him the honor of watching him paint, he sometimes filled an entire canvas with his sensitive portrait of a dog like the pointer Polydore, whose flanks are clearly branded VR, for vénerie royale. Although there was no obvious hateful competition between the two oft-compared artists (Desportes is considered more savage in the Flemish tradition), Oudry has been described as an “updated Desportes” for the way he captured the individualism and human qualities of dogs.
The 1730 Louis XV Hunting Stag in the Forest of Saint-Germain is perhaps the most important painting of Oudry’s early years, for it launched his international career, with purchases and commissions for the Ansbach Residenz in Bavaria and the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, home to the most important Oudry collection in the world today; the King of Denmark, whose collection was destroyed by fire in 1794; and the King of Sweden via his ambassador and royal art dealer to France, Carol Gustaf Tessin, to whom Oudry gave his favorite dog portrait: the dashing dachshund Pähr.
When the Salon du Louvre essentially abandoned its annual exhibition between 1704 and 1737, Oudry turned to his talents to producing full-sized designs or “cartoons” for the royal tapestry manufacturers, Gobelins and Beauvais, in the final flourishing of this underestimated art before it became forever passé, which brought him wealth and prestige. When the Salon started again, the enterprising artist showed an average of 12, and up to 26 major works each year, confident he could sell them from the floor.
Oudry was appointed full professor at the Académie Royale in 1743 (the same year Desportes died), but his students complained he was aloof and uninterested in their development. Still, he presented important technical lectures, including painting white subjects on white backgrounds, such as his superb 1753 The White Duck.