Nicolas Lancret has often been regarded as a close imitator of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), but his paintings are imprinted with a distinctly personal stamp. Less steeped in fantasy and theater than those of his predecessor, Lancret's fêtes galantes seem to reflect contemporary society more directly. Although Lancret remained, like Watteau, a painter of genre scenes, his production encompassed subgenres that had not held much interest for the older artist, including conversation pieces, allegorical images, and scenes of children and adults playing games.
After a short period of training as an engraver, Lancret apprenticed to the obscure history painter Pierre Dulin (1669-1749), and shortly thereafter he enrolled in the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Only a few years later he left Dulin's studio to enter that of Claude Gillot (1673-1722), Watteau's former teacher, a decision that announced his future career as a genre painter and the abandonment of his aspirations to become a history painter. The period in which Lancret trained with Gillot cannot be established, yet it must have coincided with Watteau's acceptance into the Académie in 1712 as a painter of the fête galante. Lancret was never Watteau's pupil, but the friendship that resulted from their contact through Gillot inspired Lancret to absorb Watteau's innovations. In 1719, Lancret submitted as his morceau de reception for acceptance into the Académie a conversation galante (possibly the version in the Wallace Collection, London), a painting utterly imbued with Watteau. His stylistic indebtedness to Watteau survived the rupture of their friendship and the latter's death in 1721, yet it was not long before Lancret infused his sujets galants with his own stylistic idiom, replacing Watteau's shimmering surfaces with a bolder use of color. He exhibited several paintings at the Salon of 1725, none of which can be identified with certainty, but which included a dance in a landscape, a return after the hunt, and a representation of women bathing. The latter two were subjects to which Lancret, unlike Watteau, would frequently return. In the same year, he exhibited a portrait of the man who would later write his biography, Ballot de Sovot. Lancret painted his celebrated portraits of Mademoiselle Camargo, the exceptionally popular dancer at the Paris Opera, before the end of the 1720s (one of them is NGA 1937.1.89).
Lancret's first royal commission was for a representation of contemporary history, one of the few history paintings the artist produced in the course of his career. Although now lost, surviving documents indicate that this painting portrayed the conveyance of Maria Leszczynska's ladies-in-waiting in a cart of straw after the carriage transporting the entourage of the future queen of France became stuck in the mud on the road to Fontainebleau. The depiction of this amusing incident heralded two defining characteristics of Lancret's art: humor and anecdote. Another humorous work, Le Déjeuner de Jambon (Chantilly, Musée Condé), representing a group of giddy carousers and their well-behaved servants, was produced in 1735 for Louis XV's private dining room in Versailles. Humor and anecdote emerge again in the second half of the 1730's in Lancret's series The Times of Day (London, National Gallery). As in Le Déjeuner de Jambon, the first image in the series, Le Matin, exposes the improprieties of the aristocracy, scarcely veiled by the elegant surroundings and beautiful possessions so delicately rendered by Lancret's brush. Human folly is mocked in a group of paintings, many of which Lancret exhibited at the Salon of 1738, representing fables of La Fontaine.
Lancret's early death in 1743 did not halt the fervor with which several important European collectors sought his paintings. They included Ange Laurent de La Live de Jully (1725-1779), to whom Le Déjeuner de Jambon passed by 1756. The most significant of these collectors was not a Frenchman but Friedrich II, King of Prussia (Frederick the Great), who, at his pleasure palace Sanssouci, in Potsdam, exhibited twenty-six paintings by the artist. Lancret's paintings were also widely known through engraved reproductions from 1730 on.
[Frances Gage, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 278-279.]
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: 278-279.