This striking still-life painting was created by one of the greatest French artists of the genre, Alexandre-François Desportes (1661-1743). Desportes's career immediately precedes that of Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), whose still-life paintings and genre scenes are among the great strengths of the Gallery's collection of French paintings. Desportes Still Life with Dressed Game, Meat, and Fruit also complements the Gallery's ravishing portrait by Jean-Baptiste Oudry of the chevalier de Behringen, who holds aloft his hunt trophy – a partridge very much like those arrayed in Desportes's still life. While displaying these painters' virtuosic skill in rendering texture and color, these paintings also announce their nobility in referring to the traditional leisure pursuit of the landed gentry, the hunt.
Desportes began his career in the Flemish still-life tradition, having studied in Paris in the studio of a pupil of Frans Synders. A favorite of the French court during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, Desportes was also a member of the Royal Academy. Over the course of his career, he completed major commissions for the royal estates of Marly, Meudon, Compiègne, and Choisy as well as for the collection of the duc de Bourbon at Chantilly. Desportes frequently accompanied the king on hunting trips, carrying a small notebook in which he made on-site sketches of dead game. The king would later select elements of these sketches that Desportes would work up into finished paintings, often combining the representation of dead game with spectacular buffets and pieces of silver service, thereby creating the impression of food displayed in a dining room.
This painting is one such 'buffet' picture, containing exquisite examples of cutlery (the bone-handled knife placed on the edge of the wooden table), kitchenware (the copper pot under a basket of oranges), and fine service (the large platter holding the pheasants). These rich details, as well as the abundance of food represented, imply that the setting for the painting is a noble household. While working with such standard elements of the hunting still-life genre, the artist managed to create an unusual and compelling composition thanks to the arresting, almost surgical detail with which each aspect of the work was rendered. He turned unusual attention to such details as the individual encasings of sculpted lard enveloping the dressed pheasants displayed on a golden stand and the pimpled skin, webbed feet, and curving claws of the pheasants laid out on a neighboring white cloth. Desportes transformed his depiction of the rack of lamb and entrails hanging on hooks to dry into an interplay between the translucence of flesh and solidity of white bone. The solid, bulbous pears at the front of the painting – which seem to firmly situate the image within a northern aesthetic – and the luminous oranges in the background complete the ensemble.
The artist's careful delineation of contrasting (and potentially distasteful) subject matter forces the spectator to acknowledge the sheer artistic prowess with which this virtuoso – and highly original – tour de force self-consciously negotiates the uneasy relationship of beautiful and bizarre. The painting's simple period frame bears the name of the artist at the bottom in capital letters.
This exquisite painting is the first by Desportes to enter the Gallery's collection. Its acquisition was made possible by support from the Chester Dale Fund.
lower left: Desportes 1734.
(sale, Palais Galliera, Paris, 29 November 1973, no. 12bis). Paul-Louis Weiller [1893-1993], Paris and Geneva; (his estate sale, Hôtel Drouot by Gros & Delettrez, Paris, 5 April 2011, no. 29); (Stair Sainty Ltd., London); sold 27 February 2012 to NGA.
- Possibly Salon, Paris, 1738.
- Faré, Michel, and Fabrice Faré. La vie silencieuse en France : la nature morte au XVIIIe sie`cle. Fribourg, 1976: repro. 127.
- Lastic, Georges de, and Pierre Jacky. Desportes. 2 vols. Paris, 2010: 2:no. P756.