Born in Paris on March 17, 1686, Jean-Baptiste Oudry was the son of a minor painter and art dealer, Jacques Oudry (c. 1661-1720), and his wife, née Nicole Papillon. In 1706 his father was made director of the Académie de Saint-Luc, the old painters' guild that was the only serious competition to the more prestigious and influential Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Jacques Oudry taught his son the technical aspects of his art, and the youth attended drawing courses at the Académie de Saint-Luc and the Académie royale. In 1704 he received some training from Michel Serre (1658-1733), a cousin of the portraitist Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743).
In 1707, Oudry began a five-year apprenticeship with Rigaud's main competitor, Nicolas de Largillierre (1656-1746), under whose direction he copied works of the Flemish and Dutch schools of the seventeenth century. With Largillierre he refined his sense of color and his remarkable skills as a painter of still life and portraiture, both subject types in which his master had deservedly achieved enormous fame. In 1708, after completing as his reception piece a now-lost religious composition depicting Saint Jerome, Oudry was inducted into the Académie de Saint-Luc. Other religious paintings followed, as well as a long series of portraits, many of which were recorded in the drawings of his early two-volume Livre de raison (Département des Arts Graphiques, Musée du Louvre). In 1710, Oudry married Marie Marguerite Froissé, by whom he would have many children, including a son, Jacques Charles (1722/1723-1778), who also became a painter.
In 1719 Oudry was elected to membership in the Académie royale. From the start of his career, he was attracted to the painting of flora and fauna in the manner of the Dutch animalier painters Frans Snyders (1579-1657), Jan Fyt (1611-1661), Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-1660/1661), Melchior d'Hondecoeter (1636-1695), and Abraham Hondius (c. 1625-1691), and he soon became a congenial rival to the older Alexandre François Desportes (1661-1743), who specialized in the same genres. He proved his mettle in such sumptuous performances as the decorative series of the Four Elements (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum) of 1719-1721 and the pendants Dead Wolf and Dead Roe (London, Wallace Collection) of 1721. These masterpieces were followed by several large hunt pictures, the most notable of which are the Wolf Hunt (Ansbach, Ansbach Residenz) and the Stag Hunt (Stockholm, Royal Palace). As the Académie royale held no exhibitions between 1704 and 1737, for a time Oudry showed his works at the only public venue available to him, the Exposition de la jeunesse, which was held on the Place Dauphine on the feast of Corpus Christi.
The greatest boost to Oudry's official career was provided by his patron, Henri Camille, the chevalier de Beringhen (NGA 1994.14.1), who introduced the painter to the young Louis XV, and he was soon made painter in ordinary of the royal hunts and granted a studio and lodgings for himself and his family in the Tuileries palace. In 1728 the royal arts administration commissioned him to paint a huge canvas representing Louis XV Hunting Deer in the Forest of Saint-Germain (originally hung in the main pavilion at Marly and today in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse), which he completed in 1730. He depicts himself in the lower right corner of this composition, the first of his celebrations of the chasse à courre, the king's favorite physical activity. For the Château de Compiègne, the artist executed a series of overdoor "portraits" of royal hunting dogs (an example is Misse and Luttine, NGA 1994.53.1). Switching registers, he painted commedia dell'arte subjects, arabesque decorations in the manner of Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), and views of model farms that hark back to the bucolic landscapes of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).
Oudry's favor at court was such that in March 1726 he exhibited the contents of his studio in the Grands Appartements at Versailles. That year another of his patrons, the finance minister Louis Fagon (1680-1744), obtained for him the position of painter to the Beauvais tapestry works, whose director he became in 1734. During his tenure he completely overhauled the administration of the manufactory, imposing strict technical standards on the weavers, whom he compelled to adhere more strictly to the painted cartoons. In a stroke of genius he hired François Boucher (1703-1770) as principal designer at Beauvais. Oudry himself provided cartoons for several series of wall hangings, among them The New Hunts, Country Pleasures, The Comedies of Molière, and The Fables of La Fontaine. In 1733 he began designing for the Gobelins tapestry factory one of eighteenth-century France's greatest masterpieces of the decorative arts, the nine-panel series of the Royal Hunts (modelli in the Musée Camondo, Paris, and full-size painted cartoons in the Musée de Fontainebleau and the Musée du Louvre), which were woven only twice (Musées des domaines nationaux de Compiègne and Florence, Palazzo Pitti). As a reward the artist was appointed inspector of the Gobelins in 1748.
Oudry was made associate professor in the Académie royale in 1739 and full professor in 1743. From 1737 until 1753 he was a regular exhibitor at the Salon in the Palais du Louvre, where he and his family were provided lodgings in 1744. He could count among his international clientele the Margrave of Ansbach, Grand Duke Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1717-1785), and Sweden's ambassador to the court of France, Count Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770). To these patrons he sold some of the most important paintings he had retained in his studio, and for them he executed still lifes, game pieces, hunt scenes, depictions of exotic animals, and rural landscapes. Among the masterpieces of the artist's mature period are Mallards Attacked by a Bird of Prey (Schwerin, Staatliches Museum) of 1740, the Dead Crane (Schwerin, Staatliches Museum) of 1745, The Farm (Paris, Musée du Louvre) of 1750, Bitch Hound Nursing Her Pups (Paris, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature) of 1752, and the best known of his trompe l'oeil still lifes, The White Duck (collection of the Marquess of Cholmondeley, Houghton Hall, Norfolk; reported stolen in 1992) of 1753. The latter is a stylistic exercise in which the description of the textures and surfaces of the objects is a breathtaking tour de force.
A consummate draftsman, Oudry executed a considerable body of highly finished presentation drawings and preparatory sketches, many of them the result of his direct observation of nature. Between 1725 and 1735 he produced illustrations for two literary masterpieces of the reign of Louis XIV, Le Roman Comique by Paul Scarron (1610-1660) and Les Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695); a number of these are in the National Gallery of Art. He also drew many landscape studies, the best of which depict views of the abandoned park and gardens of the prince de Guise's estate at Arcueil.
Jean Baptiste Oudry died at Beauvais on April 30, 1755, after experiencing several apoplectic strokes.
[Joseph Baillio, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 350-351.]
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: 350-351.