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The Monkey Painter

Jean-Baptiste Deshays

(1729 - 1765) | 974.4

Date : 18th century | Medium : Oil on canvas

The highly original subject matter of this painting – a monkey at work painting its model – is a reference to a Flemish tradition that was adopted in France by Watteau and Chardin, mainly in the 18th century. The figure of the monkey imitates its fellow painters and is used to make fun of those artists of little talent apart from the ability to create revenue for the studio.

Between 1740 and 1750 the conflict between the various schools of painting became increasingly violent and the stricter discipline imposed by the Académie Royale meant there was a danger that pupils would increasingly be nothing more than just good pupils. Criticisms flew among the various adversaries: the Ecole des Protégés du Roy, the Maîtrise and the independent painters. One of the criticisms voiced at the time was that it was not possible to study how to paint the female form, let alone female nudes, and certain painters at the Académie even tried to paint the female anatomy based on male models!

This no doubt explains the success of such monkeying around at the time and the reason for portraying this strange, muscular – indeed, almost deformed – female nude. But why is this the case for the model in this painting but not on the canvas - where it is very indistinct? Perhaps the painter of this picture is making fun of himself? The position of the nude is familiar from Jacob van Loo and Carle van Loo (director of the Ecole des Elèves Protégés du Roy) and from Chardin – who always kept his distance from the schools – with the position of the monkey painter mirroring that of the latter's famous painting in the Louvre. So this painter is perhaps also a member of the Académie, close to the Van Loos (and their Ecole des Elèves Protégés du Roy) and to Chardin. The painting is also reminiscent of the expansive style of Boucher and Carle van Loo in its finish – apart from the caricature of the woman from behind. Jean-Baptiste Deshays trained under Boucher before becoming a pupil at the Ecole des Elèves Protégés du Roy under Carle Van Loo. He was then sent to the Rome Academy during the 1740s.