By the time Desportes painted the Déjeuner maigre ('The Fish Repast') in 1739, he had been the leading court painter in France of animals, hunts and opulent tabletop still lifes for almost forty years. Received into the Académie Royale in 1699 as an animalier, he quickly became a favorite painter to Louis XIV and Louis XV, admired and depended upon for his diverse abilities and technical proficiency. Within a few years, his many hunt scenes, trompe-l'oeil trophies, portraits of the king's hounds and studies of the exotic animals in the Ménagerie, were decorating the walls of the royal châteaux of Versailles, Marly, Meudon and Fontainebleau, as well as the hôtels particulier of the Parisian beau monde. Trained in the Flemish tradition of hunt painting by a pupil of Frans Snyders, he introduced the successful formulae of Snyders and Paul de Vos into French art in vast canvases such as the Deer Kill and The Wolf Hunt (Musée de La Chasse, Paris). At the same time, and again taking his lead from Flemish and Dutch precedents, he inspired a renaissance of still-life painting that would continue in France to the end of the century.
Desportes painted a number of pairs of still lifes which contrasted the relative austerity of the Déjeuner maigre ('The Fish Repast') with the heartier breakfast meal of the Déjeuner gras (or 'The Meat Repast'), and the present painting was no exception: it was originally matched with Déjeuner gras au melon entamé (dated 1738), and the two paintings remained together until at least 1917, when they were sold at auction in Paris. (The pendant was sold once again, at Christie's, London, 11 December 1981, lot 23, and is today in a private collection.) Another superb pair of breakfast still lifes, signed and dated 1729, was acquired directly from the artist by the Swedish diplomat, Count Carl Gustave Tessin, and is in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
In Desportes' impressive painting, the various ingredients that compose the Déjeuner maigre are arranged on a rough wooden buffet in what appears to be a stone-walled kitchen or pantry; included are a large basket of oysters, a small basket of peaches, a glass carafe with white wine, and a half-empty wine glass resting on a silver, footed tray of ovoid shape and recent manufacture. In the center of the table is a silver plate with opened oysters, a knife, a loaf of bread, and a beaded silver saltcellar; and on the right are a silver salver with figs, a bunch of radishes, and a cantaloupe that has been sliced open. Hardly a frugal breakfast, it is the absence of meat that defines it as 'maigre'. In its almost microscopic realism, naturalistic play of light and brilliant colors, the Déjeuner maigre reveals its Flemish antecedents, while its calm orderliness, limited range of objects and compositional reserve display an elegant, Gallic sensibility.
A superb oil study of the sliced melon, from several angles, including the one Desportes eventually chose for the finished painting, is on deposit in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans; it is one of the hundreds of oil sketches made from life that the artist's nephew sold to the Manufacture de Sèvres in 1785 (inv. S.171). A variant of the present composition, with weaknesses that suggest the intervention of Desportes' studio, is in a private collection (see Lastic & Jacky, no. P804). In it, the elements of the still life are repeated precisely from the present painting, with the addition of more pieces of silver on the right side of the buffet, and more elaborate wall decor with carved boiserie in the background.
Signature: Signed and dated 'Desportes 1739' (lower left)
G. de Lastic, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint et dessiné de François Desportes, Ecole de Louvre, 1969, no. 1631.
P. Jacky, François Desportes (1661-1743), Monographie et Catalogue Raisonné, 1999, IV, p. 801.
G. de Lastic and P. Jacky, Desportes, St-Remy-en-l'Eau, 2010, no. P803, p. 223.
PROPERTY FROM A MIDWEST COLLECTION
Anonymous sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 8 May 1897, lot 18.
M.L. Levy; (†), Galerie Georges Petit, 18-19 June 1917, lot 13 (3,600 francs).