This imposing still life consists of several everyday objects, depicted in a horizontally arranged composition. The picture is dominated by a large ‘brioche’ bread, placed in the upper left, with a flute-glass containing red wine behind it. In front of the bread, succulent white and red grapes with vine leaves are depicted (1), together with several pears, all laying on a stone plinth. At the right side of the composition we find dead game; the centre features several oysters. The care taken to meticulously render the materiality of the objects is matched by Huillliot’s typical search for abundance and monumentality. The impression of magnificence that the picture imparts is reinforced by the brightness of the colours. In keeping with realism, the artist's signature is ‘embroidered’ on the rim of the drapery.
Artist’s Biography (2)
Pierre Nicolas Huilliot was born in Paris in 1674, as the son of the still life painter Claude Huilliot (Paris, ca. 1632 - 1702), who were both members of a renowned Parisian painters' family. His maternal grandfather had worked for Louis XIV and Anne of Austria as ‘Maitre peintre ordinaire des Batiments du Roi’ in which capacity he had close contact with Simon Vouet (Paris, 1590 – 1649) and Eustache Le Sueur (Paris, 1617 - 1655). Pierre Nicolas’s father Claude Huilliot had worked with Jean Baptiste Monnoyer (Lille, 1636 - London, 1699) on the decoration of the chateaux at Versailles, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and Fontainebleau (3). It was within this rich tradition of the French Baroque that the young Huilliot learned to paint. After having received training from his father, he was an apprentice in the studio of Robert Levrac-Tournières (Caen, 1667 - 1752). Pierre Nicoals Huilliot entered the prestigious ‘Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture’ in Paris (4) in 1721 and was first mentioned in the notes of the academy on 30 August of that year for having presented a large painting of a buffet with flowers and fruits. Huilliot was received in December of 1722 as a painter of still lifes (‘nature morte’). He exhibited at the Salon of the academy continuously from 1737 to 1750. Throughout his career he specialized in still life paintings and interior painting and excelled in flower still lifes (5). His works were very popular and he executed numerous commissions for the French Royal family. In 1739, for instance, he was commissioned to decorate the ‘petit appartement de la reine’ at Versailles (6). Several of his works can still be found in the châteaux at Versailles, Trianon and Fontainebleau. Pierre Nicolas Huilliot died in Paris, on 20 December 1751.
Place within the artist’s oeuvre
Huilliot's paintings are typically large, sumptuous works, rich of colour and displaying a virtuosity in the depiction of texture. Flowers, fruit and urns figure prominently in his work, as do curtains, textiles and architectural backdrops. While ecstatically pleasing and decorative in their own right, Huilliot's paintings also mark an important moment in the history of French still life painting. They bridge the transition from the Baroque paintings under Louis XIV, which had more conventional arrangements and symbolic overtones, to the more decorative and whimsical paintings of the Rococo. This transition period is known as the Régence, referring to the time when King Louis XV was still a minor and the land was governed by a Regent, Philippe d'Orléans, the nephew of Louis XIV.
During the reign of Louis XIV, still life painting underwent an important evolution, from the ‘intimate’ style of Pieter van Boucle (possibly Antwerp, ca. 1610 – Paris, 1673) to the luxuriant and decorative. New approaches had already appeared elsewhere in Europe: Dutch still lifes had become opulent and now depicted luxurious objects instead of the humble household utensils so dear to the preceding period (7). Even while Dutch still lifes still had an embedded moral purpose, the sensual pleasures of the plenitude and luxury started to play an increasingly important role in Dutch still life paintings. The popularity of the still life genre spread from Holland to Flanders and Germany, and also to Spain and France. In Italy, especially in Naples and Rome, compositions became more animated, with dramatic chiaroscuro (8) and a broader execution, sometimes thick with impasto and coarsely textured.
In France, painters of still lifes were influenced by both the Northern and Southern schools, borrowing the hyper-realism and symbolism of the Netherlands and the space arrangements of Spain (9). By the eighteenth century, in many cases, the religious and allegorical connotations of still life paintings were abandoned and kitchen table paintings evolved into calculated depictions of various colours and forms, displaying everyday foods. The French aristocracy employed artists to execute paintings of bounteous and extravagant still life subjects that graced their dining table, without the embedded moralistic message of their Dutch predecessors. Yet the Rococo love of artifice strengthened the appreciation of hyper-realism, accumulating in an extreme popularity of trompe l'oeil (10) paintings. The increasing ostentation in princely residences and the creation of Gobelin tapestries help explain the enrichment of still lifes. Artists added military trophies, musical instruments, oriental rugs, and the heaviest gold-plate to the repertoire of objects depicted. This new tendency is illustrated by the reception of pieces at the academy. For example, in 1687 Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay (Caen, 1653 – Paris, 1715), presented a Golden Vase, Flowers, and Bust of Louis XIV (11), which associates the king´s bust with a gold-plated vase full of flowers sitting on a marble table. The ground is strewn with pieces of armour and with fruits cascading from a cornucopia, symbolizing the power and wealth of the kingdom. The composition is organized asymmetrically, facing a colonnade.
Most of Huilliot´s still life paintings continue in the tradition outlined above. He carefully renders the materiality of the depicted objects and searches for an overwhelming abundance and monumentality: fruits hang with careful negligence from an elaborate trivet or serve to break whatever might be too rigid in the organization of the composition, while the material of the objets d´art is represented with extreme precision and detail. The painter highlights the splendour of the marble, gold, and silver. The impression of magnificence that these pictures impart is reinforced by the gleam and brightness of the colours, as well as by the strong frontal lighting (12). Even though the majority of his still lifes relate to the above described genre, Huilloit also painted some still lifes comprising thematic objects, such as musical instruments (13).
The present painting differs significantly from Huilliot’s usual works. Even though this still life is certainly monumental and imposing, Huilliot reaches this monumentality without his typical employment of sumptuous luxury goods or vibrant colours. In fact, the applied palette of this composition consists of bright, yet remarkably sober colours, featuring mainly shades of blue, grey and brown. Though the composition is well-filled, displaying Huilliot’s characteristic abundance, it is not adorned with precious vessels or objects d’art , but constructed from rather plain, everyday items and placed against a monotone background. Most striking is the absence of affluent flowers, that usually dominate Huilliot’s compositions. This remarkable mixture of an abundant late-Baroque composition, built from ordinary objects, depicted in a sober, but very balanced pallet, results is a rare and remarkable still life panting of exceptional simplicity and grate pictorial harmony.
The work of Pierre Nicolas Huilliot is represented at the Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, United States of America; The Residenzgalerie, Salzburg, Austria; Le Musée Ingres, Montauban, France; The Musée national du château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France and The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham, United Kingdom.
(1) The bread, grapes and wine (and even the dead game) most likely do not symbolise the Holy Eucharist, as is common in Dutch still life paintings.
(2) This biography is principally based on: Brettell, R.R. [et.al.] (1995). Five hundred years of French art. San Antonio Museum of Art, p. 31; Faré, M. (1962). La nature morte en France. Vol I p. 354, Vol II, pp. 20-35; Démoris, R. & Ferran, F. (2001). La peinture en procès: l'invention de la critique d'art au siècle Des Lumières. Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, p. 396; Ostländer, E. (1983). Gemalte Plastik: Studien zur Rolle und Funktion der Skulptur in der französischen Malerei des 18. Jahrhunderts. Universität zu Köln, p. 141, p. 173; Schneider, N. (2003). Stil life. Taschen, p. 212; Scott, K. (1995). The rococo interior: decoration and social spaces in early eighteenth-century Paris. Yale University Press
(3) These three palaces were all Royal residences
(4) The ‘Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture’, located in Paris, founded in 1648. It was modelled on Italian examples, such as the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. Paris already had the Académie de Saint-Luc, comparable to the Guild of Saint Luke of the Low Lands. The purpose of this academy was to professionalize the artists working for the French court and give them a stamp of approval that artists of the St. Luke's guild did not have. In 1661, it came under the control of Jean-Baptiste Colbert who made the arts a main part in the glorification of Louis XIV. From 1683 onwards, it reached its greatest power under the directorship of Charles Le Brun with its hierarchy of members and strict system of education.
(5) The J. Paul Getty Museum journal. J. Paul Getty Museum, Volume 13, 1985
(6) The ‘petit appartement de la reine’ is a suite of rooms in the Palace of Versailles. These rooms, situated behind the ‘grand appartement de la reine’ were the private domain of the Queens of France. Under Queen Marie Leszczyńska (Trzebnica, 1703 - Versailles, 1768), the petit appartement underwent three distinct phases of modification: in 1728-1731; in 1737-1739 and in 1746-1748.
(7) Ebert-Schifferer, S. (1998), Still Life: A History. New York, p. 71
(8) In art chiaroscuro (Italian for ‘light-dark’) is characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects.
(9) Ebert-Schifferer, p. 229
(10) In art trompe l'oeil (French for 'deceive the eye') is a technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three dimensions.
(11) In the collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
(12) e.g. Still Life with Silver and Gold Vessels, Fruit, and Flowers, The Blaffer Foundation, Collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, United States of America, BF.1990.6; See: Shackelford, G.T.M. (1992). Masterpieces of baroque painting from the collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Museum of Fine Arts, p. 29
(13) e.g. Still Life of Musical Instruments, collection of the Residenzgalerie, Landessammlungen, Salzburg, Austria