JEAN-BAPTISTE OUDRY: Le peintre animalier

Although he had been elected to the Académie Royale, Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) avoided the higher genres of history and religious painting, establishing himself instead as the leading peintre animalier of the first half of the 18th century, counting Louis XV as his chief patron. Oudry’s degree of specialization was made possible by the great expansion of the art market in the 18th century, when members of the bourgeoisie joined the aristocracy in buying and collecting. The fact that Oudry, a painter of non-heroic, no historic pictures, received royal attention and patronage reflects the degree to which the monarchy had to a certain extent taken on the tastes of the bourgeoisie. This is no longer the world or Louis XIV and Le Brun.

The voluminous production of Oudry’s large workshop is teeming with fauna, including scenes of the royal hunt; images of exotic wild and domesticated animals; portraits of animals and pets owned by the king and his courtiers, allegorical works featuring animals and images of animals as menu items— game birds, rabbits, wild boar, and venison laid out alongside leeks, bread, earthenware cocottes and copper pots ready for cooking.

Royal patronage came in the form of the directorships of the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry manufactories. These large complex enterprises, which produced prestige, luxury goods for export were vital to the national economy, and a major source of income for the crown. Oudry not only ran both well, he provided the designs for many tapestries.

Many of the paintings bearing Oudry’s name were produced by studio assistants and there is a definite sense of art being created and sold by the square yard, with a purely decorative purpose in mind. His meticulous drawings, which served as models for paintings, show his real talents, combining empirical observation and suavity of line.

Oudry’s images of the behaviors, habitats, and interactions of animals participate in the taxonomic and descriptive natural science associated with the Enlightenment. His pictures of oddly-formed deer antlers, set against simple backgrounds and identified by documentary labels, are masterpieces of empirical observation, conceiving of painting as a means to advance knowledge as opposed to flattering patrons.

That said, Oudry flattered his royal patron plenty by using the conventions of formal portraiture to portray his well-bred hunting dogs at rest and at work, including Louis XV’s favorite hounds, the poised and dignified greyhounds, Misse and Turlu. Elsewhere, Oudry borrows from history painting to transform dogs chasing a deer into a elevated, heroic drama. He also overlays his accurately-depicted animal subjects with anecdote, sentiment and narrative borrowed from genre paintings.

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