(Grasse 1759 – Paris 1835)
Oil on panel
45 x 55 cm
Jean-Baptiste Mallet began his career in Toulon in the studio of Simon Julien, where, in all likelihood, he rubbed shoulders with Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard. He then completed his training in Paris with Pierre-Paul Prud’hon.
Engraver and painter, he was one of the principal representatives of genre painting of the Ancien Régime, along with Marguerite Gérard, Louis Léopold Boilly and Michel Garnier. At the very beginning he specialized in the painting of small gouaches of a meticulous facture and in refined panels charmingly depicting elegant society of the time. He exhibited at the Salon from 1791 to 1824, and was rewarded with medals in 1812 and 1817.
Works by the artist, such as The Happy Family, recently preempted for the Musée Cognacq-Jay, were praised by critics and prized by art lovers. Beginning with the Salon of 1798 where he exhibited Dutch Concert, Mallet became interested in the—then nascent— Troubadour Style, which would reach its apogee in the years 1815-1830, and, like Pierre Revoil, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard and the young Ingres, treated historic episodes in the manner of genre scenes.
Already in the middle of the 18th century, with Alexis Grimou or Jean Raoux, French artists fascinated by the personality of Rembrandt, are evidence of the vogue which Dutch painting enjoyed. In 1784 and in 1793, The Philosopher in Meditation and The Holy Family by Rembrandt entered into the collections of the “Muséum” (today the Musée du Louvre). These were two small-format works, similar to genre paintings, with carefully studied luminous effects. Numerous paintings by Gérard Dou, de Netscher, de Ter Borch present in Parisian collections would also influence painters who were charmed by the precision of their style.
The virtuosity of his treatment of fabrics, and satin in particular, like the dress of the letter reader at the center of our painting, and the multiplication of picturesque architectural details, like the lions supporting the chimney mantelpiece, are also typical of a style appreciated by the Empress Josephine and the Duchesse de Berry.
In our composition, we see a young woman elegantly dressed in the fashion of the Dutch Golden Age, reading a letter that has just been brought to her by a page. A servant leans over an elderly woman holding a jewelry box, while on the table covered with a rug, there is a silver ewer. The luxuriousness of the décor and the clothes meditative silence of the scene, where time seems to have stopped in anticipation of the news—happy or sad—which the letter is about to reveal.