Fontainebleau restores the cartoons of Oudry’s Royal Hunts

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16/3/23 - Restorations - Fontainebleau, Musée national du château - "You will never be anything but a painter of dogs [1]", Nicolas de Largillière is said to have laughingly predicted to Jean-Baptiste Oudry, admiring his pupil’s gift for rendering the animal "with such remarkable truth and expression" in the portrait of a hunter. The master was only half right. First of all, because Oudry painted many dogs, but not just any dogs, since he painted real portraits of Misse and Turlu, Louis XV’s favourite dogs, but also because he portrayed the king’s cat, as well as a good number of exotic animals - the rhinoceros Clara for example - without forgetting the many animals of the French forests and the horses of the aristocracy that he portrayed in the famous Royal Hunts in particular. These nine compositions were woven at the Gobelins factory between 1733 and 1746. The cartoons of these tapestries kept at the Château de Fontainebleau are currently the subject of a vast restoration campaign (ill. 1 to 7), for which the museum seeks patrons.

1. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
Deer aux abois in the rocks of Franchard, forest of Fontainebleau, 1738
Oil on canvas - 367 x 661 cm
Fontainebleau, Musée national du château
Photo: bbsg
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An inveterate hunter, Louis XV multiplied the number of crews and packs in order to pursue stags, wolves, roe deer, fallow deer and wild boar. Oudry was introduced to him through his first squire, the Marquis de Beringhen. The first commission the king gave him was a trio of hunting scenes - wolf, fox, and roe deer - for Louis Henri de Bourbon for the Château de Chantilly. The painter then designed the New Hunts hanging woven in Beauvais in 1727, then between 1728 and 1730, represented Louis XV hunting deer in the forest of Saint-Germain for the anteroom of the Château de Marly.

2. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
Rendez-vous au carrefour du Puits du Roi, forêt de Compiègne,
ou Le Botté du Roi, 1735
(Avant restauration.)
Huile sur toile - 357 × 650 cm
Musée national du château de Fontainebleau
Photo : Château de Fontainebleau
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3. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
The Death of the Stag at the Ponds of Saint-Jean-aux-Bois
(Before restoration.)
Oil on canvas - 357 x 503 cm
Fontainebleau, Musée national du château
Photo: bbsg
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It was in 1733 that he was commissioned to produce the Royal Hunts, depicting the various episodes of hunting with hounds in the forests of Compiègne, Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain. This was probably Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s most ambitious project. Two weavings are known: a hanging made by the Monmerqué workshop and completed in 1746 was displayed in the Château de Compiègne; a second was woven by the Audran workshop and sold or offered to Don Philippe, infant of Spain and Duke of Parma, husband of Louise-Elisabeth de France, the king’s eldest daughter; it is now in the Pitti Palace.

4. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
Hunting of Louis XV. The King holding the bloodhound on a leash
at the "Solitary Well", Forest of Compiègne
, 1739
Oil on canvas - 359 x 181 cm
(Undergoing restoration.)
Fontainebleau, Musée national du château de Fontainebleau
Photo: bbsg
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As for the cartons, eight of them were deposited much later at the Château de Fontainebleau, during the reign of Louis-Philippe. More precisely, they were inserted in 1835 in the panelling of the Queen’s staircase, the salon, the bedroom and the study of the flat (ill. 5) which was occupied successively by the dukes of Aumale and Montpensier, sons of Louis Philippe, and then by the imperial prince, son of Napoleon III, and which was then called the "appartement des Chasses". The ninth carton, The Curée du cerf dans la forêt de Saint-Germain à la vue de l’abbaye de Poisse, was left in the reserves of the Musée du Louvre, its state of preservation not allowing it to be hung.
Three cartoons should be restored for the exhibition that the Château de Fontainebleau will devote in 2024 to Jean-Baptiste Oudry and the art of hunting. On this occasion, the Pitti Palace should lend some pieces of the second hanging in order to confront the tapestries with the paintings. The other six cartoons will be the subject of a second restoration campaign between 2024 and 2030.

5. View of the Queen’s Staircase with The Hunt of Louis XV before Compiègne
Fontainebleau, Musée national du château
Photo: Château de Fontainebleau
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These works are logically worn by their successive passages on the loom. They have also been rolled, and some have undergone transposition which has made them even more fragile. They have been pampered, dusted and re-fixed during previous restorations, undertaken without depositing them, notably on the occasion of the exhibitions "Oudry" at the Grand Palais in 1982, "Oudry’s Animals" at Fontainebleau in 2003, and finally "Louis XV at Fontainebleau" in 2016 (see article).

6. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
Le Botté du Roi (détail), 1735
Photo : bbsg
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This time, the cartoons will all be deposited and the restoration will be done on site for the larger formats, while one of them is currently at the C2RMF [2]. It was first discovered that fifteen centimetres of canvas were hidden in the panelling.
The treatment of all the works will enable them to be restored to their original state. First of all, the old restorations must be removed, as they have aged badly, have a dull appearance and extend beyond the original material. The many layers of varnish that have yellowed will be removed in order to restore the legibility of the compositions and the transparency and clarity of the palette. The cleaning has already made it possible to restore the whiteness of certain paintings. In addition, the paint layer, which has become brittle in places, is lifting and needs to be reattached, while the installation of the cartons on the wall has caused small pieces of rubble - nicely called "scruples" - to fall to the bottom of the canvases, causing deformations.

7. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
The painter portrayed himself in the Deer aux Abois dans les Rochers de Franchard, forêt de Fontainebleau, 1738
Photo: bbsg
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These compositions are teeming with details that will be visible again when they are restored to their former glory. The Rendez-vous au carrefour du Puits du Roi dans forêt de Compiègne, is also entitled Le Botté du roi: in the foreground stands Louis XV (ill. 6) who has just dismounted from his carriage drawn by six bay horses; he addresses the grand veneur while a valet makes him put on his boots to get into the saddle; he is surrounded by the first squire and the grand squire, while the piker holds back two white horses that are piaffe. In the background, two valets are looking after the pack and numerous riders are waiting at the crossroads for the hunt to begin. The painter thus produced a whole series of portraits. He also carefully described the different forests; the forest of Compiègne with its long, straight paths is clearly distinguishable from the more picturesque forest of Fontainebleau, which is more rugged with its large rocks between which the dogs pursue their prey. The more or less ruined villages in the landscape are identifiable, and Oudry not only gives his compositions a topographical dimension, but also reveals himself to be a great landscapist, playing with light and shadow. He worked from nature, studying animals in the menagerie of Versailles and in the kennels, and travelling through the forests to capture their characteristics. He also attended the king’s hunts and in fact represented himself on one of the cartoons, busy drawing (ill. 7).

In conclusion, it should be noted that the Nissim de Camondo Museum holds eight sketches painted in oil of these works and that Louis XVI had miniatures of these same compositions made on porcelain for Versailles.

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges


[1Louis Médard, preface to the Fables by La Fontaine illustrated by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, edition known as the Fermiers généraux: "Jean-Baptiste Oudry, painter and engraver, [...] was a pupil of the famous Largillière, who, seeing him one day painting his dog with such remarkable truth and expression in a portrait of a hunter, could not help but say to him, laughing: you will never be anything but a painter of dogs. This joke decided Oudry’s vocation"

[2Research and restoration centre of the museums of France.


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