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  • Animal Performance in Oudry's Illustrations to the Fables of La Fontaine
  • Sarah R. Cohen (bio)

How does a painter who specializes in the realistic depiction of nature portray animals talking in French? This was the task that Jean-Baptiste Oudry set for himself when, beginning in the 1720s, he began an extensive project of illustrating the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. In addition to several groups of paintings that depict some of the best known fables, he produced two hundred and seventy-six drawings, all in black ink and white gouache on sheets of blue paper, which were eventually published in the 1750s in a luxury edition of La Fontaine's Fables.1 Oudry's paintings and drawings present the fables as discrete pictorial scenes enacted by a range of animals large and small, including dogs, wolves, foxes, hedgehogs, rodents, raptors, sparrows, crows, pigeons, herons, parrots, a variety of fowl, insects, spiders, oysters, snakes, donkeys, horses, deer, wild and domestic cats, bears, gazelles, pigs, sheep, goats, monkeys, humans, and gods, as well as a couple of diseases, a few representatives of the vegetable realm, and occasional inanimate objects. The entire "chain of being," a concept much invoked in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century philosophy, found its way into the panoply of life that populates both the texts of La Fontaine's fables and Oudry's imaginative renditions of them.2 Although a number of his fable illustrations focus exclusively upon human action (with the occasional participation of gods and goddesses), many more featured [End Page 35] animal dramas, which must have been the aspect of the fables that most attracted Oudry, an animal specialist.

Hal Opperman, whose publications on Oudry have provided the foundation for all subsequent studies of the artist, has identified the many venues, both high and middling, through which Oudry's fable illustrations became known in his era.3 At the outset the artist appears to have used La Fontaine's best-known fables as witty pretexts for decorative ensembles, as in two oil-and-lacquer scenes of wolves scheming their way into the innocent world of sheep, perhaps made to ornament a carriage.4 He subsequently executed a series of fable paintings for the queen's apartments at Versailles; although this series does not survive, a second series made for the rooms of the Dauphin, which he also exhibited in the Salon of 1747, gives us an idea of the decorative setting of these works through their elegantly shaped borders (figs. 1, 2).5 He also composed a number of single paintings such as the monumental portrayal of Le Lion et le moucheron, a work that he offered to the Prince of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1739 and eventually sold to the King of Sweden in 1747 (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum).6 In these works Oudry used the techniques of a history painter to fashion independent scenes enacted by naturalistic, yet subtly dramatic animal performers.

Oudry probably intended from the start to have engravings produced from his extensive series of drawings, which he executed between 1729 and 1734 (see figs. 3, 4, 5, 6). But he also used the drawings as models for paintings and for large, multi-fable cartoons that he produced for the Beauvais tapestry works, whose directorship he assumed in 1734. These in turn served as a basis for smaller cartoons that were used on tapestries for sofas, chairs, multi-paneled screens, and wall hangings. Much repeated and copied, these domestic tapestries spread Oudry's fable images to a wider audience, even before they were produced as engravings.7

In 1750 Oudry sold the whole group of his drawings to the collector Charles-Philippe de Monthenault d'Egly, who in turn employed a team of engravers under the direction of Charles-Nicolas Cochin to execute engravings from them (figs. 7, 8, 9).8 According to the editor, Charles-Antoine Jombert, Oudry's drawings were too rough to serve as direct models for engravings, so Cochin re-drew all of them, scrupulously following Oudry's compositions, but also hardening and somewhat dampening the animal action. The four-volume work that resulted was released between 1755 and 1760.9 Including a frontispiece that Oudry designed for the...


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