Jean-Baptiste Huet: Le plaisir de la nature, an exhibition at the Musée Cognacq-Jay in Paris, paid tribute to the captivating talent of the eighteenth-century painter, engraver and designer. Amazingly, this is the first monographic exhibition of Jean-Baptiste Huet’s works, an artist who excelled in producing pastoral scenes and sympathetic depictions of the animal world. Although his works were well received at the Paris Salon in the late eighteenth century, the artist has remained in relative obscurity until now. The exhibition at the Musée Cognacq-Jay set out to re-establish Huet’s place amongst the great eighteenth-century artists.
Born in Paris in 1745, Jean-Baptiste Huet descended from a family of artists who had a considerable influence on his early career. He apprenticed with the celebrated animal painter Charles Dagomer, and in 1764 he entered the studio of Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, a former student of the renowned François Boucher. Subject to such influences, Huet went on to develop a style which was both naturalistic and elegant. In 1769 he was admitted to the Académie Royale and continued to exhibit his work regularly at the Paris Salon up until 1789. It was during the later years of his career when he was invited by Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf, founder of the royal manufacture of Jouy-en-Josas, to produce designs for printed textile patterns. We know little more about the artist than this simple biography; Huet’s obscurity has been preserved because he deliberately gave up public orders in favour of private commissions, and his account archives are few and far between. It is therefore the careful examination of his paintings and engravings that allows us a glimpse into his rich artistic profile.
With over 72 works of art, the exhibition was divided into three thematic sections. Each room reflected a stage in Huet’s artistic development: from a focus on the natural world, to romantic pastoral scenes and ending with Huet’s contribution to the decorative arts in his designs for the Toiles de Jouy fabric produced by the textile manufacturer Oberkampf. Documenting the variety of Huet’s art in this manner enabled us to see the wide range of techniques and materials that he employed over the course of his career, from oil on canvas through to ink and charcoal.
Upon entry into the exhibition, one was immediately introduced to Huet’s most alluring works, his representations of nature. The works in this section represented a variety of natural subjects, including local animals such as chickens and dogs, as well as more exotic species. A collection of Huet’s botanical drawings was also displayed in a small sub-section. The real centrepiece of this section though, and arguably the entire exhibition, was Huet’s Dog Attacking Geese (1768-1769), an oil on canvas with which he was received into the Académie Royale in 1769. The painting is the first in a series of animal combat scenes in the natural world for which Huet was renowned. Huet’s depictions of animal combat are at once dramatic and intimate, highlighting the sheer terror of prey in the face of violence; it is his particular ability of capturing the tension between the prey’s fright and maternal instinct of protecting their young that make these scenes so striking.
After such vivid animal scenes, we were led to the heart of the exhibition where we found Huet’s pastoral works. Here we were presented with a series of idealized images of amorous exchanges, strolls through the countryside, and the daily occupations of country folk. The romantic depiction of a shepherdess and her flock in Bergère assise près d’un arbre avec son troupeau de moutons et un chien (1770) was a particularly welcome relief from the frenzy of Dog Attacking Geese in the previous gallery. With her back to the viewer and gazing into the distance, this solitary figure in charcoal instils an element of mystery and rural charm. The solidity of the charcoal is beautifully highlighted by white chalk, arousing an atmosphere of intimacy. The scenes of this gallery reflect the vogue for all things romantic and pastoral during the 1770s and 1780s, and Huet was no exception when it came to engaging with the Enlightenment ideals of rural simplicity and happiness. His pastoral visions capture the serenity and harmony associated with rural life during this period, and provided a calming juxtaposition to the tense animal combat scenes of the first gallery.
The final gallery brought us to Huet’s contribution to the decorative arts where we were introduced to his commissions for the Beauvais and Jouy manufactories, for whom he produced designs for printed fabrics. It is here that we can see Huet’s enthusiasm for ornament and design come to life. Huet’s engagement with designs for printed fabrics enabled him to express his creativity in new and innovative ways; it is said that he turned to the decorative arts as an alternative outlet for his imagination after several repeated failures in his attempts at history painting. From 1783 until his death in 1811, Huet produced numerous motifs for Jouy, and designs such as L’Escarpolette (1783-1789) were produced for the Toiles de Jouy. The composition of L’Escarpolette is complex; the central motif of a young woman on a swing is flanked on each side by two half-dressed women holding garlands of vegetation from which emerge on one side the fox and the crow, and on the other the cock and the fox, allusions to the La Fontaine fables. These are surrounded by floral and musical motifs, as well as pastoral motifs such as a shepherds and shepherdesses. Although complex and numerous, the harmony of the motifs makes L’Escarpolette one of Huet’s most elegant designs.
Huet’s works are a stunning example of the graceful and seductive nature of the rococo movement in France and the Musée Cognacq-Jay provided the perfect intimate setting for showcasing his masterpieces. Against the backdrop of the eighteenth-century museum nestled in the heart of the Marais district in Paris, Huet’s beauty of nature came to life in this expertly curated exhibition.
Curated by Benjamin Couilleaux, Jean-Baptiste Huet: Le Plaisir de la Nature was at the Musée Cognacq-Jay from 6th February to 5th June 2016.