PORTRAIT OF A LADY AS FLORA - BY PHILIPPE MERCIER (BERLIN 1689/91-1760 LONDON)

‘Flora descends, to dress the expecting earth, Awake the germs, and call the buds to birth Bid each hybernacle its cell unfold, And open silken leaves, and eyes of gold!’

Flora, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806)

Painted during the first half of the eighteenth century, this particularly theatrical painting is likely to depict a Lady in the guise of Flora, goddess of flowers and bringer of spring. It was painted during the 1740s by Philippe Mercier, one of the few painters to bring the fashionable rococo style of the continent to Britain. Born the son of Huguenot weavers working in Berlin, Philippe trained with the French born Antoine Pesne who came to the Prussian capital in 1710. After spending several years in Berlin, then a key seat of patronage associated with the rococo style, Mercier travelled widely through Italy and France before arriving in London bearing recommendations from the Court of Hannover around the year 1716.

This portrait is testament to the particularly vibrant colouring that Mercier had imported into British painting. Infused with the gaiety of the rococo, whose palette was markedly more vivid than the previous generation’s, this picture is a riot of colour. This is particularly evident in the costume of the young lady, whose red dress trimmed with white lace and golden frills is set against a rich blue cloak. Furthermore, the detailed depiction of flowers gathered in a hand held garland further enriches the scene with pinks, whites, yellows and purples. Such bold colouring goes much further than the likes of painters like Watteau ever would, of whom Mercier was a devoted follower and copyist.

The striking botanical attributes found in the painting all point to the allegorical associations of the aforementioned Flora, whose mythological associations were widely celebrated by artists from the Italian Renaissance onwards. Perhaps the most famous of these include depictions by the likes of Titian and Rembrandt. Mercier here, however, has revelled in the opportunity to paint a subject which demands the use of floral colours. It is possible that the young lady’s dress takes inspiration from a contemporary flower seller, denoted by distinctive netted hairpiece which features in several eighteenth century illustrations of this ‘street character’. The highly theatrical nature of this portrait begs the question as to whether this was intended to depict a known sitter at all. If not, then would place this painting in the category of the so-called ‘fancy picture’, whose purpose was to create an image for the purpose of pleasure alone. The lyrical detail of the young woman holding a carnation to her nose, a flower described as being a traditional attribute of betrothal and representing the sense of smell, is indicative of the picture’s rich symbolic evocations.

Despite this proposition, the richness of the lace and grand classical capital seem to point towards elevating the sitter in the manner often employed in portraiture. We are left in no doubt that the dignity of this Lady, and the associations of women as guardians of fertility and beauty, is here being celebrated in paint.

Mercier used such allegorical characters or ‘fancy’ pictures at various points during his career. He tackled a great variety of subjects, including the elements, seasons and senses. The popularity of these pictures, which benefitted the artist’s fame greatly, was due to the success he had in transforming these pictures into print form. As in the case of the picture in question, women often form the focal points of such pictures with an emphasis of contemporary women sometimes undertaking household tasks including sewing. Commenting on his influence on British Art, art historians Ingamells and Raine wrote that Mercier “was never instructing - only entertaining, and in this spirit of domestic, affecting sentimentality he was a pioneer.”

The artist’s production of such pictures gathered pace during the 1740s, having his estranged Royal patrons and London for the North of England residing principally around the City of York. Amongst his paintings produced there included a canvas of a young lady with bellows in the collection of the Dumfries Museum, which is believed to represent ‘Fire’. Another in the same museum depicting a female gardener has been similarly identified as ‘Earth’.

In contrast to the chiaroscuro effects that Mercier often employed for such subjects, this painting celebrates the use of colour in bright vivid light. Continuing on the floral theme, the artist’s rendering of a more fashionably dressed Lady with Roses in Felbrigg Hall, National Trust, has been identified as ‘Spring’. It has not been possible to establish whether this painting might have belonged to a lost set of such subject matter. A large and rare surviving set of his pictures, identified as the five senses, is in the Yale Centre for British Art.

Mercier’s fancy pictures contributed greatly to the popularity of the fancy picture produced by the next generation of painters. This included the likes of Henry Robert Morland, and later even the likes of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. In contrast the frivolity of Mercier’s rococo, painters like Reynolds would eventually turn his fancy pictures towards a more academic and sophisticated approach. Yet, Mercier’s important contribution to British painting in between Kneller and Reynolds is one that should never be overlooked by any museum or serious collector.

This painting is offered in a high quality hand carved reproduction frame by Tanous.

Provenance: Sold (anonymously), Christie’s, London, 21 June 1974, lot 41. (As Philippe Mercier)

Canvas: 31.5" x 39.5" / 80cm x 100cm. Frame: 38.5" x 46.5" / 98cm x 118cm. 

Internal Ref: 00082

Higher resolution images on request. 
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