François Hubert Drouais (French, Paris 1727–1775 Paris)
Oil on canvas
Oval, 28 x 23 in. (71.1 x 58.4 cm)
Gift of Mrs. William M. Haupt, from the collection of Mrs. James B. Haggin, 1965
Not on view
Since the seventeenth century, old playing cards and incomplete sets had been given to children for their amusement. A boy building a house of cards, which is symbolic of the frailties and uncertainties of life, had been depicted on several occasions by an important painter of the previous generation, Jean Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), whose work must have been Drouais's source of inspiration. Here the child, short in stature and with stubby fingers, is dressed as an adult in a wide felt hat and a miniature coat whose large buttons demonstrate how small he is. Looking outward in an ingratiating sort of way, he seems to seek attention.
In his own time, Drouais was thought to be good at painting children, and as alien as the style of this picture may be to contemporary taste, it is the sort of work that was very popular in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Two versions of the subject changed hands at high prices: this one, which had belonged to the Countess of Carnarvon, in 1925, and in the following year another, from the Bischoffsheim collection, which is signed and dated 1766 and is one of a pair. The Bischoffsheim painting is likely to be the first and most important version. Its pendant shows a little girl teasing a cat with a soap bubble adhered to a bubble pipe. An elaborately carved, gilded, and upholstered footstool serves as an accessory in both.
[Katharine Baetjer 2011]
Inscription: Inscribed (right, on playing card): CHA . . .
Baron Alfred Charles de Rothschild, London and Halton (until d. 1918); his daughter, Almina, Countess of Carnarvon (1918–25; her sale, Christie's, London, May 22, 1925, no. 69, for £1,050.0.0, to Smith [Wildenstein]); [Wildenstein, London and New York, 1925–26; sold to Haggin]; Mrs. James B. Haggin, New York (1926–d. 1965); her sister, Mrs. William M. Haupt, New York (1965)
Fort Worth Art Center. "Spectrum: A Cross Section from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," March 8–April 12, 1970, unnumbered cat.
Dorit Hempelmann inJean Siméon Chardin, 1699–1779: Werk, Herkunft, Wirkung. Exh. cat., Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. Karlsruhe, 1999, p. 258, no. 104, ill., finds the child here doll-like and coquettish in comparison to those of Chardin, who never gaze directly at the viewer; observes that our picture cannot be considered a portrait, and, with a likely pendant of a Little Girl Blowing Bubbles, was clearly an allegory suggesting the ephemeral nature of life and happiness.
Two works by Drouais, The House of Cards and Blowing Bubbles, were included in the estate sale of H. L. Bischoffsheim, London, held at Christie's, London, May 7, 1926, nos. 30 and 31, ill., but auctioned as one lot for the high price of £13,650. Number 30 is an oval canvas, signed and dated "Drouais le fils 1766," measuring 28 by 23 1/2 in. (71.1 x 59.7 cm). The boy's costume is described as a yellow coat with white frills and blue sash and a felt hat with blue and white ribbons. Number 31, an oval of the same size, is signed and dated "Drouais 1767." The girl is said to wear a blue dress and a black hat tied with a white ribbon. The buyer, listed as Smith, was Wildenstein.
Presumably these are the pictures that were engraved by Marie Louise Adélaïde Boizot (b. 1744). See Marcel Roux, Inventaire du fonds français, vol. 3, Graveurs du dix-huitième siècle, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1934, p. 125, nos. 8, 9. Her black chalk drawings for the engravings were sold with the collection of M***, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 23, 1899, no. 22.
It is likely, though not absolutely certain, that the Boy Building a House of Cards that was on the London art market in 2001 is the Bischoffsheim picture. Certainly the palette is the same. The pendant may belong to a member of the Rothschild family.