Anne Antoinette Desmoulins, born in Paris in 1743 married the actor and manager Jean-Baptiste Nicolet (1728-1796) in 1766. A member of his theatrical troupe from an early age, she took amorous parts and later character roles in both pantomimes and spoken plays. She retired in 1780 to manage his theater, which was known from 1772 as the Théâtre des grands danseurs du roi and later the Théâtre de la gaîté. Based on Madame Nicolet’s hair style, sober costume, and presumed age, she was probably painted by Greuze toward the end of the 1780s.
The sitter, Anne Antoinette Desmoulins, was born to a life of poverty on October 10, 1743, in the parish of Saint-Gervais in Paris, where her father worked as a day laborer. At twenty-two, in 1766, she married her companion of several years, Jean-Baptiste Nicolet (1728–1796), of whose troupe she is said to have been a member since its formation. Nicolet, the son of a puppeteer and dance master, began his career as a tightrope walker, directed a marionette theater, and then became an actor and manager. Having worked at the Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent fairs, he rented a hall in the boulevard du Temple in 1759. He opened the Théâtre de Nicolet in 1763 and in 1772 with increasing success was invited to perform for the court and was authorized to change the name of his theater and that of the company to the Théâtre des grand danseurs du roi. Madame Nicolet performed amorous parts at first and later became a character actress. She and her husband had four children, born in 1763, 1764, 1767, and 1774. She retired in 1780 to manage a troupe that is said to have numbered thirty actors, twenty musicians, and sixty dancers.
Greuze depicts an established modern woman of the middle classes. She wears a black satin dress and a starched gauze cap on her graying hair and gazes out in the most cheerful and direct way at the viewer. Her plump hands rest on an open book (the artist has not bothered to indicate the type) and beside her are volumes appropriate to the time and place, one by the comic playwright Molière (1622–1673) and another by the contemporary Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). The table and chair, which may belong to the artist rather than to the sitter, are stylish and up to date. The solidity of the figure is amplified by the airy space around her.
[Katharine Baetjer 2012]
Inscription: Inscribed (on books): OEUVRE / DE / MOLIERE / TOME / III; OEUVRE / DE / ROUSSEAU (The Work[s] of Molière, volume 3; The Work[s] of Rousseau) Removed from back of picture (nineteenth-century handwritten inscription in ink on paper label): Anne Antoinette Desmoulins / née le 6 8bre [raised and small, for October] 1743 / epouse de jean Baptiste Nicolet / decedée le 8 janvier 1817
[Guerand (or Guerard) et Fils, Paris, until 1924; sold to Wildenstein]; [Wildenstein, Paris, 1924; sold to Balsan]; Colonel and Mrs. Jacques Balsan, Paris and New York (1924–55)
Theodore Rousseau Jr. "New Accessions of Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 14 (April 1956), pp. 198, 201 (ill.).
James Thompson. "Jean-Baptiste Greuze." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47 (Winter 1989/90), pp. 41–43, fig. 38 (color), dates the painting in the revolutionary period.
The frame is from Paris and dates to about 1730–35 (see Additional Images, figs. 1–3). This very fine and unaltered swept-sided frame is delicately carved and made of oak. The mitred corners are secured with tapered splines. Under the bronze paint the surface is water gilded with a red bole on skillfully recut gesso. The sight edge ornament is formed by a chain with hollow cabochon. A fillet divides the paneled cove which rises to the reeded top edge which is wrapped with ribbon ornament. Corners with shell cartouche and feather centers are flanked by acanthus leaf volutes. The hollow sides fall to a plain back edge.
[Timothy Newbery with Cynthia Moyer 2016; further information on this frame can be found in the Department of European Paintings files]