The picture presents a boisterous group of men gathered in a billiard room at the Café des Arts, a well-known establishment patronized by Parisian artists. Taunay was famed for his small-scale genre scenes, and this oil sketch on wood was most likely a modello for a larger painting on canvas (private collection, Paris). Both works were created about 1808, and Taunay displayed the full-scale painting in the Salon that year, when Louis Léopold Boilly presented a picture of a similar subject, A Billiard Game. The Metropolitan’s work was once paired with another modello by Taunay of nearly equal size, Concert at the Palais Royal.
The figures in the billiard room appear to be outsized in comparison to the architectural surroundings, and their vivid personalities are expressed through their gestures and colorful garments. In fact, critics sought to identify them when the picture was exhibited in Paris in 1874; it was suggested that David stands in the foreground in a red coat and wide-brimmed hat, while Girodet prepares to strike a billiard ball, and Gros offers a ball to another individual. Despite these intriguing remarks, their identities cannot be established. The clamorous activity surrounding the game lends a masculine air. The interior has the nonchalant ambience of a gentleman’s club room: a brass chandelier is suspended above the billiard table, hats and cloaks hang on the walls, and a small dog struts among the competitors.
Grey light floods the interior space through three windows on the side wall; one of the windows is set behind the archway and columns at the rear of the room. This Palladian motif is also seen in Taunay’s French Bazaar (location unknown). Above the doorway, there is a marble statue of the Roman goddess Victoria holding a small coin purse. This sculpture calls to mind the old adage that "to the victor go the spoils." It might also be a reminder, however, of the way billiards and other games encourage vanity and avarice, especially when wagers are on the line.
[Charles Howard 2012]
François-Alexandre-Charles, comte de Perregaux, Paris (until d. 1838; his estate sale, Paris, December 8, 1841, no. 55, as "La Partie de billard," on wood, 16 x 22 cm, for Fr 261); Monsieur L. de Saint-Vincent (until 1852; his estate sale, Hôtel des Ventes, Colin and Vallée, Paris, March 8–9, 1852, no. 85, as "Salle de billard. Joueurs et galerie," for Fr 229); Jules Burat (by 1860–1885; his estate sale, Chevallier and Féral, Paris, April 28–29, 1885, no. 172, as "Le Café des Arts," on wood, 16 x 22 cm); Monsieur E. H . . . (until 1951; his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, March 9, 1951, no. 56, for Fr 500,000 to Linsky); Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (1951–his d. 1980); The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, New York (1980–82)
Paris. Galerie Martinet. "Tableaux et dessins de l'école française, principalement du XVIIIe siècle, tirés de collections d'amateurs," 1860, no. 254 (as "Le Café des Arts," lent by M. Burat).
Paris. Palais de la Présidence du Corps Législatif. "Ouvrages de peinture exposés au profit de la colonisation de l'Algérie par les Alsaciens-Lorrains," opened April 23, 1874, no. 478 (as "Le Café des Arts," 17 x 24 cm, lent by M. Burat).
Vente de la précieuse collection de tableaux de feu M. le comte Perregaux. Ancienne galerie Le Brun, Paris. December 8, 1841, p. 83, no. 55, this picture, by Taunay, as "La partie de billard," on wood, 16 x 22 cm; annotated as sold for Fr 261.
W. Bürger [Théophile Thoré]. "Exposition de tableaux de l'école française ancienne tirés de collections d'amateurs." Gazette des beaux-arts 7 (September 15, 1860), pp. 356, 358.
Théodore Lejeune. Guide théorique et pratique de l'amateur de tableaux. Vol. 1, Paris, 1864, p. 389, as "La partie de billard" by Taunay in the L. de Saint-Vincent sale, where it fetched Fr 229; connects it with the picture later in the Burat collection.
Explication des ouvrages de peinture exposés au profit de la colonisation de l'Algérie par les Alsaciens-Lorrains. Exh. cat.Paris, 1874, p. 83, no. 478, record the dimensions as 17 x 24 cm and note that this café was frequented by artists; identify the man in the red cloak as David, the man who is preparing to play with his left hand as Girodet, and the man offering a ball as Gros.
Théodore Guédy. Nouveau dictionnaire des peintres anciens et contemporains. Paris, 1882, p. 116, lists Taunay's "La partie de billard" in the Perregaux sale as having sold for Fr 371.
Tableaux anciens des maîtres français du XVIIIe siècle . . . Galerie Georges Petit, Paris. April 28–29, 1885, p. 52, no. 172, describe lot 172 as "Le Café des Arts" by Taunay, on wood, 16 x 22 cm; observe that "ce précieux petit tableau" was celebrated for the interest of its subject and the refinement of its execution.
H. Mireur. Dictionnaire des ventes d'art. Vol. 7, Paris, 1912, p. 135, cites Taunay's "La partie de billard" in the Perregaux and Saint-Vincent sales and "Le café des arts" in the 1885 Burat sale.
Affonso d'Escragnolle Taunay. Nicolau Antonio Taunay: Documentos sobre a sua vida e sua obra. Rio de Janeiro, 1916, p. 86, lists as three separate entries the "Café des arts" in the Burat collection, the "Partie de billards" in the Perregaux sale, and the "Partie de billards" in the Saint-Vincent sale.
E. Bénézit. Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs. Vol. 8, Paris, 1955, p. 234.
Katharine Baetjer inThe Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1984, p. 361 (appendix).
Katharine Baetjer in "The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Addenda to the Catalogue." Metropolitan Museum Journal 21 (1986), pp. 161–63, no. A.3., ill., erroneously identifies this picture with the "Salle de billard" that Taunay exhibited in the Salon of 1808 and notes that another example of this rare subject, painted by Louis-Leopold Boilly, was exhibited as no. 53 (examples in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and in the Chrysler collection).
Claudine Lebrun Jouve. Nicolas-Antoine Taunay (1755–1830). Paris, 2003, pp. 72, 253–54, 266, no. P. 546, ill., identifies a larger picture of this subject in a private collection, Paris (52 x 70.6 cm, on canvas) as the one in the Salon of 1808, and ours as the modello, exhibited in Paris in 1860 and 1874.
Although the game of billiards was widely played from the seventeenth century, the subject as a genre theme was relatively rare. An early example is Chardin's Billiard Party in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, which probably dates from the 1720s.