Born in Berlin to Huguenot parents, Catel gained broad exposure to French art when, between 1798 and 1800, he studied at the École des beaux-arts, Paris. He returned to Paris in 1807–11 and then moved to Italy, dividing his time between Rome and Naples. Catel’s cosmopolitanism—from Paris he produced illustrations for Goethe and in Rome he was a colleague of Bertel Thorvaldsen and Joseph Anton Koch—belies the obscurity into which he fell after his death. This is primarily because his output consisted largely of exquisitely rendered, cabinet-size genre and landscape paintings, which were shown in his studio or in exhibitions in Rome, where they were acquired by Grand Tourists, into whose homes they eventually disappeared. That is the likely background of this unsigned painting, which was sold as the work of an anonymous Austrian artist (perhaps reflecting its early provenance) when it appeared at auction in 1976, and recognized by Whitney as a work by Catel.
By the time the painting was executed, about 1820–25, visitors from north of the Alps had become accustomed to romanticize Italian peasants as picturesque counterparts of their relatively heroic forebears in antiquity—untouched by the changes that had overtaken the rest of Europe in the era of Enlightenment and revolution. The stability of the architecture and the distant landscape, its bounty on display in the still life with vegetables at lower left, serve as a classic setting for this family, whose immediate bonds and more distant connection to antiquity combine to evoke the classical allegory of the Ages of Man. The subject of a child’s first steps is thought to have entered the canon of modern genre painting at the Salon of 1796, when Jacques Sablet exhibited what has been credited as the first Italianized treatment of theme at the Paris Salon as Le Premier Pas de l’enfance (Municipio, Forlì; see Anne Van de Sant in Les frères Sablet (1775–1815): peintures, dessins, gravures, exh. cat., Musées départementaux de Loire-Atlantique, Nantes, and elsewhere, Rome, 1985, pp. 59–60, no. 19; and see Régis Michel, in Aux armes et aux arts! Les arts et la Révolution 1789–1799, Paris, 1988, pp. 68–71, fig. 55). At the Salon of 1808, François Gérard had exhibited a major work, The Three Ages of Man, whose landscape setting culminates in Vesuvius. Catel must have seen the painting in Paris and he likely saw it again in Naples, where it was owned first by Queen Caroline Murat (by 1810; until 1815) and then by Leopold, Prince of Salerno (now Musée Condé, Chantilly).
There is a related pen and ink drawing by Catel, A Baby Walking from Its Mother to Its Father, with a Woman Spinning Thread at Right, which includes four of the five figures present in the Metropolitan painting (Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München; album of sketches, folio 31 recto; see Stolzenburg 2007, fig. 41). Another treatment of the subject was sold at Villa Grisebach, Berlin, May 30, 2012, no. 133 (as Die Heimkehr des Bauern von der Hasenjagd, about 1823–25?).
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013]