Artist: Nicolas Antoine Taunay (French, Paris 1755–1830 Paris)
Date: ca. 1808
Medium: Oil on wood
Dimensions: 6 3/8 x 8 5/8 in. (16.2 x 21.9 cm)
Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
Accession Number: 1982.60.49
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]