I may have seen any number of Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s paintings or drawings but can’t be sure, since I would have walked on by. Too staid, too gloomy, overly dramatic—fleeting thoughts that probably crossed my mind while passing his depictions of animals either ready to attack or already dead. But today, here is Oudry because, yes, he painted a mouse.
And reading more about him I have to admit I find him not at all as dry or dark as his images seem to suggest. He exhibited his animal paintings at the Academy’s prestigious annual Paris Salon in a period in which history and mythology paintings were exalted, initially receiving the comment, une composition assez bizarre. This was France in the 1700s. Between 1737 and 1753, however, his animals dominated the Salon; he showed ‘some’ 180 paintings, even displaying a few of them repeatedly, from year to year, unheard of at the time. The rumor was that he might have audaciously been using the Salon to market his work. The scholar Hal Opperman noted, “No painter courted the public, through the vehicle of the Salon, more zealously.”
Although Oudry is often overshadowed by his contemporaries, Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard, he’s considered—along with Watteau—one of the founders of the Rococo movement, known for the light and floridness with which the artists infused their work. A surprise since ‘rococo’ is the last thing I see when I look at his paintings. In the early 1720s, he received a commission from one of the most powerful members of the royal household to decorate his country residence, which led to a commission to decorate the exterior panels of the royal carriages, which led to access to the royal stables, and to the royal kennels. He painted Misse and Turlu, the greyhounds of the king, as well as the whole pack of the king’s favorite hunting dogs, including Polydore, a pointer. It’s said that Louis the XV himself liked to watch the artist as he painted his dogs. Hard to imagine Oudry wasn’t bothered by the pair of royal eyes peering over his shoulder. Of course the king, at the time, was only fifteen years old.
The teenage monarch apparently liked what he saw; he wanted more paintings from the artist. Louis XV was obsessed with hunting and its rituals, and Oudry it seems was more than ready to oblige. He went on to paint, not always for the king, his piercingly violent and unsettling tableaux of the hunt and the hunted: a silenced wolf, a floundering heron, a dead deer. And it was his transformation of the hunt from ‘discredited feudal imagery into the lingua franca of civilized decoration’ that gave him the rococo designation.
But when Oudry was starting out—before he found himself in the presence of the boy-king, painting later the menagerie at Versailles, designing tapestries; before teaching at the royal Academy about the merit of keeping one’s brushes clean; before he was given lavish living quarters in the Louvre, a studio in the Tuileries; before he became chubby and wore a powdered wig—he first learned his craft from Nicolas de Largillière, an adherent of the Flemish school, Rubens and van Dyke in particular. In the northern European tradition, Oudry too painted still lifes, reminders of our brief time on earth, dead birds and a mouse.
 Quoted by Colin B. Bailey, “A Long Working Life, Considerable Research and Much Thought,” Oudry’s Painted Menagerie: Portraits of Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Mary G. Morton, Associate Curator, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007.
Sources: Ibid; Louvre.
(Image: Still Life of Dead Birds and a Mouse by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), 1712, Collection, Musée des Beaux-arts, Agen, France, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)