Jacques Laurent Agasse (1767-1849): An Investigation of His Painting Practice and an Overview of His Career

By David, Jessica | British Art Journal, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Jacques Laurent Agasse (1767-1849): An Investigation of His Painting Practice and an Overview of His Career


David, Jessica, British Art Journal


Studies of Flowers was completed by Jacques Laurent Agasse (1767-1849) in 1848, during the summer before his death at age 82 (Pl 1). The energetic assemblage of flora, executed with the painterly self-assurance of an experienced hand, is a striking if not representative work of the academically trained animal painter. When Studies of Flowers was examined in autumn 2008, in preparation for restoration and subsequent display in the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) exhibit 'Dalou in England', a host of questions arose about the painting's execution, intention and authorship. The impasto, sculptural working of each flower in pure strokes of high-key pigments shares ostensibly little with the traditionally composed and conservatively executed scenes of sport and country life, the staple of Agasse's artistic output.

Given the painting's unexpectedly expressive execution, striking palette and obscure early provenance, its restoration offered a timely opportunity for conducting a technical investigation of the paint layer, including pigment identification and a study of the paint stratigraphy. The questions tendered by Studies of Flowers were not limited to technical aspects of its media but applied on a more basic level. Where does it fit among Agasse's other paintings, can the artist's hand be identified through the subject matter and brusque execution and, furthermore, what prompted the then elderly painter of equestrian themes to create this exuberant study of scattered flowers in probably one sitting? In an effort to answer these questions, the 18 other Agasse paintings at the YCBA were examined with special attention paid to the four other oil studies, Study of a Grey Horse (1800), Studies of a Fox, a Barn Owl, a Peahen and the Head of a Young Man (1810-20), Study of a Fox (1810-20) and Studies of Summer Flowers (1848).

The investigation and restoration of Studies of Flowers was not prompted by concerns of authorship, and nor was that a principal focus. None the less, the attribution of Agasse's paintings has a history of posing complications, particularly where his many oil studies are concerned. (1) A good number of Agasse's finished pictures were left unsigned and even fewer of his studies were monogrammed or recorded in his record book (an informal monthly account of his studio progress from 1800-49). (2) Pictures omitted from this testament form a shifting ground skirting Agasse's established body of work, an itinerate group alternatively attributed to Agasse's contemporaries such as his long-time neighbour and fellow animal painter, James Ward (1769-1859) or 'the circle of.' In addition to the 19 paintings attributed to Agasse at the YCBA there are, for example, three more that have been de-attributed since their accession, one of which is another study of cut flowers laid upon a monochrome background. The objective in studying Agasse's painting materials and techniques in the broader context of his 50-year career in England (the YCBA holds works ranging from 1800-1848) was to establish a pattern of methodology among his painting to which Studies of Flowers could be compared and potentially placed. Additionally, the existing scholarship on Agasse has not been focused on his painting practice and it was hoped that this study might elucidate that aspect of his artistic identity. The evidence of Agasse's studio practice and preferred painting materials amassed through technical examination of the 19 paintings, primary texts and archival documentation is presented below with conclusions drawn about the position of Studies of Flowers in his oeuvre. Considering the fairly low profile of the artist, however, it may be helpful to review what is known of Agasse's career in England which proved helpful in analyzing the products of his studio.

A brief account of Agasse's training and progress to England

Agasse occupies a modest, if not distinctly underrated, position in the history of British painting considering that, for the 20 years following George Stubb's (1724-1806) death, he was ranked among Britain's premier painters of sporting themes. …

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