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Jean-François de Troy (Paris 1679-1752 Rome), ‘Portrait of a lady, three-quarter-length, in a golden dress’, signed and dated ‘DE T / 173..’ (lower right), oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 43¼ in. (129.9 x 109.8 cm). Estimate $150,000 – $250,000. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2015

Notes: Born into the third generation of a dynasty of painters originally from Toulouse, Jean-François de Troy was trained in Paris by his father, the distinguished portraitist, François de Troy (1645-1730). Wealthy and well-connected, De Troy was sent to Rome at his family’s expense in 1698, where he briefly attended the French Academy before leaving for Venice and Pisa. He remained in Italy for seven years, yet his art was only little affected by what he saw there. Within two years of his return to Paris in 1706, he was climbing the ranks of the Academy, no doubt assisted by his father, who had recently been appointed Director. Between 1710 and 1720, he produced mostly small-scale cabinet pictures of religious and mythological subjects. It was only after he received his first royal commission in 1724 (two overdoors for the bedroom of the hôtel de Grand Maître at Versailles) that De Troy produced a series of small cabinet pictures termed tableaux de modes, that were to become his most famous and enduring works. These exquisite interiors – includingThe Declaration of Love and The Garter (Wrightsman Collection, New York), The Preparations for the Ball (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) and, most famously, the so-called ‘Reading from Molière’ (private collection, Great Britain) – brilliantly chronicle an urbane and aristocratic society at leisure (to which the well-born artist had personal access), combining in a completely original way the seductive ambiguity of Watteau’s fêtes galantes with the meticulous depiction of daily life inspired by the works of 17-century Dutch master such as Ter Borch and Metsu.

Although De Troy devoted himself, principally, to history painting, eventually becoming Director of the French Academy in Rome, he worked in all the genres, including portraiture, which he practiced only occasionally but with masterly and original results, no doubt the beneficiary once again of his father’s training and influence. The present painting of an unknown woman playing a hurdy-gurdy was certainly created as a portrait, but it combines the elements of traditional portraiture with the opulent brocades, elegant setting and ambiguous emotional state found in genre paintings such as De Troy’s tableaux de modes. Indeed, as Christophe Léribault has observed, our sitter’s costume and coiffure and, notably, her head-covering, are nearly identical to those found on the woman seated on the far right of ‘The Reading from Moliére’, and the ‘transitional’ fauteuil in which she sits has close parallels in the same painting. Although the final digit in the date inscribed on the painting is now incomprehensible (it is signed and dated ‘173…’ on the chair), Léribault believes that, based on its style, it should be dated contemporaneously with ‘The Reading of Molière’, to 1730.

In the 17th-century, the hurdy-gurdy was a folk instrument with origins in Normandy that was played largely by rustic street musicians, beggars and Savoyards. However, around 1716, Lord Baton, the famous luthier at Versailles, began to convert old guitars into hurdy-gurdies, ornamenting them with ivory inlays and lengthening their necks to more closely resemble bass viols. Soon the instrument was much in vogue and “all the ladies wished to play the hurdy-gurdy…” (A. Terrasson, Dissertation historique sur la vielle, Paris, 1741). In addition to the present painting, fashionable men and women can be found with hurdy-gurdies in a number of portraits of the period by Raoux, Grimou and Santerre, among others.

Christie’s. OLD MASTER PAINTINGS PART I, 28 January 2015, New York, Rockefeller Plaza