Philip Mercier

A Music Party

c.1737–40

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1026 x 1270 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1967
Reference
T00922

Summary

This is one of several pictures by Mercier of small musical assemblies. In the centre a young woman dressed in white plays a small harpsichord. A man, seated, playing a violoncello, a standing youth with a violin, and two other males, presumably singers, provide accompaniment. In the lower right foreground a seated male dressed in red raises his left arm, an indication perhaps that he is the director of the consort. Behind him, seated, are two ladies and a courting couple. The classical setting, with fluted pilasters, and a rounded arch, is one that Mercier uses in other musical assemblies and is drawn principally from the artist's imagination rather than any specific location.

Mercier came to London from France in 1716, working initially as a picture dealer as well as a painter. During the 1720s he used his intimate knowledge of the fêtes galantes of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and his familiarity with Dutch seventeenth-century domestic portraiture to introduce a new type of small-scale domestic group portrait into England, which became known as the 'conversation piece'. In these pictures families were viewed quite literally conversing, or partaking in some form of communal leisure activity such as playing cards, drawing or making music.

From the late 1720s until the mid-1730s Mercier enjoyed the patronage of Frederick Prince of Wales (1707-51), for whom he painted several musical conversations. Prince Frederick was, himself, a keen amateur musician. Following his sudden dismissal by the Prince in 1736 Mercier left London for Northampton and then York, where he worked from 1739. At this time Mercier set about introducing another new genre to England, which the engraver George Vertue (1684-1756) described in his diary as 'pieces of some figures of conversation as big as the life conceited plaisant Fancies & habits. Mixt modes really well done - and much approved off' (quoted in Einberg and Egerton 1988, p.176). These character studies of individuals and small groups, painted from models rather than identifiable portrait sitters, are known collectively as 'fancy pictures', of which the present is a typical example. A curious feature present in a number of Mercier's fancy pictures, including the present work, is the presence of a reverse signature 'Reicrem', which, has been explained as a signal of the artist's intention to make a new start following his rejection by the Royal court.

Further reading:

John Ingamells and Robert Raines, 'A Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings and Etchings of Philip Mercier', The Walpole Society 1976-1978, vol. 46, pp.4, 60, no.256 (as 'Music Party III')
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth. British Painters born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery 1988, pp.176-7, no. 135, reproduced in colour

Martin Postle
March 2001

Display caption

After losing his post as painter to Frederick Prince of Wales in 1736, Mercier painted fewer portraits and turned to producing large decorative pictures such as this. Called 'fancies', they depicted musical assemblies, sets of figures emblematic of the senses or the seasons, or sentimental domestic scenes. Mercier's French training brought lightness and elegance to such subjects and prints made after them sold well, bringing the painter a good income. It is not known if this picture was part of a larger set, but its size and low view point suggest that it was meant to hang high, perhaps as an overdoor.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

T00922 A Music Party c. 1737–40

Oil on canvas 1025×1270 (40 3/8×50)
Inscribed ‘Reicrem [‘Mercier’ in reverse]. fecit’ b.c.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1967
PROVENANCE ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's 7 July 1965 (74) bt M. Bernard, from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED York and Kenwood 1969 (Addenda, 73, repr.)
LITERATURE Ingamells & Raines 1978, pp.6, 60, no.256 (as ‘Music Party III’)

Mercier suffered a considerable reversal of his fortunes during 1736. He had been Principal Portrait Painter to the Prince of Wales since 9 January 1729, with a guarantee of £200 worth of work per annum (plus various honoraria), but was replaced by John Ellys as the Prince's painter on 7 October 1736. Vertue, writing in ‘173 6/7’, noted that after his dismissal Mercier ‘seemed to retire into the country’ (this retirement may have been to Northamptonshire for a year), but had ‘lately’ returned to London, where he not only began once more to ‘commence portrait painting’ but also ‘has painted several pieces of some figures of conversation as big as the life conceited plaisant Fancies & habits. Mixt modes really well done - and much approvd off’ (Vertue III, p.82). Although Mercier had already painted such ‘fancy pictures’ while in the Prince's service, he probably turned increasingly to them in re-establishing his practice. Ingamells and Raines (1978, p.4) note that ‘on some he used a reversed signature, Reicrem ... presumably to mark his determination to start again’. Since it seems reasonable to assume that a signature in this reversed form would have been used on works painted after Mercier's return from retirement (and probable that that retirement lasted for a year), a rather later date than Ingamells and Raines's ‘c. 1736’ is here suggested for T00922.

Quite apart from the significance of its reversed signature, T00922 seems to be more freely painted and therefore almost certainly later in date than two similar subjects which Ingamells and Raines (1978) catalogue as ‘Music Party I’, c. 1725, and ‘Music Party II’, ?1725–30 (p.60, no.254, repr. pl.lc, and no.255).


Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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