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.
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