Nicolas Lancret was one of the most important and appealing genre artists at work during the first half of the eighteenth century. His paintings were collected by financiers and noble families (including Louis XV of France and Frederick II of Prussia) across Europe during his lifetime, and his prints kept his popularity and influence alive during and well after his lifetime, in France and beyond. His work always showed the influence of the great master of Fête galante painting, Jean-Antoine Watteau, but Lancret quickly made the new genre his own, imbuing his work with the contemporary detail, brilliance of color, and thematic innovation that became his hallmarks. Nicolas Lancret was never Watteau’s student in the classic definition of the word, but absorbed Watteau’s art and themes wholeheartedly and then reinventing them for the next generation, instilling the fantastic genre with a new sense of reality, wit and monumentality.
Lancret was born in Paris in 1690 to Robert Lancret, a coachman, and Marie-Catherine Planterose, from a family of cobblers, and he never left Paris. Lancret’s earliest training (around 1703) was with a drawings master, to prepare to become an engraver. Changing his mind, he moved (around 1707) to an apprenticeship with Pierre Dulin (or d’Ulin, 1699-1748), a history painter, and thenceforth followed a path preparing a career in history painting. A lifelong and active member of the Academy, Lancret became a full member (reçu) in 1719 and was made Conseiller in 1735; he and François Lemoyne were students there together and close friends.
The first indication of a different direction for Nicolas Lancret came when he entered the studio of Claude Gillot, either as a pupil or – more likely, considering his age and modest financial circumstances – as an assistant. Perhaps he even met Watteau there. Inspired by Watteau’s example and certainly influenced by Gillot as well Lancret changed directions. Watteau’s impact on Lancret’s art was immediately apparent. Lancret’s only surviving 1719 reception piece for the Académie, Conversation galante (possibly P422) is a painting firmly in Watteau’s new manner, and Lancret remained primarily a genre painter for the remainder of his life.