Louis-Léopold Boilly was the most important French genre painter in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. His career spanned the last years of the French monarchy, the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, the Restauration and the July monarchy. He became the brilliant chronicler of French society in a period of radical change and was also one of the great portrait painters of his period, in particular in the first half of his career. Throughout his career, he also worked as a still-life painter who explored astonishing trompe-l’œil effects.
Boilly was born in La Bassée near Lille in 1761. Nothing is known about his training. After a short stay in Douai, he from 1779 worked in Arras as a portrait painter. In 1785, he moved to Paris where he spent the rest of his life. In 1788, he received his first important commission, a series of genre paintings for the Avignon noble Calvet de Lapalun (cf. P473 and P479). From that moment, genre painting became Boilly’s highly successful specialty. Boilly used the opening of the Salon to artist outside the Academy by the Revolutionary government and exhibited for the first time in 1791. In 1794, at the height of the Terreur, he was denounced by the painter Jean-Baptiste Wicar as an artist close to the spirit of the Ancien Régime and was saved by the fall of Robespierre. In 1798, he presented ‘The Studio of the Painter Isabey’ (Paris, Louvre) at the Salon, one of his most important group portraits. In 1808, he exhibited his masterwork as a genre painter, ‘A Game of Billiard’ (St Petersburg, Hermitage). In the following decades, he became particularly interested in new forms of middle-class street life and public entertainment in Paris, phenomena that became subjects of his major paintings. Boilly died in Paris in 1845 after a long career that was highly successful until the painter gradually became unfashionable with the changes of taste from the late 1820s. The sale of his collection in 1829 demonstrates that he owned an important collection, mainly of contemporary French and seventeenth-century Dutch works