The County Museum of Art has added an extraordinarily well-painted hunting scene to its collection, thanks to the Ahmanson Foundation. "Dog Pointing Partridges in a Landscape," the foundation's latest gift, is a 1719 work by French master Alexandre-Francois Desportes, which goes on view today in the museum's gallery of 18th Century paintings.
The richly detailed scene depicts a black-and-white hound intensely eyeing two unsuspecting partridges behind a tree. From a glint of red in the dog's eye and the birds' finely variegated feathers to sparkling grapes hanging from a vine and delicate yellow flowers on a bush of English broom, the painting displays the skill that won Desportes the favor of Louis XIV and Louis XV.
"Our collection of 18th-Century pictures is dominated by erotic themes, portraits and religious paintings. This is completely different. It fills an important gap in the collection," said Philip Conisbee, curator of European painting and sculpture. "But more than that, it is a very beautiful painting and it's in marvelous condition."
Hunting pictures rank considerably lower than grand depictions of historical events or religious themes in the traditional hierarchy of artistic subjects, but they were probably more to the personal taste of the two French monarchs who sponsored Desportes' work, Conisbee said. Scenes of the chase, recounting favorite pastimes of kings and their courtiers, frequently decorated royal chateaux and hunting lodges.
Desportes (1661-1743) was an avid outdoorsman and student of nature who often rode with royal hunts. He began his career as a portrait painter but soon turned to still-lifes and landscapes that included hunting dogs and their prey. In 1702 he painted two of Louis XIV's hounds, which led to further commissions from the king and other aristocrats. Desportes exhibited his work at the Paris Salon from 1699 to 1742, but he was at the height of his power when LACMA's new acquisition was painted, Conisbee said.
"Dog Pointing Partridges in a Landscape" reveals an aspect of 18th-Century art history that has been forgotten in textbooks, the curator said. "It was not all Rococo froth, Boucher and Fragonard. There was a strong element of realism in painting already evident in the 18th Century." But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Desportes' work is his ability to combine technical brilliance and strong decorative qualities with naturalistic observation, he said.
The painting, which was purchased at an undisclosed price through a Paris dealer, has been in the family of Prince de Ligne in France since the 18th Century. Apparently it has been well treated. The only conservation work required was the addition of varnish to bring out the painting's depth, conservator Joseph Fronek said.
The gilded oak frame was another story. As a home to worms, the frame had to be fumigated, but that task was simplified by a new system developed at the Getty Conservation Institute. Instead of sending the frame out to be treated with potentially dangerous chemicals, LACMA conservators sealed the frame in a plastic envelope, removed the oxygen in the wood and replaced it with nitrogen, creating an inhospitable climate for vermin.
Conisbee, a specialist in French painting who has overseen many Ahmanson gifts to the museum during his five-year tenure, will leave LACMA on Sept. 30 to become curator of French painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Bringing a distinguished French picture to Los Angeles gives him particular pleasure, but the Desportes may not be his final acquisition. "I hope to have a parting shot," he said.