Taunay was the son of Pierre Antoine Henri Taunay, a painter for the porcelain
factory at Sèvres and begun his apprenticeship at the age of thirteen with François
Bernard Lépicié. He subsequently studied with Nicolas Guy Brenet and Francesco
Casanova. He was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture in 1784. He was
very highly regarded by his fellow painters and it is said that Fragonard bought
Taunay's first painting.
Taunay liked to work outdoors and his neoclassical landscapes certainly show a
convincing freshness that can only come from painting 'en plein air'. In 1776 he
travelled to Switzerland with Jean-Louis Demarne, making a great number of studies
from nature and on his immediate return to Paris he exhibited at the 1777 Salon de
Jeunesse. His Swiss sojourn gave his landscapes a dramatic backdrop in which to
accomodate his minutely detailed and bustling figures.
From 1784 until 1787 he was in Rome studying at the French Academy thanks to
sponsorship from a number of his peers and this visit was to prove invaluable. In
1805, now back in Paris, he was one of those chosen to depict the events
surrounding Napoleon's campaign in Germany. Following Napoleon's exile, Taunay
joined the artistic mission to Brazil in 1816 as a guest of the Portugese King John VI,
who, exiled to Brazil, wanted to create an Academy of Arts and introduce
Neoclassical painting to Rio de Janeiro. The landscape and atmosphere of Brazil was
to have the same affect on Taunay as the landscape of Switzerland and his pictures
gained a Brazilian richness as a result. However, he grew frustrated with delays in
the creation of the Academy and with the appointment of the director and returned
to Paris in 1821. His three sons Adrien-Aimé, Félix-Emile and Thomas-Marie-
Hippolyte remained in Brazil and left their own artistic legacy. Even today Taunay is
considered by some to be a Brazilian painter.
He was finally made a Légion d'Honneur ion 1824 and remains a key figure in the
French Neoclassical tradition as well as its founding member in Brazil.
Note: There are three extant versions of this painting. One was at Sotheby's in 1989
(22nd November, lot 433) which was the painting exhibited at the Salon in 1796. The
second smaller version (the same size as our painting) from the Leroux collection is
now in the Staatlisches Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe. The 19th Century art critic, Philippe
Burty commented that it was the "plus joli tableau de ce maître". and that the figures
were painted with "infiniment d'esprit". Claudine Lebrun Jouve postulates that our
version (previously unrecorded) may have been the one that Taunay kept for
himself in his studio. Perhaps borne out by the fact that these other two versions are
signed and on panel, whereas ours is on canvas.
The subject of the painting was not uncommon by French painters and scenes such
as this were common practice as the result of a death. They were usually held on the
spur of the moment with little forewarning and without a catalogue and often in
front of the house of the deceased.
Taunay seems to have chosen a generic townscape (perhaps more Roman than
Parisian) for the location of his auction but depicts the characters at these events
with a sharp eye. From the apparent vendor (the seated woman fanning herself) to
the various amateurs who crowd round the objects and to the auctioneer himself,
each is imbued with their very own sense of character. There is no doubt that the
smaller scale version has considerably more intensity than the larger one. The
paintings for sale are also apparently generic. Dare one speculate that the one small
landscape in a gilded frame on the easel is an amusing addition by the painter? Does
it show the merest suggestion of one of his own landscapes?