Pied-de-Boeuf (‘cow foot’) was originally a children’s game, in which the players counted as they put their hands one on top of another, and usually ended with the granting of a kiss to whoever reached ‘nine’. The gentleman has taken hold of the lady in grey’s wrist, presumably because he has reached ‘nine’ and is claiming his ‘pied de boeuf’. She points at him, perhaps accusing him of cheating, or coyly objecting to his demand for a kiss. The two grinning naked infants lolling on the carved relief above the pair suggest the inappropriately informal nature of the gathering.
This a copy in reverse of Detroy’s The Game of Pied-de-Boeuf of 1725 (private collection). Our copy was painted using a synthetic ultramarine pigment only available from 1828 onwards, which means that it cannot have been painted by Detroy, who died in 1752, or his immediate followers.
Two ladies and a gentleman sit on the ground in what may be the park of a country house – a stone monument carved with a relief of smiling, playing infants has been overgrown by oak and birch trees. The three companions are playing a game of ‘pied-de-boeuf’.
Pied-de-Boeuf was originally a children’s game, in which the players put their hands one on top of another, counting upwards from one; whoever had nine seized a hand not on the pile, saying ‘Je tiens mon pied de boeuf’ (‘I’m holding my cow’s foot’). The game was popular in the eighteenth century and usually ended with the granting of a kiss, making it useful to amorous adults.
The game is taking place on the lap of the lady in grey. The gentleman’s right hand lies on top of hers, and the lady in green is about to place her hand on top of his. However the gentleman has taken hold of the lady in grey’s other hand by the wrist, presumably because they have reached ‘nine’ and he is claiming his ‘pied de boeuf’. She points her finger at him, perhaps accusing him of cheating or coyly objecting to his demand for a kiss. The other lady looks at him with a slight smile, as though she knows what will come next.
The flirtation is clearly between the gentleman and the lady in grey, with the lady in green playing the role of complicit chaperone. The rustic setting underscores the carefree innocence of the children’s game but also suggests this is a secluded spot chosen for an illicit love affair. The two grinning naked infants lolling on the carved relief above the pair indicate the inappropriately informal nature of the gathering.
This a copy in reverse of Detroy’s The Game of Pied-de-Boeuf, which is in a private collection. The original painting was exhibited at the 1725 Salon and an engraving by Cochin père (‘father’) was published in 1735. The engraving is the same size as the National Gallery’s copy and is also in reverse, which suggests that our copy may have been made with reference to the engraving rather than the original painting. The copy also has a different background to the original painting.
Although the painting is signed ‘De Troy’ at bottom left, the cool colours and enamel-like texture reveal that the copy cannot be by him or his school. Examination under a microscope has also shown the widespread use of synthetic ultramarine in the paint of the sky, foliage greens, the grey dress and the flesh-tones. This deep blue pigment was only available from 1828 onwards, which means that the picture cannot have been painted by Detroy, who died in 1752, or his immediate followers.
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