This intriguing picture is Boilly’s painted imitation of a print after one of his own compositions (possibly now lost). Although Boilly was an expert in trompe-l’oeil, it is unlikely that he intended to trick the viewer into thinking they are looking at an actual print because he does not include the usual clues such as a turned-up corner or a tear or crease in the ‘paper’. Instead, this is an exercise in illusionism, as Boilly demonstrates how one medium (oil painting) can look like another (printing).
The painting follows the precedent of seventeenth-century Dutch artists, such as Gerrit Dou and Casper Netscher, who often used the framing device of a figure sitting at a window and included a relief carving below the windowsill. However, Boilly, who was fascinated by optics, also emphasises the activity of looking by including several optical devices such as telescopes and an eyeglass encouraging the viewer to think about what they are in fact seeing.
This intriguing picture is Boilly’s painted imitation of a print after one of his own compositions (possibly now lost). Although Boilly was an expert in trompe-l’oeil, it is unlikely that he intended here to trick the viewer into thinking they are looking at an actual print, as the painting does not include any of the usual clues that would reveal the image to be a deception – for example, a turned-up corner, a tear or crease in the paper or a supposedly broken sheet of glass over the print. Instead, this is an exercise in illusionism, as Boilly demonstrates how one medium (oil painting) can look like another (printing).
Here we see a girl in a fine white dress and bonnet sitting on a stone window ledge. On the wall behind her hang a bird in a cage, a plant and a bunch of carrots. On the window ledge itself is a bowl containing two goldfish, a small bottle filled with dark liquid, and a telescope. The girl holds a eyeglass in her right hand and, just to the left, there is another telescope, through which a young boy in the shadows is looking. Below the window is an antique stone frieze, which is partly covered by the fabric that spills out from inside the window.
The picture is painted almost entirely in tones of black, grey and white, and is intended to imitate the look of a monochrome print. As there are no lines in this ‘print’ (as we might expect, for example, in an etching), it is likely that Boilly intended to imitate a mezzotint, which can produce subtle effects of light and dark without using lines, and is particularly effective for reproducing paintings. Boilly enhances the illusion by painting a grey-blue mount with his signature around the image.
The picture shows Boilly’s technical virtuosity with oil paint as he depicts objects with the meticulous detail of a miniaturist. Not only does he paint a diverse range of materials and surfaces, including stone, glass, satin and skin, but several objects – for example, the clear glass bowl filled with water and the bright metal telescope – highlight his skill in painting reflective surfaces. The smooth painting technique is indebted to the ‘fine painters’ (fijnschilders) of seventeenth-century Holland, such as Gerrit Dou (with whom Boilly was compared) and Casper Netscher. These painters used the framing device of a figure sitting at a window in their paintings and often included a carved bas-relief below the windowsill.
In his picture Boilly, who was fascinated by optics, emphasises the activity of looking by including several optical devices, encouraging the viewer to consider what they are in fact seeing. When exhibited at the Salon of 1799, A Girl at a Window was praised for being ‘astonishingly true to life’. The phrase ‘true to life’ had a different significance at that time and could mean not only truth to reality but also, as here, truth to another medium – in this instance, an oil painting that looks like a paper print.
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