La Folie du Jour / The Folly of the Day
Pen in black over chalk, watercolour
Inv. No. 16757 (Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.)
32 × 40 cm
The works of the French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly are to be understood as vivid pictorial interpretations of life during the Revolution as well as under the Directoire and the Empire. Around 1800, at the time of Napoleonic Classicism, Boilly was the leading French genre painter. His pen drawings, finished in bright watercolours, pointedly demonstrate the keen perceptiveness and subtly mysterious quality that characterize his depictions of contemporary social customs.
The Folly of the Day shows a fashionably dressed young couple gazing into each other’s eyes as they perform a dance of perfect elegance. They show no awareness of the fiddler who is playing for them, seated to one side. In the shadow of their youthful exhilaration and happiness his presence seems all the more menacing. Well provided with wine, he fixes his gaze on the pair of lovers as they dance. His haggard features and the gaunt body discernible under his clothing clearly identify him as the personification of Death.
Boilly derived the basic scheme of the composition from an engraving after the painting A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin (in the Wallace Collection, London). That celebrated seventeenthcentury work depicting Chronos – the mythological lord of time – playing the music for a dance prompted Boilly to appeal to his compatriots’ sense of morals in a manner that was highly individual, but at the same time very much in keeping with the attitudes of the day.
In a painting of approximately the same format, Boilly repeated his motif in a still more candid manner: there the fiddler pokes out his tongue at the young couple, a circumstance which plays up the scene’s satirical character. It symbolizes the insouciant »dance« of foolish Parisian society at the time of the Directoire. This and three further paintings based on comparable drawings by Boilly first came into the possession of Salvatore Tresca (ca. 1750–1815), who produced laterally reversed etchings from them. The four etchings after Boilly were registered in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale in the spring of 1797, and under the title Les Folies du Jour they were published along with etchings based on drawings by other contemporary artists such as Carle Vernet and Jean-Baptiste Isabey.
Boilly’s Folie du Jour and the other three drawings made their way into the large collection of social satires owned by the singer Simon Chenard, a good friend of the artist’s. Boilly is seen as an important influence on his contemporaries, for instance the Englishman Thomas Rowlandson, but above all as a precursor to nineteenth-century French caricaturists such as Honoré Daumier.