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Zoomable Image of Two boys building a house of cards, c.1750

Two boys building a house of cards, c.1750

Johann Anton de Peters (1725-1795)

Two boys building a house of cards, c.1750

Johann Anton de Peters (1725-1795)

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Price:

£7,500

Materials:

Watercolour on ivory

Dimensions:

Rectangular, 2 ⅜ x 3 ⅛ ins (6.3 x 7.9 cm)

Provenance:

Christie's, Geneva, 15 November 1994, lot 173

The characterisation of the sitters’ faces seems to indicate that these are portraits as opposed to a genre scene. It may be that there is a precise significance to the setting and the gestures exchanged between the boys that will remain lost so long as their identities unknown

The two boys shown building a house of cards in this portrait miniature by Johann Anton de Peters are evidently friends or, more likely still, brothers. The gesture between the two – with the boy on the right reaching out to the one on the left, who in turn holds places his hand on the other’s shoulder – is one of clear affection. The fine clothes worn by the two combine with the elegant chair on which the boy on the right sits to suggest that they are wealthy children, likely of an aristocratic background.

The characterisation of the sitters’ faces seems to indicate that these are portraits as opposed to a genre scene. It may be that there is a precise significance to the setting and the gestures exchanged between the boys that will remain lost so long as their identities unknown. However, in France of the time, the subject of a boy constructing a house of cards had a rich hinterland. Often, it was chosen in genre paintings as a subject as a means of conveying an allegorical message.

The artist to have popularised it as a subject, although he did not invent the theme himself, was Jean Simeon Chardin, who treated the subject on no fewer than four occasions. Chardin’s paintings, however, differ in the fact that only one boy is ever shown building the house of cards and it in his absorption in his task that the focus of the painting resides. Disseminated via the medium of engraving, Chardin’s treatment of the subject was wildly popular and, although their meaning remains contested, verses appended to some versions of the engraving seem to point at the theme’s significance. One such moralising inscription, which features in Pierre Fillouel’s 1737 engraving after Chardin, instructs the viewer not to mock the youth’s attempt to build something that will ultimately be impermanent, instead warning that old men often construct schemes that are far more ridiculous.

But, in this case the sitters are not absorbed in the construction of their house of cards, as Chardin’s are. Instead, De Peters shows them looking out at the viewer and communicating their affection for one another. With this in mind, it may be that this portrait is a comment ultimately on friendship. In eighteenth-century France, the construction of a house of cards was often a game that was partaken by children in a group. Taking turns, each child would add another card so as to construct the house; the loser was the child who added the card that knocked it over.[1] Here, the two boys seem to be shown constructing one such house together. Each boy has a set of cards at his hands. When combined with the gesture of intimacy between the two, it may be that the portrait is a reflection on constructive endeavour, with the message being that it is by working together that the house of cards (or in French, château de cartes – castle of cards) is created. As such, this double portrait – which would once have been affixed to the lid of a snuff box – subverts the genre, pointing less to the fragility of human endeavour and more to the bonds of friendship and co-operation by which achievements are made.

De Peters was a pupil of Greuze who became official painter ‘in ordinary’ to the Danish King Prince Charles of Lorraine. He exhibited at the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1762, having been a member since 1756. He was well-known as painter in miniature, although few works can be firmly attributed to his hand.




[1] H. Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England; With some Account of the principal Artists; And incidental Notes on other Arts; Collected by the late Mr. George Vertue; And now digested and published from his original MSS (4 vols., London, 1765), i, p. 165.

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