The three young artists in Mercier's painting are shown drawing from a fragment of antique sculpture, one of the core components of academic artistic training in the 18th century and among the first to be undertaken. The boys are engaged in an activity appropriate to their age, but a suggestion of their impending artistic maturity is implied in their studious expressions and the finished painting displayed in the background. Holding his drawings under his arm and admiring his fellow's work, the fair-haired boy also appears to embody the future connoisseur. Mercier's subject of young artists was a popular one in the 18th century and stands in the artistic genre of 'fancy pictures': the sentimental depiction of a broad range of individuals, from children to servants and beggars.
Philippe Mercier's contribution to British art lies with his introduction of French taste into 18th-century British painting. His fancy pictures and conversation pieces (informal, often small-scale group portraits) were further developed by successive artists. Mercier moved to York in 1739, where this work was probably painted.
Philippe Mercier was born in Berlin to French Huguenot parents and studied at the Berlin Akademie. After travelling in Italy and France, he finally arrived in London around 1716. He was made Principal Painter to Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1729 and Keeper of his library the following year, but was succeeded in both these posts in the later 1730s. Mercier moved to York in 1739. It was during his time in York that he fully developed his fancy pictures, many of which were also engraved and sold as prints. His reputation lies in his introduction of French taste into 18th-century British art and his development of the ‘conversation piece’, as well as the fancy picture.
Collection of G. M. Scott; by whose executors sold through Christie's, London, on 28 November 1838 (Lot 9), for £88-4-0; from which sale purchased by Drummond; with art dealer W. Grindlay of Duke Street, St James’s Square, London; by whose executors sold through Christie's, London, on 8 January 1887 (Lot 703), for £7.17.6 (7½ guineas), as Nollekens ‘Children in a Studio’; from which sale purchased by ‘Scott’; sold through Sotheby's, London, on 27 November 2003 (Lot 191); from which sale purchased by the Government Art Collection
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