BERNARD BOUTET DE MONVEL (French, 1881–1949)
Tennis Allegory of Love 1900, 1929
Oil on canvas, 125 1/2 x 93 1/2 in.
Signed (at lower right): BERNARD B. DE MONVEL
Tennis Allegory of Love 1930, 1929
Oil on canvas, 125 1/2 x 93 1/2 in.
Signed (at lower left) BERNARD B. DE MONVEL
RECORDED: Stéphane-Jacques Addade, Bernard Boutet de Monvel (Paris: Les Éditions de l’Amateur, 2001), p. 274; cf. watercolor versions, pp. 276, 277 illus. in color
EX COLL.: Mrs. James Cox Brady, Hamilton Farm, Peapack-Gladstone, New Jersey, until 1961; to her estate; private collection until 2014; to [Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 2014]; to private collection, until the present
This pair of paintings were commissioned by Mrs. Helen McMahon Brady for her estate, Hamilton Farm, in Gladstone, New Jersey. James Cox Brady (1882–1927), inherited substantial wealth from his immigrant father, who had begun life in very modest circumstances. The younger Brady greatly increased that wealth. In 1911, he was invited by fellow Essex Fox Hounds member Charles Pfizer to buy acreage in Peapack-Gladstone adjacent to his own. Beginning with 180 acres, Brady ultimately assembled upwards of 5,000 acres where he raised a full range of domestic livestock and maintained as well a serious thoroughbred horse breeding program. Brady named Hamilton farm for his first wife Elizabeth Jane Hamilton Brady (d. 1912). The property ultimately spanned three New Jersey counties and included a 64 room Georgian mansion and a spectacular stable (now the home of the United States Equestrian Foundation). Mrs. Brady was a widow when she commissioned these paintings from Boutet de Monvel. She continued to live at the farm, and in a residence in Florida with her second husband, the explorer C. Suydam Cutting, whom she married in 1932. During World War II Mrs. Cutting transformed a carriage house on the property into a hospital for injured merchant seamen. Over the years the bulk of the property has passed out of the hands of the Brady family and is now the site of the Hamilton Farm Golf Club, an invitation only membership association.
These murals were installed in the indoor tennis court pavilion at Hamilton Farm. Boutet de Monvel painted two views of the same vignette—a man and a woman about to play tennis with Cupid as the intermediary and love (or at least a romantic flirtation) as the object of the game. Labeled on the pedestal at the bottom, the first shows the scene as it might have been posed in 1900; the second offers a contemporary, that is, 1930, update. With the keen eye of a fashion illustrator and interior decorator, Boutet de Monvel dresses and accessorizes these two—the tennis players and the lovers—appropriately for their periods. Mr. 1900 is natty in a boater and high collar with a handlebar moustache, leaning jauntily on the fluted pedestal that supports cupid who holds a heart in his left hand and a tennis racket aloft in his right. The female of the pair whose long skirt swirls in art nouveau curves, shows lace at her hem, collar, and bodice. She wears archery gloves as she holds an extended bow and its arrow, discretely pointing away from the gentleman. A clipped French poodle, Fido for the symbolism, Fifi for the style, stands between the couple, erect on its hind legs, eagerly offering replacement arrows from a full quiver in its mouth. The backdrop is an arch-shaped flower-entwined trellis set against a blue sky.
Thirty years later things have changed. Once again standing on a dated pedestal, this one inscribed 1930, the couple, who have changed places, have also apparently changed roles. He is dressed in sporty tennis whites, no facial hair, and a short-clipped haircut. Looking remarkably like the artist in his self- portraits, he holds the bow and arrow, positioned less like a weapon than like a violin. Most dramatic is the change that has taken place with Mademoiselle. She is androgynous and severely neo-classical. The hair that in 1900 was formerly piled in curlicues high atop her head is now shorn into abbreviated curls recalling those of a Greek god. Her all-white tank top and skirt reveal athletic arms and legs. Knife pleats in her skirt have replaced lace. In her right hand she holds the tennis racket, while, with her left hand she is squeezing the tip of one of cupid’s pointed wings, as cupid looks at her imploringly, hands prayerfully folded, apparently beseeching to be freed from her grip. Cupid’s pedestal is now a simple rectangle. The dog is no longer a Fifi, but an elegant, elongated Deco hound, standing at attention to his mistress with a tennis ball in his mouth. The background trellis has been replaced by a profusion of palms arranged in an arch-shaped series of circle segments conforming to the outlines drawn by a compass. But with all the changes in style and gender roles, the nature of the game remains the same.