This charming portrait depicts the features of the daughter of Jean-Joseph d’Albenas, an officer in the Touraine regiment who distinguished himself in the American War of Independence before settling in Toulouse. Athénaïs is wearing a high-waisted light-coloured dress with puffed sleeves in the style popular with women in the late First Empire.
The slanting light which illuminates the young girl’s silhouette from top to bottom differs from that of the landscape. It actually corresponds to the light in the studio in which the young model posed.
The undulating landscape is just a backdrop framing the portrait, a technique used by the early studio photographers. With its pretty sky dotted with clouds and succession of light and dark grounds, it follows the rules of composition for a traditional landscape and draws the eye from the factory on top of the hill towards a waterfall spanned by a little bridge in the foreground.
Boilly’s work, which describes the life of the middle classes in Parisian society in stylised scenes, was very popular under the Empire and up until the 1830s. From 1800 onwards, his compositions became more complex and were peopled with numerous figures. As wry descriptions of modern life, they are meticulously executed with a refined palette. The artist became enthusiastic about the new technique of lithography and blazed the trail for a long line of 19th century caricaturists with his Recueil de grimaces [Compendium of Grimaces] published in 1823, which was to influence Daumier.
His gift for observation and the need to provide a source of income led him to paint a large number of portraits in every style: family portraits (La famille Gohin, 1787, Paris, Musée des Arts décoratifs), group portraits, facial studies (Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts) or little half-length studies (Paris, Musée Marmottan). His full-length portraits against landscape backgrounds are his most refined work.