This watercolour is perhaps Boys’s masterpiece of his time in Paris. The composition is unusual in both its construction and the emphasis given to the figures that have become somewhat more than the staffage which normally populate Boys’s city scenes.
His humour comes to the fore in his treatment of the weary peddler, the back view of the couple
admiring the prospect and in pair of playing dogs. Dominated by the strong geometric architecture of the balcony, this elegant view of Paris looks across the Pont de la Concorde towards L’Assemblée Nationale with the dome of Les Invalides behind. Boys captures the bright light and strong shadows of a summer’s day in the city, with the vast sky giving a sense of expansive openness. Boys has in fact constructed the view – it would not have been possible to see the dome of Les Invalides beyond the Assemblée without taking a higher viewpoint. In combining viewpoints in order to create maximum impact and a greater sense of place, Boys follows in a long-established tradition of topographical draughtsmen.
In 1823, after his apprenticeship to the London engraver George Cooke (1781-1834), Boys moved to Paris where he worked alongside Richard Parkes Bonington, under whose encouragement he turned his attention to watercolour painting. While his earliest works in watercolour are often copies after other artists, in the late 1820s his style became increasingly original, particularly following Bonington’s death in 1828. Between 1831 and 1837 he executed hundreds of sketches and finished watercolours of Paris, and exhibited several at the Salon each year.
By 1833 Boys was living with the artists William Callow (1812-1908), Pierre Jules Jollivet (1794-1871) and Henri-Joseph, baron de Triqueti (1803-1874) in a house on the rue de Bouloy. Bonington’s influence remained evident in the handling and bold use of colour in Boys’s work of this period, although his attention to detail and architectural accuracy was entirely his own. During the 1830s he became increasingly interested in lithography and in 1839 he published his Picturesque Architecture in Paris, Ghent Antwerp, Rouen, etc. in which he pioneered the new process of chromolithography.
A preparatory study for this watercolour is at Stanford University, and another version with some slight amendments to the staffage, dated 1833, is recorded in the Phototheque des Musées de la Ville de Paris. This version set a world record for the artist on both its previous appearances at auction.
J. Leslie Wright (1862-1954) was one of the greatest collectors of British watercolours of the early 20th century. His collection, begun in 1928, was particularly focussed on the 18th century, including works by JMW Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, Paul Sandby and Thomas Rowlandson. He collected very little from the 19th century, feeling it lacked the intimacy of the 18th century work, and so his ownership of this watercolour is a testament to its quality. The majority of his collection was left to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.