A Young Man and a Woman Discussing the Sciences in a Library

Attributed to:
Guérin, François (d.1791)
c 1769
dated by possible exhibition in 1769 Salon
Place of production:
Paris?, France
oil on panel
Type of object:
Accession number:


A lady and gentlemen have cast aside such delights as the discarded playing cards beneath the table and have turned their minds to higher things. This subject is similar to one that François Guérin exhibited in the 1769 Salon. The room furnishings show the transition between the curving lines of the Rococo fashion and the more restrained antique-style decoration that occurred in the 1760s.

It was once thought that the two figures shown were Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the king’s highly-influential mistress, and her brother the Marquis de Marigny (1727-1781). The latter suggestion was based on the resemblance of the figure to a drawing by Nicolas Cochin, engraved by Wateleken in 1752. The subject could have been the discussion of building works as Marigny was made Director General of the King’s building works (Bâtiments du Roi) in 1751. It was also thought that the man might be the duc de Choiseul remonstrating with Pompadour about some new architectural extravagance she is planning. However, the woman does not look like Madame de Pompadour and appears to be discussing the secrets of the night sky and other scientific matters, rather than architecture. Her demeanour is more akin to the learned lady Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), a celebrated female mathematician, physicist, and author. The painting is reminiscent of several portraits of her, but the style of the room in the Waddesdon painting does not accord with her dates. The painting also has some similarities with François de Troy's earlier 'The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Maine' (sold Sotheby's, New York, 29 January 2009, lot 65), indicating there was an established tradition for such images of learned women.

Guérin exhibited a painting in the 1769 Salon described as ‘Une jeune homme qui converse avec une Demoiselle sur les Sciences’ (A young man talking with a woman about the sciences) which may be this painting. Several details are similar to those that appear in Guérin's portrait of Madame de Pompadour and her daughter Alexandrine, once in the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934), which supports the attribution to this artist. White lines on the edges of paper scrolls and the rendering of gilded mouldings with loose dabs of paint are similar in both works. In this painting, the scrolling papers that flutter across the composition, along with the billowing curtains and open bookcase, gives a feeling of frenetic energy to the couple’s conversation.

Several elements in the room such as the stucco frieze are Neo-Classical in style, dating the painting to the 1760s, but the chairs and the writing table are of an earlier Rococo style. Madame de Pompadour would not have had such a mix-and-match approach to interior decoration. Fashion, like the discarded cards on the floor, may have been cast aside by this couple as they concentrate their minds on more learned activities.

Phillippa Plock, 2011

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
407 x 317
390 x 307 - sight
Signature & date:
not signed or dated


Probably acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (b.1839, d.1898); inherited by his sister Alice de Rothschild (b.1847, d.1922); inherited by her great-nephew James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957); bequeathed to Waddesdon The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust) in 1957.
Exhibition history:
Possibly Paris Salon 1769, no. 82 'Une jeune homme qui converse avec une Demoiselle sur les Sciences'

Possibly Paris 1860, no. 272 in Philippe Burty, 'Tableaux de l'Ecole Française, principalement du XVIIIe siècle...', 26 Boulevard des Italiens
Waddesdon (National Trust)
Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957



Philippe Burty; Catalogue de tableaux et dessins de l’école française, principalement du XVIIIe siècle ...; Paris; [n. pub.]; 1860; no. 272; possibly
Ellis Waterhouse, Anthony Blunt; Paintings: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; Fribourg; Office du Livre, The National Trust; 1967; p. 240, no. 109; as 'Madame de Pompadour and the Duc de Choiseul'
Peter Thornton; Authentic decor: the domestic interior 1620-1920; London; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 1984; pp. 128-9, ill.; as 'An intellectual couple in a Library'
The Domestic World. Time-Life History of the World; Amsterdam; Time-Life Books; 1991; p. 96
Ulrich Leben; Object Design in the Age of Enlightenment. The History of the Royal Free Drawing School in Paris; Los Angeles; Getty Publications; 2005; p. 42, ill; as by Guerin and 'presumably' depicting Pompadour.

Indexed terms