French Painter, Draughtsman and Etcher
Summary of François Boucher
As Paris teetered on the edge of revolution, King Louis XV and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, eagerly supported Boucher's visions of an idealistic world. His celebration of noble grace and elegance, along with his flirtatious and eroticized explorations of beauty decorated the refined spaces of aristocratic life. At the same time, his sensuous portraits captured the emergence of Enlightenment philosophy and the aristocratic Salons that nurtured these thinkers. Boucher's work is a seminal example of a more complex Rococo style, full of contradictions that combine tradition and beauty with innovation.
- The soft pastels, beautiful surfaces, and sensual bodies of Boucher's paintings were highly prized by the French aristocracy. Even his commissioned portraits were commonly idealized, often transformed into allegorical treatments or mythological heroes and heroines. His work was the height of fashion during the waning years of the Ancien Regime and the reign of Louis XV and Louis XVI.
- As aristocrats gained independence from the monarchy, following the death of the absolutist Louis XIV, they created a new market for Rococo painting. Free from the weighty theological and historical themes dictated by the authoritarian Baroque style that had dominated the previous generation and had been limited by the expectations of the church and the state, Boucher was free to explore whimsical, intimate, exotic and pastoral themes.
- Where the Baroque style intended to impress the viewer with grandiosity and drama, the Rococo was much more intimate and playful - which was where Boucher triumphed. The Rococo replaced the classical lines and severity of Baroque design with asymmetrical and organic imagery that often drew from an idealized concept of nature.
- As Enlightenment critics such as Denis Diderot gained influence, and as the excesses of court society drew increased scrutiny, Boucher represented the degeneracy of the aristocracy. As the quintessential Rococo artist, Boucher's work was quickly rejected as superficial and decorative; it was similarly dismissed in historical accounts as a frivolous and short-lived fashion. The virtuosity of his technique and its attention to visual enjoyment preserved Boucher's legacy among artists, but made him suspect to historians and theorists; only in the last few decades have scholars reconsidered these pejorative labels to recover more nuanced ideas - and even Enlightenment principles in his oeuvre.
Biography of François Boucher
The son of a draftsman, painter and embroiderer, François Boucher was of humble yet artistic origins. His earliest training came with his father in Paris until his work was noticed by the respected painter François Lemoyne. Although the 17-year-old Boucher only remained under Lemoyne's tutelage for a few short months before going to work for the publisher Jean-François Cars, he quickly absorbed the academic style of his first master. Boucher's skill as both a painter and engraver was admired by the highly-respected collector and great patron of the arts, Jean de Jullienne, who entrusted the young artist with the task of engraving the drawings of Antoine Watteau. Despite not having formal training at the Académie, Boucher won the Prix de Rome, the Académie's highest honor, at only age 20.
Important Art by François Boucher
Five figures gather around a small table taking coffee from a stylish service, tendrils of steam curling up from the freshly poured cups. This elegantly appointed, fashionable sitting room brings the viewer into the home of a wealthy Parisian family. In particular, details such as the Chinese porcelain figurine on the shelf, the gilt sconces mounted above the mantel, and roundel painting are elements of Rococo decoration that reveal this to be a modern scene of elegant domesticity. (Indeed, Rococo painting took its name from the term rocaille, referring to the shell-shaped architecture and furniture design that was popular at the time.) Boucher demonstrates his knowledge of fashion not only in the Rococo décor, but also in his figures: the young woman at center-right dons a mouche, a black beauty spot worn at her temple that was highly fashionable among the French upper classes. Even that the family is drinking coffee marks their stylishness, as the drink was a recent and newly popular import to France.
Though most commonly associated with elaborate mythological scenes and erotically charged figures, Boucher here demonstrates his talent for genre scenes, as he depicts a domestic ritual of familial bliss, the figures appearing to be contentedly interacting with one another. Perhaps reflecting the growing Enlightenment thinking on motherhood, Boucher depicts a warmth between generations, echoed in the seated young girl with a doll. Some scholars have suggested that the artist was depicting his own family, including his wife (at right), two children, and his sister, who appears feeding the young girl who catches the viewer's gaze and gives the scene an informal and instantaneous, almost photographic quality (although this was painted well before the development of photography). Whether or not the painting is autobiographical, it is exemplary of Boucher's art historical knowledge (particularly his familiarity with paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch interiors), his love of ornamentation, his awareness of new philosophical thinking on family dynamics, all set in his cool palette of blues, greens, and cream tones.
The goddess Venus emerges from the sea, carried aloft on a wave upon a mother-of-pearl shell and surrounded by admirers. Naiads, nymphs, and gods float among dolphins and doves, winged cupids floating above them. Boucher's Triumph of Venus is an archetype of Rococo style, from the mythological subject that is playfully imbued with eroticism, to the cool palette, dynamic, pyramidal composition, and series of interlocking arabesques. The painting is a celebration of love and lust, the sensuous flesh of the figures rendered in modulations of creams and pinks. A female figure at left seems to throw back her head in ecstasy, a white dove perched suggestively between her legs.
Set in a utopic seascape, the painting nonetheless bears important traces of his ability to translate the real world into fantasy: Venus herself was modeled by the artist's wife, and the flowing canopy of pink and white that twists above the goddess is a testament to Boucher's talent for capturing dynamic movement and light.
A large commission from one of the painter's most important patrons, Count Tessin, the Swedish ambassador to France, this painting would become an exemplar of the trope of idealized nudes in nature for painters; indeed, art historians have observed the compositional similarity between Boucher's painting and the Philadelphia Museum version of Paul Cézanne's Large Bathers (1900-06). Cézanne's double pyramidal composition and use of periwinkle blue echoes Boucher's canvas, while the harsh, abstracted bodies of Cézanne firmly locate the later painting in the history of abstraction and early Cubism. That Boucher would be a foil against which modern artists defined themselves speaks to the rejection of his decorative and beautiful idealizations, but also maintains his legacy as a master of the medium of painting.
A voluptuous woman lies prone on a divan, bearing her backside and turning her head flirtatiously to the viewer, though averting her eyes slightly, as if to maintain a coy demeanor. Surrounded by lush fabrics of deep blues, the creamy tones of her skin and dressing gown are thrown in sharp contrast, making the figure glow luminously. The whole painting is ordered by folds - of flesh, of fabric, of cushions, of the rug - inviting the viewer's eye to look closely across the topography of the canvas.
One of Boucher's cabinet paintings (that is, paintings made for private collectors rather than official exhibition at the Salon), the open eroticism of this work invites a voyeuristic gaze. Although it was created for a private audience, it was later displayed at the Salon of 1767, where the critic Denis Diderot found it shocking and lascivious. Nonetheless, Boucher would later paint another iteration of this reclining pose, this time using Marie-Louise O'Murphy, a favorite mistress of King Louis XV, as his model, suggesting that the provocative composition was a stock figure for Boucher's private commissions.
Both the title of Boucher's painting and the objects found in the interior fix the subject as an odalisque, a concubine within the harem of the Ottoman sultan. The sumptuous textiles and exotic, decorative objects suggest early traces of Orientalism, although the figure appears European. Odalisque paintings would experience a resurgence in popularity in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of Romanticism, as colonial tendencies increased interest in both the Near East and northern Africa. Boucher's Odalisque bears visible influence on the work of artists such as J.A.D. Ingres and Eugène Delacroix.