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.
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.
Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Triumph of Venus
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.
Oil on canvas - Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
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.
Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris
The finery and voluminous drapery that surrounds these two women creates an atmosphere of overabundant luxury. We are presented with an intimate scene, gazing upon a aristocratic woman in her bedroom; the morning light streams gently through the window as she examines a green satin ribbon, surrounded by the tools of her toilette: make-up pots, feathery poufs, and a vanity mirror. The pastel palette and delicate brushwork transform her, and indeed the entire painting, into an elegant object of beauty, much as her toilette was intended to beautify. The well-appointed room is furnished with the trappings typical of Louis XV period: the tall windows, the alcove bed, ornate chair, and paneled walls complete with a small painted landscape accessorize the room in much the same way that Boucher's figure is in the process of adorning herself.
At her feet bearing boxes and a measuring stick, sits the milliner of the title, presenting her social superior with this assortment of pretty objects for her delectation. Among the French elite, the milliner served as a mobile stylist, and often a confidente. A love letter sits on the floor, hidden in the shadow of the small dresser, suggesting the delights and excitement of youthful romance.
Originally intended to be one of four in a cycle that depicted vignettes of the daily life of an upper-class Parisienne, the remainder of the series was never completed. A letter of 1745 details the specifics of this painting, describing "Morning will be as woman who has had her hair done, is still in her dressing gown and amuses herself with looking at the trifles a milliner has spread out." This type of composition, a so-called "boudoir painting" was popular in Rococo art, as it provided flirtatious, intimate glimpses into the lives of rich and fashionable young women, many of whom were the patrons of these works. This example was commissioned by Count Tessin on behalf of the Swedish Princess Louise-Ulrike, who was an admirer of Boucher.
Oil on canvas - Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette
A luxuriously adorned woman pauses in her toilette, shifting her gaze to address the viewer with a slight and knowing smile. This portrait is a meditation on beauty and elegance, as cascading pink satin bows atop layers of gauzy lace echo the make-up on the woman's ivory cheeks, creating an aesthetic harmony. A pinky daintily extended, she lifts a rouge-covered brush to her face, drawing the viewer's eye to her perfectly coiffed hair and rosy cheeks. Boucher renders his subject with soft, hazy brushwork, making her appear dreamlike and almost ethereal; the work becomes a metaphor for the process of painting one's face, creating an idealized and perfect image. With the final touches complete, she gazes calmly at the viewer, a master of the performance of female beauty and grace.
The subject of Boucher's painting, the Marquise de Pompadour, was the chief mistress of King Louis XV, whose portrait appears in miniature on her cameo bracelet. Hers was an officially appointed and well-respected position, and she was a major figure within the French court. She hosted an influential Salon of Enlightenment philosophers and writers and served as an important patron of the arts. Here, Boucher gestures to her own artfulness: the raised brush and small palette in her hands an imitation of the painter's tools before the canvas. Boucher depicts Madame de Pompadour as utterly in control of her self-image, while subtly suggesting the considerable role that she played within the art world and court life alike. Artful in her own right, she is at once the object of the painting and the arbiter of taste and distinction. It was through her intervention that Boucher was named the official painter to the king in 1765.
Commissioned in 1750 for Madame de Pompadour's brother, the painting was damaged in transit and required a significant repair; Boucher enlarged the canvas, creating the delicate oval shape and adding the mirror. The work was further retouched following the start of the Seven Years' War, changing the mirror's heavy silver frame to a green lacquer as the court donated their silverwares to support the war effort.
Oil on canvas - Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts
The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun
Often described as Boucher's most ambitious and successful mythological works, this pair of large vertical canvases was painted at the height of his popularity. Yet, they were not intended to be displayed as paintings, but were commissioned by Madame de Pompadour as full-scale models (known as cartoons) for tapestries that were to be hung in the bedroom of King Louis XV's country chateau.
Representing the rhythm of the day, Boucher creates an integrated pairing layered with allegory and symbolism. In The Rising of the Sun, the god Apollo ascends into the sky with arms outstretched, chasing away the nocturnal darkness. Turquoise and azure blues announce the clarity of the day, the strong light of the morning brought into relief in the shadows cast upon the sculptural body of the young god of the sun. In the painting's pendant, he returns back to his mother's arms, bringing dusk along with him, represented by muted pinks, browns, and creams. The foregrounds of both canvases are populated by the nude bodies of nymphs and naiads, overlapping with one another to create a series of arabesque curves that are echoed in the forms of the waves. The meeting of sky and sea affirms the mythological setting of Boucher's paintings, which take their inspiration from the Greek poet Ovid's Metamorphoses.
The alliance of the French king with Apollo had strong roots in depictions of Louis XV's absolutist father, Louis XIV. By repeating that identification, these works suggest the continued strength and authority of the monarchy which brings order and light to his universe. More unusual, however, is the symbolic representation of Madame de Pompadour, the patron of these works. Some art historians have interpreted the depiction of Thetis, the nymph who appears in The Rising of the Sun as a tribute to her; Thetis, who holds the reigns of Apollo's horses, was said to aid the god in his voyage across the sky, and Madame de Pompadour had recently taken a more active role as a political advisor in the King's court.
The paintings were exhibited at the Salon of 1753, with Rising hanging on the left and Setting at right, creating a narrative arc. It was unusual for tapestry cartoons to be publicly exhibited, but Madame de Pompadour broke protocol, perhaps recognizing the value of this political allegory. These mythological scenes of harmonious pastels, beautiful nude bodies and gauzy textures exemplify the visual elegance of the Rococo aesthetic; their decorative nature is only further enhanced by their function as designs for tapestries, which would have served to adorn and complement a luxurious and fashionable home.
Diptych, oil on canvas - Wallace Collection, London
Biography of François Boucher
Childhood and Education
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.
Though this prize should have funded a scholarship to study in Italy for three years, internal politics within the Académie interfered. Boucher turned to private commissions for paintings, drawings, and etchings, his skills proving prodigious enough that he was able to fund his own trip to Italy in 1728. There, he studied the work of Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as Baroque masters such as Bernini and Castiglione. Upon his return to Paris, Boucher was formally admitted to the Académie; seemingly overnight, he was the sensation of the French art world. His portraits were some of the most sought after among the Parisian élite, his clientele extending all the way to King Louis XV.
As an academician, Boucher's career took off. He was in great demand by royal and aristocratic collectors for his mythological scenes, as well as genre paintings, landscapes, and portraits. More affordable prints and engravings after his work were highly collectable among less wealthy admirers, and were widely published and sold. In the late 1730s, Boucher's reputation expanded further yet, when he was invited to create designs for the tapestry factory at Beauvais. Boucher's tapestry cartoons of pastoral scenes were highly treasured, and were exported not only within Europe, but also as far as China. He would also later be appointed to Inspector of Works at the Gobelins tapestry manufacture. His signature Rococo style was well suited to the decorative arts; soon his designs were reproduced on porcelain. An interest in theatre soon translated into a role overseeing stage set designs for the royal opera.
Despite his many diverse projects, Boucher remained primarily a painter, working for the aristocratic and international elite living in Paris. Madame de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of King Louis XV became his most important patron, commissioning a series of large-scale portraits as well as a number of grand mythological works, such as The Toilet of Venus (1751) and religious paintings like The Light of the World (1750), a nativity scene of maternal love and warmth. With the support of Madame de Pompadour, Boucher was appointed Premier Peintre du Roi - the official painter to the king - in 1765.
In the same year that he ascended to the king's official painter, Boucher also succeeded the artist Carle Vanloo as the Director of the Académie Royale, solidifying his dominance over French art and its institutions. Though he had reached the highest rungs of official success, however, his reputation and influence began to fade in the face of growing Enlightenment morality and philosophy. He exhibited less at the Salon, perhaps due to the scathing reviews written by influential critics such as Denis Diderot, who dismissed his work as amoral, insincere, and retrograde. In juxtaposition with the early iterations of what would become Neoclassicism, an intellectually rigorous and moralizing style of painting, the aristocratic subjects and pastel palettes of Rococo artists like Boucher were seen as indulgent and frivolous. Despite this shift in public opinion, however, Boucher never wavered from his personal style; he remained a popular choice for aristocratic commissions, carrying out his official duties at the Académie and in the court despite the rising tide of more restrained Neoclassicism and bourgeois morality.
By the late 1760s, Boucher continued to work, although he suffered from poor health, including trouble with his eyesight. He died suddenly in his studio at the Palais du Louvre in 1770, having completed (by his own, perhaps exaggerated, estimate) over 10,000 drawings and 1,000 paintings in his lifetime.
The Legacy of François Boucher
By the time of Boucher's death, the Rococo style had fallen out of favor among critics and artists alike. Boucher's name would quickly become synonymous with the outmoded and immoral lifestyle associated with the Ancien Régime. As art historian David Wakefield writes, "Of all the painters of the French eighteenth century, Boucher has perhaps suffered the worst fate at the hands of posterity." In his day, he was recognized as a master and eulogized as "the painter of the graces." Even Jacques-Louis David, the leader of the Neoclassical style that would overshadow Boucher's Rococo, had high praise for him, admonishing his students for deriding the late master and saying, "Not everyone can be Boucher."
It would not be until well after the French Revolution that Boucher's formal skills would be appreciated during a Rococo revival during the 1860s and 1870s. Paul Mantz, an early art historian and champion of Théodore Rousseau and Eugène Delacroix, would defend Boucher as a true painter of his age, faithfully representing his contemporaries, tying him to the nascent principles of nineteenth-century Realism. The impressionist master Auguste Renoir, whose buxom nudes and penchant for pastels bear the obvious influence of Boucher, called his predecessor "the man who best understood the female body." Though still associated with the foppishness and over-indulgence of the aristocracy, today's scholarships have repositioned Boucher as one of the most productive and technically skilled artists of the eighteenth century.