Progression of Art
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