François Boucher

Paris 1703 - Paris 1770

The extraordinary career of Francois Boucher was unmatched by his contemporaries in versatility, consistency and output. For many, particularly the writers and collectors who led the revival of interest in the French Rococo during the last century, his sensuous beauties, coquettish milkmaids and plump cupids represent the French eighteenth century at its most typical. His facility with the brush enabled him to master every aspect of painting – history and mythology, portraiture, landscape, ordinary life and, as part of larger compositions, even still life. He had been trained as an engraver, and the skills of a draftsman which he imbued in the studio of Jean-Francois Cars stood him in good stead throughout his career; his delightful drawings are one of the most sought after aspects of his oeuvre. As a student of Francois Le Moyne he mastered the art of composition, while the four years he spent in Italy, from 1727-1731, gave him the education in the works of the masters, in the classics and in history, that his modest upbringing had denied him.

On his return to Paris, in 1734, he gained full membership of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture with his splendid Rinaldo and Armida (Paris, Musee de Louvre), a bold rococo statement which, while showing his awareness of the famous composition of Domenichino in the French Royal Collection, is marked nonetheless with the very distinct characteristics of his own, maturing style. Although he occasionally painted subjects taken from the Bible throughout his career, and would always have first considered himself to be a history painter, his own repertoire of heroines, seductresses, flirtatious peasant girls and erotic beauties was better suited to a lighter, more decorative subject matter. 

His mastery of technique and composition enabled him to move from large scale tapestry cartoons (he worked throughout his career for both the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry factories, becoming director of the latter in 1755), to intimate masterpieces such as the Diana Resting (Paris, Louvre) or Leda and the Swan (Los Angeles, Private Collection) and the occasional scene from everyday life such as The Luncheon (Paris, Louvre), with its elegantly dressed figures grouped around a well-laid table.

Enormously successful and widely patronized, Boucher’s output was prodigious. First patronized by the Crown in the 1730s, he executed numerous royal and princely commissions until his death in 1770, working particularly for Louis XV’s mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour in each of her several palaces. He was popular with Kings and Queens as well as wealthy private collectors, working for Louis XV, Queen Ulrike of Sweden and Frederick the Great of Prussia, and after his death was eagerly collected by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Among the great private collectors who patronized him were la Live de Jully and Louis-Antoine Crozat and his brothers, while a century later the English Marquess of Hertford (whose legacy is the great Wallace Collection in London), several members of the Rothschild family, and the talented Goncourt brothers avidly pursued his works. Grand scale decorative paintings by him may be seen in the apartments of the King at Versailles, in the official residence of the President of the French Republic, the Elysée Palace (that once belonged to Mme de Pompadour), the Hôtel de Matignon, the residence of the French Prime Minister, and the Hôtel de Bourbon, today the seat of the French Senate. Such is his ongoing appeal that a pair of paintings by Boucher, the Birth of Venus and the Toilet of Venus of 1746 remain the most expensive 18th century French paintings ever sold. 

Always ready to utilize his talents in other fields, he designed stage sets for theatre and opera and provided drawings to be used as designs for figures at the Vincennes (later Sevres) porcelain factory. As a teacher he was much loved by his many students, who included Fragonard, Le Prince, Deshays, Brenet, Baudouin, Lagrenée, and Madame de Pompadour herself. Even David, a distant cousin, in his earliest surviving works with their colourful rococo palette, was clearly influenced by Boucher. Not since Le Brun had a single French artist held such a monopoly on the imagery of a particular society or left such a mark on the arts of his time.