Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 60 x 74 cm
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, even when betraying the occasional superficiality of his art, 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 – although in later years he was to deny his debt to Le Moyne – while the four years he spent in Italy, from 1727-1731, gave him the education in the works of the masters, in classics and in history, that his modest upbringing had denied him. While in Rome Boucher had been encouraged by Vleughels to go out into the campagna and draw scenes from nature. Alastair Laing has suggested that Boucher did not paint any of the surviving views of the environs of Rome while a student there but instead, on his return to Paris, used these drawings as the basis for the painted landscapes of the early 1730s. Similarly, the figures in these compositions were often inspired by and, on occasion, directly based on Bloemart figures that he later engraved. Both his early Italianate views and the later landscapes share a common characteristic; they appear to be set on a three-sided stage, with virtually no horizon. No attempt is made to lead the eye into a distant view, as Claude had deliberately set out to do a century earlier. When Boucher was commissioned to design a set for the play Issé and again in another stage design, he did so without any appreciable change in his approach. A rare exception to this is the very beautiful landscape now in the Pushkin entitled Frère Luce, signed and dated 1742, in which the small figure of La Fontaine’s friar stands before his hovel in the right foreground while the landscape to the left disappears towards some distant hills.
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, Musée 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. 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, Lagrenee, 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.