Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 55 x 48 cm
Signed: f. Boucher 1762
HH Christian, Duke of Zweibrücken, Duke of Bavaria and Count Palatine of the Rhine, sale, Paris, 6 April 1778, lot 78, “Vénus et l’amour; ce tableau peint en 1762 est aussi sur toile de forme ovale: hauteur 20 pouces 6 lignes, largeur 17 pouces” (sold for 580 livres); Anne-Pierre de Montesquiou, Marquis de Fezensac and Comte d’Artagnan, Lieutenant-General of the Army, Premier Baron of Armagnac (1739-1798), sale Paris, 9 Dec 1788, as “Vénus et Amour assis sur les nuages, on y voit le char de la déesse et d’autres accessoires aussi bien groupées qu’agréables. Toile. 20 x 16 pouces,” bt Le Brun 184 livres.
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.
Dated to the last decade of his life, by which time Boucher’s fame had brought him every prize and honour, this seductive Venus displays all the artist’s talents, his mastery of draftsmanship, composition and anatomy combined with his brilliant handling of paint and the exemplary technique he was to pass on to two generations of students and imitators. The lush golden glow of Venus’ flesh tones reflect soft pinks and greys with touches of bright red, the light blue sky and swirling clouds denoting the heavenly setting of Olympus. Venus gently restrains an eager Cupid from embarking on yet another mischievous amatory mission while resting gently in the soft folds of a tumble of ivory, red and blue silk fabrics. The back of her gilded throne is just visible amid the eddying mists, two white doves at her feet gaze at each other and a string of glistening pearls is carelessly laid across her rounded navel and thighs. Cupid appears to beg for release from her embrace, his arrow indicating the bunch of roses she holds in her left hand, his quiver half concealed beneath her legs. In this composition Boucher echoes a theme that first drew him as a young student of Le Moyne and continued to attract him throughout his career. The pose first appears in reverse as the figure of Armida, in his Rinaldo and Armida of 1734 (Paris, Louvre), and again with minor variations in his Leda of 1742, the Venus disarming Cupid (part of a series of four grand decorations) of the same year, the Nymphs Bathing of 1746 painted for Queen Ulrike (now in the National Museum, Stockholm), and the great Venus and Vulcan (Paris Louvre) of 1756-57. This pose is also almost identical, but in reverse, to that in the famous three chalk drawing entitled Seated Nude holding an Arrow, originally in the collection of M. Babault and engraved in the same direction by J. F. Poletnich and in reverse by Etienne Fressard.
The theme of love was perfectly suited to Boucher whose pretty and delightful wife posed for him several times, although her face is never seen on the nudes that populate so many of his compositions. Venus and her wayward son, Cupid, appear over and over again in paintings, drawings, prints after his paintings, in small groups in biscuit porcelain after Boucher designs and tapestries after models produced by the artist for the Beauvais and Gobelins factories. Despite the many times he returned to this theme, here in this highly finished easel painting Boucher has succeeded in engaging the viewer with the freshness and delicacy of his touch and a sensuous but restrained eroticism that still excites today. The extraordinary carved, gilded and silvered frame is a superb example of the eighteenth century frame maker’s art, almost certainly original to the painting. It was almost certainly put on the painting by the Duke of Zweibrücken (Deux Ponts), one of the most sophisticated collectors of contemporary French art.