Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, admired Boucher and was his patroness from 1747 until her death in 1764. This famous work was commissioned for the dressing room at Bellevue, her château near Paris. In 1750 she had acted the title role in a play, staged at Versailles, called The Toilet of Venus, and while this is not a portrait, a flattering allusion may have been intended. The bodies of the goddess and her cupids are soft, supple, and blond. The carved and gilded rococo sofa, the silk, velvet, and gold damask drapery, are heavy and elaborate enough for the Victorian era.
Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), an official mistress of Louis XV (1710–1774), was not a collector in the modern sense: that is, her interest was not in assembling a connoisseur’s picture gallery, but rather in commissioning from favored artists paintings designed to form part of the integrated decorative scheme of an intimate, luxurious, and relatively private interior. The land upon which the small château of Bellevue was built was presumably acquired by the king and given to her because it was near Paris and en route to Versailles and provided a magnificent view of the city from the heights above the Seine. The house and outbuildings were constructed and the gardens planted between June 1748 and November 1750. Boucher provided overdoors depicting, respectively, the bath and toilette of Venus for the largest of three rooms forming the appartement des bains, or bathing apartment, of the royal mistress, a suite located on the ground floor of one of the out buildings flanking the courtyard. These have long been identified with a painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the present work, both of which are dated 1751 and listed in Madame de Pompadour’s posthumous inventory of 1764. The paintings had meanwhile been removed to her Paris residence and installed in the woodwork of the vestibule. They remained together in the collection of her brother, the marquis de Marigny, until the 1782 sale of his estate, when they went to different owners.
The Bath of Venus, in Washington, is a woodland scene with a small shallow pool in the foreground and shows the seated goddess accompanied by Cupid with his quiver of arrows and two other winged putti. Doves nestle at her feet. The principal figure, delicately painted and largely nude, is surrounded by swaths of pink, blue, and striped white gauze drapery which are carried over to the companion picture. The Toilette of Venus is the more famous work, less typical of the artist in its lavish, expensive neo-rococo taste. The figure, presumably drawn from the same nubile young model, would, it is thought, have brought Madame de Pompadour to the king’s mind because she had performed as Venus in act one of an opera-ballet of that name staged at Versailles in February 1750. The toilette was a popular contemporary subject, which may have led Boucher to depict Venus in a quasi-modern interior furnished with taffeta, velvet, and embroidered damask finished with gold braid and tassels. The impossibly elaborate divan supports a gilded putto; the ewer and shell-shaped basin, the pearls and flowers are attributes of Venus. The last stop in the private history of the picture was the boudoir of New York society hostess Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt.
[Katharine Baetjer 2011]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): f-Boucher 1751
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour, appartement des bains, château de Bellevue, and later hôtel d'Évreux, Paris (until d. 1764; inv., 1764, no. 1230–78, with pendant); her brother, Abel François Poisson, marquis de Ménars, Paris (1764–d. 1781; his estate sale, Basan & Joullain, Paris, March 18–April 6, 1782, no. 19, for 587 livres to Chéreau); Jean Nicolas de Boullongne (until 1787; his estate sale, Georges & Bizet, Paris, November 19–24, 1787, no. 6, for 460 livres to Le Brun); [Le Brun, Paris, from 1787]; vicomte Charles Alexandre de Calonne, Paris (until 1788; his sale, Le Brun, Paris, April 21–30, 1788, no. 156, for 390 livres to Marin); Monsieur Marin (1788–90; his estate sale, Le Brun, jeune & Saubert, Paris, March 22, 1790, no. 336 [with reversed dimensions], for 316 livres to Le Brun jeune); ?by descent in the family of the comtes de la Béraudière; comte Jacques Victor de la Béraudière, Paris (by 1880–d. 1885; his estate sale, Mannheim, Féral, Haro et al., Paris, May 18–30, 1885, no. 4, ill., for Fr 133,000 to Lacroix); [C. J. Wertheimer, London; sold by 1895 to Mrs. Vanderbilt]; Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, New York (until 1895); William K. Vanderbilt, New York (1895–d. 1920)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "French Painting and Sculpture of the XVIII Century," November 6, 1935–January 5, 1936, no. 30.
Worcester Art Museum. "Condition: Excellent," March 22–April 22, 1951, no. 5.
Pittsburgh. Carnegie Institute. "French Painting: 1100–1900," October 18–December 2, 1951, no. 88.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 128.
Kansas City, Mo. William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art. "The Century of Mozart," January 15–March 1, 1956, no. 7.
Hartford, Conn. Wadsworth Atheneum. "Homage to Mozart," March 22–April 29, 1956, no. 7.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 69).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 304.
New York. Wildenstein & Co., Inc. "Paris — New York, A Continuing Romance," November 3–December 17, 1977, no. 30.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "François Boucher, 1703–1770," February 17–May 4, 1986, no. 60.
Detroit Institute of Arts. "François Boucher, 1703–1770," May 27–August 17, 1986, no. 60.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "François Boucher, 1703–1770," September 19, 1986–January 5, 1987, no. 60.
Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "Masterpieces of Western European Painting of the XVIth–XXth Centuries from the Museums of the European Countries and USA," October 2, 1989–January 31, 1990, no. 18.
Versailles. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. "Madame de Pompadour et les arts," February 14–May 19, 2002, no. 47.
Munich. Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung. "Madame de Pompadour: l'art et l'amour," June 14–September 15, 2002, no. 47.
London. National Gallery. "Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress," October 16, 2002–January 12, 2003, no. 13.
[Antoine Nicolas Dézallier d'Argenville]. Voyage pittoresque des environs de Paris, ou description des maisons royales, châteaux & autres lieux de plaisance, situés à quinze lieues aux environs de cette ville. Paris, 1755, p. 29, notes two works by Boucher in the "appartement des bains" at the château de Bellevue: "Vénus dans le bain, & Vénus à sa toilette servie par les Amours".
Inventory of Madame de Pompadour. June 27, 1764, no. 1230–78 [Archives Nationales, Paris; published in Jean Cordey, "Inventaire des biens de Madame de Pompadour rédigé après son décès, Paris, 1939, p. 90; Getty no. F-155], in the ground floor vestibule of the Hôtel de Pompadour, Paris, "La Toilette Vénus" and "Vénus qui tient l'Amour"; "sans bordures; valued at 1,400 livres.
Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt. L'art du dix-huitième siècle. Vol. 1, 3rd ed. Paris, 1880, p. 191, as engraved in color by Jean-François Janinet.
André Michel. François Boucher. Paris, 1889, pp. 54–55 n. 1.
L. Soullié in collaboration with Charles Masson in André Michel. Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint et dessiné de François Boucher. Paris, , p. 19, no. 283, describe it as a portrait of Madame de Pompadour in the guise of Venus.
Georges Pannier in Pierre de Nolhac. François Boucher, premier peintre du roi, 1703–1770. Paris, 1907, p. 123, lists it with mythological subjects.
"Four Paintings Lent by Mr. William K. Vanderbilt." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2 (March 1907), p. 45.
Catalogue of the Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 10th issue. New York, 1909, under Addenda, November 1906 to March 1907, Paintings Lent, in Gallery 19, unpaginated, as "lent by William K. Vanderbilt, 1907".
"The William K. Vanderbilt Bequest." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (December 1920), pp. 268–69, ill.
Pierre de Nolhac. Boucher, premier peintre du roi. Paris, 1925, p. 93.
Bryson Burroughs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. 9th ed. New York, 1931, pp. 28–29, no. B66–2.
Paul Biver. Histoire du château de Bellevue. Paris, 1933, pp. 67–68.
Harry B. Wehle inFrench Painting and Sculpture of the XVIII Century. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1935, p. 7, pl. 30.
Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 230–31, no. 128, colorpl. 128.
Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Guide to the Picture Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, part 2 (January 1954), pp. 5, 36, ill.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 136–38, ill., observes that the original frame has been in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (no. 573), since 1885; notes that Boucher treated this subject often, adding that the version closest to this one is the "Toilet of Venus" formerly in the collection of baron Alfred de Rothschild.
Ruth T. Costantino. How to Know French Antiques. New York, 1961, ill. between pp. 128 and 129.
Liselotte Andersen. Baroque and Rococo Art. New York, 1969, pp. 180–81, ill., states that despite its mythological subject, the picture has the atmosphere of "salon art".
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 190 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
François Boucher: gravures et dessins provenant du Cabinet des Dessins et de la Collection Edmond de Rothschild au Musée du Louvre. Exh. cat., Musée du Louvre. [Paris], 1971, p. 82, under no. 77.
Barbara Scott. "Charles Alexandre de Calonne, Economist and Collector." Apollo 97 (January 1973), p. 88, fig. 5, and ill. in color on cover, as formerly in the Calonne collection.
Anne Hollander. "The Fabric of Vision: The Role of Drapery in Art." Georgia Review 29 (Summer 1975), pp. 446, 465, fig. 10.
Alexandre Ananoff with the collaboration of Daniel Wildenstein. François Boucher. Lausanne, 1976, vol. 2, pp. 78–81, no. 376, fig. 1103, observe that there is no document to confirm that our picture and its pendant were executed for Bellevue; confuse our picture with an oval of the same subject painted for the palace at Choisy.
Denys Sutton inParis—New York: A Continuing Romance. Exh. cat., Wildenstein. New York, 1977, pp. 45–46, no. 30, fig. 37.
Pierrette Jean-Richard. L'Œuvre gravé de François Boucher dans la Collection Edmond de Rothschild. Paris, 1978, p. 300, under no. 1225.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 364, fig. 669 (color).
Marie-Catherine Sahut inDiderot & l'art de Boucher à David, les Salons: 1759–1781. Exh. cat., Hôtel de la Monnaie. Paris, 1984, p. 136.
Alastair Laing inFrançois Boucher, 1703–1770. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1986, pp. 255–58, no. 60, ill in color and on cover [French ed., 1986, pp. 256–58, no. 60, ill. (color), as "La toilette de Vénus"], proposes that there was "an element of self-identification in Madame de Pompadour's commissioning" of this picture and its pendant, the marquise having played the title role in a play called "La Toilette de Venus," at Versailles on February 25, 1750; comments on the peculiar forms of the ewer and perfume burner, which are "à la greque" in the theatrical sense; notes that while it is in no sense an illustration of the stage, the picture seems to take a similar pleasure in its own artifice.
Elise Goodman-Soellner. "Boucher's 'Madame de Pompadour at her toilette'." Simiolus 17, no. 1 (1987), pp. 46, 51.
Masterpieces of Western European Painting of the XVIth–XXth Centuries from the Museums of the European Countries and USA. Exh. cat., State Hermitage Museum. Leningrad [St. Petersburg], 1989, unpaginated, no. 18, ill in color.
Kimerly Rorschach inClaude to Corot: The Development of Landscape Painting in France. Exh. cat., Colnaghi. New York, 1990, p. 113.
Donald Posner. "Mme. de Pompadour as a Patron of the Visual Arts." Art Bulletin 72 (March 1990), p. 77 n. 17.
Colin B. Bailey inThe Loves of the Gods: Mythological Painting from Watteau to David. Exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. New York, 1992, p. 412.
Corinne Le Bitouzé inCreating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Exh. cat., Library of Congress. New Haven, 1995, pp. 328–29.
Charissa Bremer-David. French Tapestries & Textiles in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles, 1997, p. 69 n. 21.
Ekkehard Mai et al. inFaszination Venus: Bilder einer Göttin von Cranach bis Cabanel. Ed. Ekkehard Mai with the assistance of Ursula Weber-Woelk. Exh. cat., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Cologne, 2000, pp. 153–54, 247, 264, ill. (color and black and white).
Humphrey Wine inMadame de Pompadour et les arts. Ed. Xavier Salmon. Exh. cat., Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Paris, 2002, pp. 176–77, no. 47, ill. (color) [German ed., "Madame de Pompadour: l'art et l'amour," Munich, 2002, pp. 148–49, no. 47, ill. (color)], suggests that Boucher has ironically draped his Venus in the diaphanous fabric associated in the eighteenth century with representations of vestal virgins; remarks that the sculpted gilt putto reclining recalls an ornamental carving in Boucher's "Hercules and Omphale" (Pushkin Museum, Moscow).
Colin Jones. Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress. Exh. cat., National Gallery. London, 2002, pp. 90–91, 166, no. 13, fig. 56 (color), ill. p. 83 (color detail).
Xavier Salmon inMadame de Pompadour et les arts. Ed. Xavier Salmon. Exh. cat., Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Paris, 2002, p. 138, ill. 136 (color detail) [German ed., "Madame de Pompadour: l'art et l'amour," Munich, 2002, p. 106, ill. p. 104 (color detail)].
Mary D. Sheriff. Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France. Chicago, 2004, p. 208, fig. 54.
Jo Hedley. François Boucher: Seductive Visions. Exh. cat., Wallace Collection. London, 2004, p. 122, fig. 96 (color).
Mary D. Sheriff. "Boucher's Enchanted Islands." Rethinking Boucher. Ed. Melissa Hyde and Mark Ledbury. Los Angeles, 2006, p. 170, ill. p. 171.
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth. "Image Matters: The Case of Boucher." Dialogues in Art History, from Mesopotamian to Modern: Readings for a New Century. Ed. Elizabeth Cropper. Washington, 2009, p. 294, fig. 17 (color).
Richard Rand inFrench Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. Washington, 2009, pp. 16, 18 n. 19, under no. 2, pp. 19, 21, 23–25, fig. 1, under no. 3.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell inParis: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Charissa Bremer-David. Exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles, 2011, p. 65, fig. 45 (color).
Jane Adlin. "Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 71 (Fall 2013), p. 25, fig. 32 (color).
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 420, no. 283, ill. pp. 302, 420 (color).