Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

François Boucher (1703–1770)

More than any other artist, François Boucher (1703–1770) is associated with the formulation of the mature Rococo style and its dissemination throughout Europe. Among the most prolific of his generation, he worked in virtually every medium and every genre, creating a personal idiom that found wide reproduction in print form. He was highly adept at marketing his work, providing designs for all manner of decorative arts, from porcelain to tapestry. Boucher’s insistence on a painterly surface and adoption of a high-toned palette favoring blues and pinks was well suited to Rococo interiors, but was the target of critical derision late in his career when the style fell from favor. Denis Diderot, whose opinion on Boucher’s merit was decidedly mixed, famously wrote of him in his review of the 1761 Salon, “Cet homme a tout—excepté la vérité” (That man is capable of everything—except the truth).

Early Years, Patrons, and Commercial Success
From a humble background, Boucher initially supported himself as a printmaker and designer of book illustrations. Around 1726–28, he was employed by Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766) making etchings after drawings by Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). These activities eventually financed his trip to Italy in 1728, where his interests seem to have been largely focused on masters of the Baroque. Although the influence of the Italian countryside and the Dutch landscape painters who worked there in the seventeenth century can be felt in such early works as Imaginary Landscape with the Palatine Hill from Campo Vaccino (1982.60.44), Boucher also clearly studied Venetian eighteenth-century painting and the bravura handling of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s rustic caravans and animals.

Returning to Paris around 1731, Boucher increasingly turned his attention to large-scale mythological painting and soon found official recognition in the form of royal commissions and membership at the Royal Academy, where he was reçu (received) in 1734. His wide-ranging production soon graced the walls of an equally wide-ranging clientele, from King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, and Count Carl Gustav Tessin, Swedish ambassador to Paris, to bourgeois collectors of much more modest means. In 1765, he was appointed to the two highest positions in the French arts establishment: first painter to the king and director of the Royal Academy.

Paintings and Theater
Boucher’s most original contribution to Rococo painting was his reinvention of the pastoral, a form of idealized landscape populated by shepherds and shepherdesses in silk dress, enacting scenes of erotic and sentimental love. This form was closely tied to contemporary comic operas, especially those produced for the Théâtre de la Foire by Boucher’s friend Charles-Simon Favart (1710–1792), for whom he occasionally produced stage and costume designs. The Interrupted Sleep (49.7.46), painted as an overdoor for Madame de Pompadour’s château at Bellevue, exemplifies this type of subject matter. A fetching shepherdess, clad in ivory-colored silk, lacking all trace of dirt or labor, is asleep and vulnerable to the mischief of a shepherd boy, tickling her cheek with a piece of straw. Likewise painted for the royal mistress is The Toilette of Venus (20.155.9), an exquisite cabinet painting in which the surface has been brought to a high state of polish, setting off the pearly flesh tones of Venus and the sumptuous fabrics that surround her. Admired as an amateur dancer and actress, Madame de Pompadour had played the title role in a production of La Toilette de Vénus staged at Versailles in 1750, perhaps the inspiration for the painting.

Boucher was no less prolific or varied as a draftsman. Drawings played a multitude of roles in the preparation of paintings and as designs for printmakers, as well as being created as finished works of art for the growing market of collectors. For his major canvases, Boucher followed standard studio practices of the time, working out the overall composition and then making chalk studies for individual figures, or groups of figures. Winged Putti with Flowers (60.175.1), for example, is a study for a pair of Boucher’s trademark dimpled putti in the foreground of Apollo Revealing His Divinity to Issé (1750; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours). Oil and gouache sketches were also common components of Boucher’s working process in the preparation of major commissions, although over the course of his career he increasingly made sketches as independent works. The Adoration of the Shepherds (1997.95), a free and painterly sketch in gouache, was long considered a preparatory sketch for Madame de Pompadour’s private altarpiece The Light of the World (ca. 1750, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), although recent scholarship suggests it was made at least ten years later, as an autonomous work. This self-referential aspect of Boucher’s oeuvre became increasingly pronounced in his later career as he frequently revisited favored themes. Vertumnus and Pomona (60.176.2) dates to the last decade of his career when he began to favor brown chalk, a fabricated medium, and is likewise a recension of a subject that had long fired his imagination, beginning with an etching he made in 1727 after a painting by Watteau of the same subject.

Prints, Porcelain, and Tapestry
Boucher’s impact on the decorative arts of the Rococo period, in France and throughout Europe, is difficult to overstate. Aside from the three dozen or so plates he etched himself (e.g., The Young Girl Resting [1998.524]), a great number of printmakers found it lucrative to reproduce his paintings and drawings; some 1,500 prints after Boucher are known today. The porcelain manufactories at Vincennes and Sèvres were kept busy with the replication of his gallant shepherds and shepherdesses as soft-paste biscuit porcelain figurines and as polychrome painted decoration for tableware and decorative pieces. In addition, Boucher produced numerous sets of prints that adapted Chinese figures to Rococo taste, fueling the fashion for chinoiserie.

Boucher’s fertile imagination and unified aesthetic were also well suited to the medium of tapestry, and the manufactory of Beauvais had many commercial successes based on his designs, including the series Fêtes Italiennes (64.145.3), which went into production in 1736. In 1755, he was appointed head of the royal tapestry manufactory at Gobelins, where he continued to collaborate on the design of successful series of tapestries. These included the set produced for Croome Court in the 1760s (58.75.1–22), in which compositions after his designs were set into medallions against a trompe l’oeil damask ground. Boucher’s greatest skill as a designer, the ability to subjugate disparate sources to his aesthetic, was also his greatest failing in the eyes of later critics, especially as Neoclassicism supplanted the Rococo in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.