Boucher’s influence was at its peak between 1740 and 1760 and during that time his vision shaped all the decorative elements of the French rococo interior: paintings, tapestries, chair coverings and porcelain. He is best known for his mythological and pastoral scenes, large and small, peopled by voluptuous nymphs and suggestable shepherdesses. Boucher’s father was a painter, but Boucher was clearly a precocious talent. His potential was spotted by the reigning Premier Peintre du Roi, François Lemoyne (1688-1737) who encouraged him to enter the Prix de Rome which he duly won in 1723. Boucher’s all-important trip to Italy was delayed until 1728 but when he eventually did go, he did not, as was expected, study Raphael and Michelangelo. Instead he turned to baroque examples, notably Castiglione, whose rustic subject-matter and self-consciously painterly manner exerted an enduring influence on the young French artist.
Having returned to France in 1731 Boucher immediately embarked on painting a number of ambitious mythologies, including the Rinaldo and Armida (Private collection) which was his reception piece as newly accepted member of the Académie Royale. He was noticed by King Louis XV who invited him to contribute hunting scenes to decorate the dining room of his apartment at Versailles. During this time, Boucher branched into the painting of genre scenes both low, in the Dutch style such as La Belle Cuisinière (musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris) and high, such as the Family taking Breakfast (musée du Louvre, Paris) modelled on his own family. By 1740, Boucher had reached the peak of his powers which were most perfectly expressed in his tastefully erotic depictions of the female nude. Although he produced many variations on this idea the most elaborate and ambitious was the Triumph of Venus which he painted in 1740 for Count Carl Gustav Tessin, Swedish Ambassador to the French Court. Other examples in this vein followed throughout the 1740s, many painted on the small scale that would have been suitable for the French aristocracy living in cramped apartments at Versailles. Examples of these are the Leda and the Swan and Dark-haired Odalisque both of 1742 and both painted in two versions. Boucher’s combination of exquisite draughtsmanship and freely handled paint was irresistible.
Boucher’s star continued to rise with the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s official mistress from 1747. For Madame de Pompadour, Boucher painted his few portraits (Alte Pinakotek, Munich and Wallace Collection, London). Madame de Pompadour was a patron of the arts in her own right, purchasing the Sèvres porcelain works for whom Boucher produced numerous designs. She is especially associated with Boucher’s pastorales; in addition to his frequent depictions of flirting country folk, Boucher also painted beautiful landscapes. Even though Boucher remained popular with socially mobile patrons such as Bergeret de Grancourt in the 1760s he was increasingly dismissed by critics, largely on account of what, even then, was considered frivolous and depraved subject matter. Diderot famously said of him, ‘this man has everything except the truth’.
Boucher’s immediate artistic successor was Fragonard but with the advent of Neo-classicism and then the fall of the Ancien Régime in the French Revolution, Boucher and his rococo art was totally rejected. It was not until the late nineteenth century that newly monied collectors with social aspirations, people like the Rothschilds and Henry Clay Frick, that the art of François Boucher returned to favor.
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Books on François Boucher
Colin Bailey, ed., Loves of the Gods: Mythological Painting from Watteau to David, exh. cat., New York and Fort Worth, 1992.
Alastair Laing, J. Patrice Marandel and Pierre Rosenberg, François Boucher, 1703-1770, exh. cat., New York, 1986.
Alexandre Ananoff and Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher, Paris, 1976.
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, French Eighteenth-Century Painters: Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, La Tour, Greuze, Fragonard, 1880-2, trans. Robin Ironside, Ithaca, 1981.