Genius of the French Rococo: The Drawings of François Boucher (1703–1770) and Boucher’s Mythological Paintings: The Last Great Series Reunited
The work of François Boucher (1703–1770), the favorite artist of Madame de Pompadour, embodies to perfection the pleasure-loving elegance of French court life in the mid-18th century. Organized to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Boucher—who was the most talented and prolific draftsman of his generation—an unprecedented international loan exhibition of his drawings opened in January 2004 at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. The Drawings of François Boucher, organized by the American Federation of Arts, was the first major survey of the artist’s graphic work to bring together such a substantial number of loans, from both public and private collections in Europe and the United States. Presenting approximately 80 works of the highest quality—many never before seen in the U.S.—the exhibition provided a deeper understanding of Boucher’s abundant output of works on paper and demonstrated his extraordinary technique and style as a draftsman. The artist’s wide variety of subject matter was revealed by a selection that included pastoral scenes and landscapes, various conceptions of mythology, religious narratives, historical events, representations of literature and allegory, and contemporary scenes.
Commented Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “Celebrated in his lifetime as the chief painter of the French court, it is Boucher’s extraordinary talent as a draftsman that has ensured his enduring appeal to modern eyes. His drawings have a freshness and assured spontaneity that the medium of paint can rarely match. It is a very major event to have so many of his greatest masterpieces brought together in this exhibition.”
By his own admission, Boucher is said to have made as many as 10,000 drawings over the course of a career that spanned nearly five decades. Not only did he make preparatory compositional and figure studies for his paintings, but he also used drawings in the process of designing cartoons for Beauvais and Gobelins tapestries and as models for Sèvres porcelain. From early on in his career he provided drawings to be engraved as book illustrations, frontispieces, and allegorical vignettes. As a mature artist he pioneered the concept of the autonomous drawing, creating individual works specifically for collectors. Following innovations in printmaking in the 1740s, Boucher also made drawings to be engraved in facsimile, which could, therefore, reach broader audiences. Furthermore, he explored the graphic medium in all its variety, drawing in sanguine (red chalk); sanguine brûlée (reddish-brown chalk); pen and ink (both black and brown); brush and wash; pastel; in the trois crayons technique perfected by Watteau; and in black chalk heightened with white on blue, gray, or fawn paper.
The son of a master painter in the Paris Guild (the Académie de Saint-Luc), Boucher spent a brief apprenticeship in the studio of the brilliant, but unstable, history painter François Lemoyne. During the early to middle 1720s, Boucher created etchings of more than 100 drawings by Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) and was thereafter strongly influenced by the artist’s figural style and use of color. In 1723, Boucher won the Academy’s annual Prix de Rome, the premiere student prize that would enable him to study classical and Renaissance art in Rome at the Académie de France. Surviving drawings from this period (the trip was delayed and he actually traveled to the Eternal City in 1728) suggest that he was most interested in the vigor and grandiloquence of the Italian Baroque. On this sojourn, he also encountered the work of Northern mannerist Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651), whose rustic protagonists had a considerable influence on the young artist’s own peasant scenes and early pastorals. Back in Paris by the summer of 1731, Boucher quickly ascended the Academy’s hierarchy as a history painter and was made a full professor by 1737. Among the most successful of the extracurricular activities he undertook at the same time for private, sometimes royal, clients was the set of illustrations for a new edition of Molière’s works in 1734–35. Setting the narratives in contemporary Parisian interiors, Boucher approached each episode as a miniature history painting and prepared his compositions accordingly with figure studies of unprecedented verve and spontaneity.
Despite the caliber of such drawings, it was primarily as a painter of mythological subjects that Boucher made his reputation in the 1730s, one that became unassailable with Madame de Pompadour’s installation as titular mistress in 1745. Indeed, under these circumstances, Boucher quickly gained ascendancy as the foremost painter in her circle. His masterpieces, The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun (now in the Wallace Collection, London), from which a single set of Gobelins tapestries was woven, were conceived as a part of mythological decorations for Pompadour’s Château de Bellevue. A drawing of a male nude, based on the figure of Apollo in The Rising of the Sun, was included in the exhibition. Similarly, Head of a River God in Profile is not a preparatory study, but one made after a figure in a lost tapestry cartoon, Rinaldo Asleep. The recycling of motifs to create satisfying individual sheets for the private market is an important aspect of Boucher’s production, one that only recently has been given the attention it deserves.
The subject of the female nude was a constant in Boucher’s graphic output, from the cat-eyed studies in black or red chalk that date from the mid-1730s to the 1740s, to the more weighty figures that characterize his later production. Close examination of the provocative Recumbent Female Nude (once a part of the Kimbell’s collection), suggests that the function of these erotic studies is more complex than is immediately apparent. Part courtesan, part Venus’s handmaiden, the figure adopts a pose that Boucher had studied many times before in the previous decade. While it anticipates the more blatant eroticism associated with his Odalisques, the drawing retains an ethereal grace and delicacy more appropriate to Mount Olympus than to the seraglio of a sultan’s harem.
As a painter, Boucher embraced all genres within the Academy’s hierarchy with the exception of still life, and his graphic work was no less compelling and all encompassing—treating religious, mythological, and historical narratives; scenes from everyday life and domesticity; studies of adults and children made from life models; depictions, real and idealized, of the male and female nude. The exhibition included outstanding examples of all of the above.
Boucher not only operated within the parameters established by the Academy, but he recast and reinvented certain of its categories. Just as his creation of the painted pastoral scene civilized the prevailing Dutch-inspired rustic subject, so did his treatment of landscape renew that genre. The exhibition included Landscape with the Aqueduct at Arcueil, a rendition of the structure created in the 17th century for Marie de Médicis. Framed by overgrown trees, the scene evokes the abandoned grounds of a château south of Paris where artists of Boucher’s generation flocked to make paintings and drawings en plein air.
Although in the 1760s Boucher came under fire from progressive critics for his attachment to a purely fictive universe, he continued to produce monumental mythological and pastoral decorations that display an inventiveness and acuity that would be matched only by his pupil Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the next decade. Still in royal favor, Boucher became premier peintre to the aging Louis XV in 1765. However, the artist seems also to have been receptive to the emerging classicism that infiltrated all aspects of French art, decorative arts, and architecture in this decade. An example of this aesthetic shift can be found in the exhibition, which features the dignified and magisterial Study of a Despondent Woman in Drapery. While the work cannot be connected to any surviving composition, it may have been intended to assist his son-in-law, the history painter Jean-Baptiste Deshays, with a figure for a tapestry cartoon of The Anger of Achilles.
The Drawings of François Boucher was curated by British art historian Alastair Laing, adviser on paintings and sculpture to the National Trust, London, since 1986. He was the co-curator and principal catalogue author of the exhibition François Boucher (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; and Grand Palais, Paris, 1986–87). The exhibition was organized by the American Federation of Arts, and made possible, in part, by grants from the Fino Family Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Pfizer Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Benefactors Circle of the AFA. Prior to its showing at the Kimbell, the exhibition was seen at the Frick Collection, New York (October 8–December 14, 2003).
Boucher’s Mythological Paintings: The Last Great Series Reunited augmented the exhibition of his drawings in Fort Worth. A fine group of preparatory drawings made by Boucher for his large, decorative mythological paintings for the Hôtel Bergeret de Frouville in Paris were exhibited for the first time in conjunction with the paintings themselves. Four of the paintings are in the Kimbell’s own permanent collection, and they were reunited for the occasion with two others, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In his last great set of mythological paintings, created a year before his death, Boucher displays the full vigor of his brush. Several figural studies related to these paintings show how Boucher explored various positions for the mermaids in Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds from his imagination before settling on the exact pose.
Promotional support in Fort Worth for Genius of the French Rococo: The Drawings of François Boucher (1703–1770) and Boucher’s Mythological Paintings: The Last Great Series Reunited was provided by American Airlines and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
A fully illustrated catalogue, published by the AFA in association with Scala Publishers Ltd., accompanied the exhibition and features entries that reassess the dating of many of Boucher’s drawings, trace their history of ownership, discuss the relationship between drawings and specific paintings, and reveal other new research. Included is an essay by Alastair Laing that explores Boucher’s development as a draftsman through his range of subjects, his contemporary appeal, and his innovations in the medium. A foreword by Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Musée du Louvre, Paris, addresses Boucher’s place among the great French draftsmen of his time.
An inaugural lecture took place on Saturday, January 17, 2004, and featured Alastair Laing speaking on Boucher and His Patrons.
Caption: François Boucher, Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds (detail), 1769, oil on canvas. Kimbell Art Musuem