The rococo style first appeared in France at the end of the reign of Luis XIV (1715) and had its splendour until the year 1770: it involved mostly the decoration of private residences, characterised by an irregular rhythm, by an exuberant and animated style that brings nature indoors, with fountain imagery, rampant sprays of foliage and flowers, swirling scrolls and asymmetry.
François Boucher has been called “the Grace Painter”: his father was an artist and he had the first training in his workshop, but later he left and continued his formation with the painter Lemayne from the year 1720: his chromatic sensitivity was near the one of Watteau, with references to the Italian masters from Venice (Rosalba Carriera, Sebastiano Ricci, etc.). Boucher stayed there only few months, but his fluent and vibrant brush and the use of light and bright colours were influenced by his master. He was also an engraver, he created title-page drawings and decorations for headed papers, and he became artistic director in charge of the design at the Gobelins tapestry factory in 1755. The painter made such a good impression on Jean de Julienne, who included Boucher in realising the print edition of Watteau’s works (the first volume was published in 1726 with 55 illustrations).
Boucher went to Italy in 1728, his impact with Albani, Domenichino, Pietro da Cortona and Tiepolo was intense, when he came back to France his series of canvases for Derbas was the right occasion to be known: he painted as subjects the loves of Gods, composing the scenes on diagonal asses and gave his characters emphatic gestures. The canvases have noble structure but he had a preference for an anti-heroic solution, using light colours, sublime characters and situations that came from the theatre. His success was instant.
In 1731 Boucher entered in the Académie des Beaux Arts of Paris (founded in 1648) as history painter and he was consecrated as professor in 1735; he became Premier Peintre in 1765. His first royal commission were four grisailles with virtues’ allegories, realised for the Queen’s room in the same year, and in no time he was asked to decorate many royal or noble houses. Between 1735 and 1738 he worked in Versailles not only in the Queen’s room, but also in the King’s and Dauphin’s apartments.
Boucher had a close relationship with one of the most famous women in history, Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, 1721-1764): mistress of Louis XV and most powerful woman in the XVIII century, Madame de Pompadour favoured the entrance of Boucher and Voltaire at court, she was their patron until her death. Boucher taught her the art of drawing and etching and he was charged to coordinate the decoration of the Chateau de Bellevue, gift from the king in 1748. He worked together with other famous artists as Adam, Falconet, Pigalle, Van Loo and Oudry. In 1752 Madame de Pompadour had realised by the Gobelins factory some tapestries based on Boucher’s paintings with scenes taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and all of them were supposed to be hung in the Chateau de Bellevue. The Setting of the Sun (oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, 1752) sees Apollo welcomed by the nymph Tethys at the end of the day, and of course Madame was represented by the nymph, because she too used to welcome king Luis XV at nights after a day of hard work. Its twin, the Rising of the Sun (oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, 1753), was made the year after and was fiercely criticised at the Salon because of its excessive nudity.
Boucher made a lot of portraits of Madame, the one conserved in Munich (oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, 1756) was also exposed at the Salon, and let us see her nature and her high social standing. The objects are combined casually, because rococo style wants a similarity with the nature, and disorder was at that time an aesthetic category, like nature. Another portrait of Madame de Pompadour, that can be seen in London (oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, 1759), represents Madame in the park of the Bellevue Castle, lent against the basement of a statue by Pigalle with her spaniel Inés. At that time her relationship with the king was platonic, and this painting is a big metaphor for this status: Pigalle’s statue represents Friendship consoling Love, the close fan is a symbol of friendship and the dog means fidelity – Madame his faithful to the king as her spaniel is to her.
When she died in 1765 Boucher passed under her brother’s protection, but after the painter’s death he was completely forgotten. After 1770 there was a complete censure about the rococo movement, because of its values and as reaction to the debate against luxury. Diderot recognised Boucher’s talent, but he didn’t forgive him “the absence of truth” and he thought that all these painters were a wrong example.
If you like the Rococo and its painters, don’t miss in London the Wallace Collection: it’s a little jewel, that has to be seen.
O. Rossi Pinelli, Il secolo della ragione e delle rivoluzioni. La cultura visiva nel Settecento europeo , UTET, Torino 2000
O. Rossi Pinelli, Boucher, Art-Dossier, Giunti Editore, n.121, March 1997