Portrait of François Boucher
by Gustav Lundberg
This person is associated with: Rococo
French painter, leader of the Rococo style.
The son of an unknown draughtsman, Boucher studied under Lemoyne for a short period. Pushed by necessity, he had to work rapidly; he therefore started his career as a etcher, notably by engraving more than a hundred of Watteau's works. Then, he won the Prix de Rome in 1723 for Evilmerodach Releasing Jehoiachin from Prison (lost painting). However, he was not awarded a stipend to travel to Rome and had to fund the trip by himself; he left in 1728 with his future rival Carle Van Loo, who had won the prize of 1724.
Back in Paris in 1731, he received his first
important commission by a minor lawyer named François Debrais. Boucher decided to make an ambitious ensemble in order to make himself known to the Parisian elite and can be considered as his art manifesto. His five mythological nudes displayed naked goddesses, painted with rounded curves and in bright colours, which he often replicated throughout his career; for instance, he made at least six Venus and Vulcan. Derbais' apartment also exhibited his first depictions of scenes exclusively centred on fat and naughty cupids, or putti. He usually made series of the four seasons, the elements, or the liberal arts, with these grotesque characters, declined in countless arrangements by Boucher and his followers.
Soon after the completion of Derbais' apartment, Boucher was admitted in the Academy on 30 January 1734; his reception piece was
Rinaldo and Armida. His career rapidly took off and Boucher was kept busy with prestigious commissions until his death. Firstly, he made a set of four massive pastorals for an unknown patron in 1735 (supposedly the Duke of Richelieu), then a set of grisailles for the Queen's Chamber and two works of the famous series of the Foreign Hunts (1736-8) for Versailles, and seven overdoors of the Palace of Soubise in Paris (1738). Between 1739-42, the Swedish ambassador and scholar Tessin also acquired a large collection of his works, which are now in the Nationalmuseum.
These early successes caught the eye of Madame de Pompadour, the
King's official mistress, whose interest in the Arts and position at the
court had turned her into the most prominent patron in Europe. She started to employ him in 1749, with the commission of an altarpiece for her Castle of Bellevue, one of his rare religious paintings; he also painted a dozen portraits of her, another genre he scarcely approached. Among many others, he made for her two famous pictures of the Toilet and Bath of Venus - illustrating a role she played on stage before the king in Versailles in 1750 -, The Rising and Setting of the Sun in 1753, a lost series of the nine muses in 1756 for her palace in Paris (now the Elysée Presidential Palace), and eight
panels of the Arts and Sciences (circa 1762).
Meanwhile, Boucher continued to fulfil some prestigious commissions for other patrons, such as four works on the Story of Aminta and Sylvia for the Duke of Penthièvre in his Hôtel de Toulouse (Paris) in 1756. He also made portraits of naked courtesans, including several versions of the Brown Odalisque, and two of the Blonde Odalisque, whom Casanova said she was Marie-Louise O'Murphy, a 14 year-old girl who became the king's mistress. Due to a declining sight, Boucher mostly produced small pastorales in his later years (pictures of lovers frolicking in the countryside with a mild erotic tone), although he completed his last masterpiece in 1769 with six large mythological panels for the Hôtel Bergeret de Frouville.
Additionally, Boucher was the most successful tapestry designer of the century. The manufacture of Beauvais first employed him in 1735 and he designed six series for them: 8 Italian Feasts in 1736, 6 works on the Story of Psyche in 1737, 12 Chinoiseries in 1742, one work for The Loves of the Gods series, 5 works for the Fragments of Opera series, and 6 large Nobles Pastorales in 1748. The success thus enjoyed by Beauvais made jealous their arch-rival of the Gobelins, which had been the leading manufacture in France since Louis XIV. At the death of Oudry in 1755, the Gobelins lobbied the Ministry to appoint Boucher at his place of Inspector of the Gobelins, and successfully poached him from Beauvais, albeit Boucher had a limited production for them. His fabulous career as a designer also extended to the Manufacture of Sèvres, for which he drew decorations of vases and furniture.
However, the death of the Marquise of Pompadour in 1764 marked the end of Boucher's hegemony in the arts, which had started to evolve towards less frivolous compositions with the rise of Neoclassicism. The first art critics, such as Diderot, regularly derided his meaningless style; besides, Boucher refused to display his works in the Salon of 1767 after having been mocked in pamphlets. This distaste grew even higher during the Revolution because his works embodied the aristocratic decay for David and his followers. Boucher nevertheless became actively sought after by art amateurs in 19th century; the most famous being Sir Richard Wallace, who later founded a museum with his collection which counted many Bouchers.
Thanks to his dazzling prolificacy, Boucher is precisely represented in almost every museum with an interest in Old Masters. Uncommonly at the time, Boucher produced drawings of his own compositions that he sold to small connoisseurs for a cheap price. As a result, more than 5,000 of his drawings are known; he even claimed to have drawn twice as many works.
Logically, Boucher had the best career possible in the Academy, being promoted Adjunct Professor on 2 July 1735, Professor on 2 July 1737, Adjunct Rector on 29 July 1752, Rector on 1 August 1761, and finally Director of the Academy on 23 August 1765. He nonetheless had to wait the death of his rival Carle Van Loo to be appointed First Painter to the King in 1765.
He was the master of
Fragonard, Le Mettay, Drouais and Challe and father-in-law of Baudouin and Deshays de Colleville.
Les Dessins de François Boucher, Paris, Éditions Scala, 2003.
Laing, Alastair, et al. François Boucher, 1703-1770, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.
Hyde Melissa, Making Up the Rococo: François Boucher and His Critics, Los Angeles, Getty Publications, 2006.
Hyde Melissa & Ledbury Mark, Rethinking Boucher, Los Angeles, Getty Publications, 2006.