This important canvas, less well known than its companion piece The Toilet of Venus, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [fig. 1], is among Boucher’s most poetic and graceful images of one of his favorite subjects. The setting is a lush clearing deep in a forest, where Venus and Cupid have come to bathe at the edge of a pond, just visible at the lower center. The naked goddess, her long-limbed figure concealed only by a bit of striped brocade, reclines easily on the bank, draperies spread out beneath her. She reaches across her body toward a somewhat petulant Cupid, who steps tentatively into the water. At the right of the composition two amours look on, while a pair of doves, symbol of the goddess of love, nestle among the reeds at her feet.
The focus of the composition is the youthful and beautiful Venus, the soft contours of her figure highlighted against the rich greens and blues of the background. Her body is displayed to the viewer, and her relaxed pose, in contrast to the uncomfortable stance of Cupid, reinforces the notion that she is the presiding deity in this verdant and remote bower. A fine study in red and white chalks, drawn from a live model in the studio, demonstrates the care Boucher took in working out the pose [fig. 2]. In transferring the drawing to his painting, he changed slightly the angle of the model’s head and left leg and placed a bit of drapery across her thighs. In so doing he was adhering to decorum, but the covering also has the effect of obscuring a disjuncture in the anatomy, specifically the relationship of the figure’s right thigh to the hip. In the drawing, the parts of the body plausibly fit together, but in relocating the figure from studio to fictive landscape, Boucher clearly was more concerned with fitting her pliant form into the abundant surroundings than with any anatomical exactitude. Nevertheless, the fact that he based the figure on a life study (the drawing has been called an “académie de femme”) shows the degree to which Boucher, even at this stage in his career, could follow standard academic procedure when attending a commission of importance.
According to Elie Cathérine Fréron, writing in L’Année littéraire in 1757, “Venus and her court have chosen [Boucher] as their painter.” His youthful goddess in the National Gallery of Art’s painting is one in a long line of female nudes, such as Diana at the Bath of 1742 (Paris, Musée du Louvre) or, even closer, with its motif of stepping into water, his Venus Descending from Her Chariot to Enter Her Bath, a canvas painted in 1738 as an overdoor decoration for the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. Although Boucher made life studies for each of these figures, their ultimate source is one of the most ravishing of all rococo nudes, The Bather, painted in 1724 by Boucher’s teacher, François Lemoyne (1688 – 1737) [fig. 3]. Even if Boucher claimed that his short apprenticeship in Lemoyne’s studio in the early 1720s had little if any effect on his art, he must have admired The Bather when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1725, for when he painted his Venuses of 1738 and 1751 he clearly remembered her long-limbed, small-breasted figure, her downcast eyes, and the tentative step into the water. Lemoyne’s bather, attended by her maid, is a wholly secular figure, but her ethereal beauty and unabashed sensuousness were easily adapted, with the addition of suitable attributes, to Boucher’s goddesses of love.
A compositional sketch first published by Ananoff has also been associated with The Bath of Venus, showing the care Boucher took in working out his design before beginning to paint [fig. 4]. We see the same figure, the position of her head already altered, placed in a landscape similar to the one in the painting. The main differences are that at this stage Boucher had yet to introduce the two amours to the left of the goddess, placing there instead the two doves; and the position of the little Cupid, who now seems to be turning to his mother for protection rather than struggling away from her. The drawing also demonstrates that Boucher had at first contemplated a more vertical format with the top and bottom shaped as scallops. Indeed, this drawing may represent the original contours of the painting, since technical evidence indicates that the Washington canvas was first stretched in a narrower format and that pieces of canvas have been added to the corners, squaring off what was a shaped composition.
The original contours of The Bath of Venus and its pendant The Toilet of Venus undoubtedly related to the architecture in which the pictures were intended to be set: the Château de Bellevue, the country retreat outside Paris built by Lassaurance the Elder in 1748 – 1750 for Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour (1721 – 1764), the maîtresse en titre of Louis XV (r. 1715 – 1774). Bellevue, Pompadour’s primary residence from 1750 to 1757, when the property was ceded to the king’s daughters and most of its contents were removed, became a showpiece for the marquise’s favorite artists, especially Boucher. Among the many works he painted for the château was The Love Letter.