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Richard Rand, “François Boucher/Allegory of Music/1764,” French Paintings of the Fifteenth through Eighteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed March 01, 2024).

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Jan 01, 2009 Version

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Although they bear different dates, François Boucher’s Allegory of Painting [fig. 1] and Allegory of Music have been associated with each other since they came to light in the late nineteenth century.[1] Virtually identical in size, their compositions are well balanced and their subjects complementary. In each picture the arts of Painting and Music are personified as beautiful if rather undifferentiated young women,[2] seated against the sky on what appear to be billowing cloud formations. One turns her back to the viewer, while her companion reclines with her figure facing the picture plane. Their hair is pinned up to reveal the contours of their necks, and their bodies are wrapped in flowing drapes — one could hardly call it clothing — that fall away to reveal a bare shoulder, a leg, or a breast. The women are surrounded by attributes appropriate to their arts and are doted on by winged putti, who engage in playful activities. In Painting, one putto, reclining while holding a blazing torch, serves as a model for the maiden, who sketches his form on an oval canvas. A companion next to him looks on, while a third supports the canvas and holds aloft a laurel wreath. Their counterparts in Music serve similar functions, one holding a wreath and offering the woman a flûte à bec, the other pulling at the strings of a lyre.

The paintings exhibit the free and open brushwork that Boucher favored in his later years. In both works the artist apparently applied the paint relatively quickly, using a wet-into-wet technique. Numerous pentimenti indicate the freedom with which the artist painted the compositions directly on the canvas, probably with only minimal underdrawing. Indeed, the artist in Allegory of Painting, who quickly sketches her subject on the canvas with chalk, suggests the method employed by Boucher himself.[3] In the case of Music, at least, Boucher was adapting a composition he had invented as many as ten years before in an even more freely painted canvas [fig. 2].[4] In this simpler conception, a single putto gazes rapturously at the woman, who delicately pulls the lyre from his fingers. When he painted the National Gallery of Art’s picture ten years later, Boucher added the second putto with the wreath, adjusted the position of the lyre and the figures’ poses and gestures, and shifted the placement of the music book and doves. A small pen and ink drawing, long associated with the National Gallery’s Music, must have been made as part of that process [fig. 3].[5] Certain elements of the 1754 painting remain — the poses of the central figures, the music book and recorder — but Boucher added two more putti (mirroring the three in the Allegory of Painting), including one holding aloft a laurel wreath; and he adjusted the legs of the woman, anticipating how they would appear in the later painting. When he translated the design to his new canvas, however, he replaced the putto at lower right with a pair of doves and depicted the woman in a more reclining position, so that her posture mirrors that of her counterpart in Painting.

No corresponding compositional sketch for Painting has come to light, although a spirited black chalk drawing of a young boy’s head is evidently a study for the child-model at the right of the picture.[6] Yet, as is often the case with such finished drawings by Boucher, it is likely that this drawing was made after the painting as a work of art in its own right, rather than as a preliminary sketch.[7] There are numerous such drawings of putti in Boucher’s oeuvre, many related in type, if not in specific pose or gesture, to those in Painting and Music.[8] These drawings often served as models for prints, which were produced in large quantities by such engravers as Gilles Demarteau (1722 – 1776).[9]

The low viewpoints of the two paintings and the broad handling of the brushwork suggest that they were intended as overdoors, to be placed high in a decorative scheme where close examination would not have been possible. Both compositions are structured around a series of curvilinear forms, creating dynamic, oval compositions that must have been echoed in their original framing. Pairs of holes, now filled, in the corners of both paintings were probably produced when elaborate paneled surrounds were nailed over the canvases once they were in place.[10] In the pen and ink study (see fig. 3) for Music, Boucher employed an oval format, although it is unlikely that the painting itself was oval. Technical evidence suggests that the canvases have not been trimmed appreciably,[11] and key elements in the lower corners of the compositions — a palette with brushes in Painting, a plumed helmet and sword in Music, not to mention the artist’s prominent signature at the lower right of each work — are evidence that the framing did not cover much of the canvas surface. The upper corners may have been rounded, so that the expanses of unresolved sky would have seemed less empty than they do now. Noting the passages of pale rose and red tones, Paul Mantz, who first published Painting and Music in 1873, believed that the pictures may have hung in a salon decorated in white and gold, although this hypothesis is conjectural.[12]

The provenance of the Washington pendants, based on tradition rather than documentary evidence, derives from Mantz and is equally suspect: he believed they had been painted for the elector of Bavaria, Maximilian III Joseph (1745 – 1777).[13] They were supposedly returned to France in the early nineteenth century by General de Saint-Maurice, who, according to André Michel, kept them for some sixty years before selling them to Charles Maillet du Boullay.[14] As Alastair Laing has pointed out, however, Saint-Maurice never served in Bavaria and died in 1796.[15] Nor do any references to the paintings appear in the state archives of Bavaria; thus the early provenance of the paintings must be called into question.[16]

Allegories of the arts feature prominently in the oeuvre of Boucher and his circle. In conceiving the two paintings, he followed a standard formulation that he had employed on several occasions. Boucher leaves open the question of who Music represents: Is she a general personification of “music,” or someone more specific, such as one of the nine muses, the mythological attendants of Apollo? If so, she is likely Euterpe, the muse of music, or perhaps Clio, the muse of history, a figure Boucher represented before in similar fashion.[17] Identifying the figures precisely is difficult, however, given Boucher’s carefree use of attributes.[18] Noting the doves and the roses in Music, Albert Pomme de Mirimonde felt that Boucher had intended to represent Venus, thus explaining the presence of the helmet and sword at the left, the attributes of her lover, Mars.[19]  Mirimonde further suggested a neo-Platonic reading of the subject: Boucher shows us a celestial Venus who reaches for the lyre with its seven strings (symbolic of the seven celestial bodies) while rejecting the flûte à bec (“emblème érotique”), which represents her carnal nature.[20]

The figure personifying Painting is even more generic. We cannot even be certain that Boucher intended to represent the art of painting rather than drawing, since the woman is shown sketching the model in white chalk.[21] Yet she sketches on canvas, and her palette and brushes are close at hand. Though Boucher was a fluent and facile painter, he was an even more brilliant and prolific draftsman. Better than any artist of his generation, he no doubt recognized the relationship between the two arts. Colin Eisler, suggesting that the figure represents Pictura, the personification of painting, proposed that Boucher was emphasizing the more general concept of Design, in which the artistic concept was more important than its actual execution.[22] Why he juxtaposed a personification of painting with one of music is less perplexing if we consider the possibility that the pair probably was part of a set of four or five pictures, the others most likely representing Sculpture, Architecture, and Poetry.[23] Eisler reasonably proposed that such a set may have been installed in a music room or library; no paintings by Boucher have surfaced, however, that might serve as viable candidates for the rest of the suite.[24]

The winged putti that gather around the female personifications are best described as “génies,” or geniuses, which symbolize “the expanse of the spirit, the power of the imagination, and the activity of the soul.”[25] These little geniuses, usually winged but sometimes not, flutter about throughout Boucher’s oeuvre, in paintings and in numerous drawings and the prints made after them.[26] The Goncourt brothers noted their ubiquity: “They appear everywhere in [Boucher’s] work. . . . They amuse themselves at the feet of the Muses by playing with the attributes of the Arts and Sciences. . . . They are always a charming spectacle, with their little fat hands, their rotund stomachs and navels like dimples, their cupid’s bottoms, their chubby calves. . . . And what games, the sport of elves and infant gods, they play amid the allegorical scenes.”[27] Boucher’s most ambitious and elaborate use of the type was in his large canvas, painted in 1761 as a cartoon for the Gobelins tapestry works, on the subject of Les Génies des arts [fig. 4].[28] Here all the arts, including music and painting as well as sculpture, architecture, and drawing, are gathered before a classical facade, the whole a hive of activity. As in the two National Gallery allegories, one genius at the top holds aloft laurel wreaths to honor the arts.

Painting and Music were created during a period late in Boucher’s life when he was at the height of his influence, if not at the peak of his powers. In 1765 he was appointed First Painter to the King, and elected director of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. During this time his talents as a decorator were in great demand, and his prodigious output sometimes resulted in a facility of brushwork and repetition of motifs. In Painting and Music, the fluid and open technique eschews details and complex working of the surface for a more rapid alla prima effect. This result may be a function of the pictures’ destination as overdoor panels or, perhaps, the artist’s failing eyesight,[29] although Eisler suggested that in the case of Painting at least, the intervention of Boucher’s studio may have been a factor.[30] It is worth remembering, however, that by the 1760s Boucher’s technique in general had attained a bravura confidence that had become somewhat mannered.[31]



This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 25–32.

Collection data may have been updated since the publication of the print volume. Additional light adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.

Richard Rand

January 1, 2009


lower right in black paint, FB in monogram: FBoucher 1764


Possibly Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria [1745-1777]. Traditionally said to have been brought into France by the early 19th century by Général de Saint-Maurice. M. Maillet du Boullay, Paris; (his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 22 January 1870, no. 1); M. Féral. Gustave Rothan, Paris, by 1874;[1] (his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 29-31 May 1890, no. 122). Adèle, 4th duchesse de Dino [née Adèle Livingston Sampson, 1841-1912; married first to Frederick W. Stevens], Paris, by 1907; probably by inheritance to her daughter, Countess Mabel Stevens Orlowski [married 1891 to Count Mieczyslaw Orlowski (1865-1929)];[2] (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London); sold 1942 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1946 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Peinture exposés au profit de la colonisation de l'Algérie pars les Alsaciens-Lorrains, Palais de la Présidence du Corps législatif, Paris, 1974, no. 31.
Tableaux anciens et modernes exposés au profit du Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Pavillon de Flore, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1878, no. 15.
The Great Tradition of French Painting, Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans, 1940, no. 8.
Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 767.
François Boucher in North American Collections: One Hundred Drawings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Art Institute of Chicago, 1973-1974, unnumbered brochure for Washington venue (shown only in Washington).


Mantz, Paul. "La Galerie de M. Rothan." Gazette des Beaux-Arts. 2cd ser., vol 7 (1873): 442
Goncourt, Edmond de, and Jules de Goncourt. L'art du dix-huitième siècle. 2 vols. Paris, 1880-1884: 1:195.
Mantz, Paul. François Boucher, Lemoyne et Natoire. Paris, 1880: 153
Michel, André. François Boucher. Paris, 1906: no. 937.
Nolhac, Pierre de. François Boucher: premier peintre du roi. Paris, 1907: 147, repro. opposite 146
Macfall, Haldane. Boucher, the man, his times, his art, and his significance. London, 1908: 152, 154
Nolhac, Pierre de. Boucher, premier peintre du roi. Paris, 1925: 189, repro. opposite 92
"Kress Makes Important Donation of French Painting to the Nation." Art Digest 18, no. 19 (1 August 1944): 5.
"The Almanac: French Paintings Given to the National Gallery." The Magazine Antiques 46, no. 5 (November 1944): 288
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 163, repro.
Wildenstein and Company. French XVIII Century Paintings. New York, 1948: 4.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 126, color repro.
Einstein, Lewis. "Looking at French Eighteenth Century Pictures in Washington." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 6th ser., 47, no. 1048-1049 (May-June 1956): 226.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): 20, pl. 49.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 365, repro.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 18.
Gandolfo, Giampaolo et al. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Great Museums of the World. New York, 1968: 72, color repro.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 11, repro.
Mirimonde, Albert P. de. "Les Allégories de la Musique II: Le Retour de Mercure et les Allégories des Beaux-Arts." Gazette des Beaux-Arts. 6th ser., vol. 73 (May-June 1969): 357, repro. 360
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 38, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 336, no. 451, repro.
Ananoff, Alexandre, with Daniel Wildenstein. François Boucher. 2 vols. Lausanne and Paris, 1976: 2:232, no. 580, repro.
Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 316-318, fig. 282, as The Personification of Music.
Ananoff, Alexandre, with Daniel Wildenstein. L'opera completa di Boucher. Milan, 1980: no. 613, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 334, no. 449, color repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 58, repro.
Baillio, Joseph, et al. The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. A Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein's Presence in New York. Exh. cat. Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 2005: 78 (not in the exhibition).
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: no. 5, 25-32, color repro.

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