The Love Letter — also referred to as The Two Confidantes, The Messenger, The Lovers’ Secret Mail, and, less convincingly, The Beloved Sheep — typifies the pastoral idiom François Boucher had already made his own by the late 1740s. In a lush and verdant garden or wooded countryside, two young women recline at the base of a stone pillar surmounted by a carved lion.
The stone lion — which appears in other pastorals by Boucher, such as The Enjoyable Lesson (Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher [Lausanne and Paris, 1976], 2: no. 311), exhibited at the Salons of 1748 and 1750 — is based on the pair of antique sculptures at the base of the Capitoline Steps in Rome; see Ursula Hoff, European Paintings before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria, 4th ed. (Melbourne, 1995), 22.
The Love Letter originally formed a pair with The Interrupted Sleep, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2: no. 363. The pendants remained together until they were dispersed at the sale of the marquis de Ménars and Marigny’s collection in 1782.
Alexandre Ananoff, L’oeuvre dessiné de François Boucher 1732 – 1806 (Paris, 1966), no. 261, fig. 48, publishes a drawing by Boucher formerly in the collection of Princess Mathilde, showing a similar subject, but indoors.
The two paintings, both signed and dated 1750, were not original compositions but were adapted by Boucher from a monumental tapestry cartoon that he had painted in 1748, probably with the help of studio assistants.
The painting survives only in mutilated condition. The main sections are in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the section corresponding to The Love Letter is in a private collection; see Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2: nos. 321, 324. For a full discussion of these paintings, see Jean-Luc Bordeaux, “The Epitome of the Pastoral Genre in Boucher’s Oeuvre: The Fountain of Love and The Bird Catcher from The Noble Pastoral,” in J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 3 (1976): 87, repro.
See Maurice Block, François Boucher and the Beauvais Tapestries (Boston and New York, 1933), fig. 8.
Although they were taken from an earlier project, The Love Letter and its pendant are wholly autograph. They were produced for no less prestigious a client than Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour (1721 – 1764), Louis XV’s maîtresse en titre, undoubtedly the reason Boucher took special care in painting them. The royal provenance is confirmed by the inscription on Jean Ouvrier’s (1725 – 1754) engraving of 1761 after The Love Letter, The Two Confidentes
“Tiré du Cabinet de Madame la Marquise de Pompadour”; see Pierrette Jean-Richard, L’oeuvre gravée de François Boucher dans la collection Edmond de Rothschild (Paris, 1978), 346, nos. 1435 – 1437, repro. The engraving after the Metropolitan picture, by Nicolas Dauphin de Beauvais, also noted that it was “Tiré du Cabinet de Madame la Marquise de Pompadour” (Pierrette Jean-Richard, L’oeuvre gravée de François Boucher dans la collection Edmond de Rothschild [Paris, 1978], 279 – 280, nos. 281 – 284, repro.; Madame de Pompadour et les arts [Paris, 2002], 244 – 245, nos. 95 – 96). The Love Letter was also reproduced in an etching by Anne Charbonnier (Pierrette Jean-Richard, L’oeuvre gravée de François Boucher dans la collection Edmond de Rothschild [Paris, 1978], no. 463, repro.).
No. 181 in the Salon livret: “Deux pastorales dessus de Porte, du Château de Belle-Vûe, sous le même no” (Two pastorals, overdoors from the Château de Bellevue, under the same number).
“Le petit cabinet qui suit la chambre à coucher de Sa Majesté, est entièrement boisé. Les moulures de ses lambris sont relevées par des guirlandes de fleurs peintes au naturel; et dans les milieux des panneaux, des cartouches font voir divers exercises de l’âge tendre. Sur les portes il y a deux pastorales, de M. Boucher.” Antoine-Nicolas Dézallier d’Argenville, Voyages pittoresque des environs de Paris ou description des maisons royales (Paris, 1755), 29.
Although d’Argenville’s account of the paintings is vague (even if he took care to relate the details of the room’s decoration), we can be confident that they are the canvases now in Washington and New York based on descriptions made when they were exhibited in Paris and on measurements recorded later.
For example, Père Laugier’s review of the Salon describes the National Gallery painting in this way: “Dans l’autre, une Bergère reçoit de sa Campagne un Cigne qui porte une lettre liée à un ruban; elle le reçoit d’un air inquiet & rêveur” (In the other, a shepherdess in the countryside receives a swan that carries a letter tied by a ribbon; she receives it with a worried and dreamy expression). Quoted in Anonymous [probably Père Marc Antoine Laugier], Jugement d’un amateur sur l’exposition des tableaux, Lettre à M. le Marquis de V*** (Paris, 1753), in Catalogue de la collection de pieces sur les Beaux-Arts (Paris, 1881), 59:29 – 30.
Fiske Kimball, The Creation of the Rococo (Philadelphia, 1943), 195; Paul Biver, Histoire du Château de Meudon (Paris, 1923), 57, who notes that the room, just off the king’s bedroom, was known as the chambre doré.
See Christopher Tadgell, Ange-Jacques Gabriel (London, 1978), 155 – 157. The fact that they were no longer in situ at Bellevue is confirmed by later editions of d’Argenville’s Voyage pittoresque and by the inscription on Ouvrier’s engraving of 1761 (“Tiré du Cabinet de Madame la Marquise de Pompadour”; see Pierrette Jean-Richard, L’oeuvre gravée de François Boucher dans la collection Edmond de Rothschild [Paris, 1978]), which implies that by that date they had already been made into easel pictures.
“Dans le vestibulle au rez-de-chaussée: . . . 1231.-No. 79. . . . Deux autres tableaux du même maître, peints en mil sept cent cinquante, représentants des pastoralles; prisés neuf cens livres” (In the vestibule on the ground floor: . . . 1231.-No. 79. . . . Two other pictures by the same master, painted in 1750, representing pastorals; value 900 pounds [livres]). Jean Cordey, Inventaire des biens de Madame de Pompadour rédigé après son décès (Paris, 1939), 90.
“Deux jeunes filles assises sur un gazon, attachant une lettre au col d’une colombe. Elles sont entourées de plusieurs moutons et d’un chien, sur un fond de paysage agréable et pittoresque.” The entry goes on to note the engraving by Ouvrier and the dimensions of the picture (2 1/2 ft. high by 27 in. wide in eighteenth-century measurements); see F. Basan and F. Ch. Joullain, Catalogue des différens objets de curiosité dans les sciences et les arts qui composoient le cabinet de feu M. le Marquis de Ménars (Paris, 1782), 336, no. 17; the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s picture is fully described under no. 13.
Pompadour’s enthusiasm for Boucher is well established, and Bellevue was the setting for several of his most impressive productions.
See Danielle Gallet-Guerne, Madame de Pompadour ou le pouvoir féminin (Paris, 1985), 132 – 136; Madame de Pompadour et les arts (Paris, 2002), 99 – 116. Boucher, of course, was not the only painter to decorate Bellevue. Among the significant works by other artists were two landscapes by
For the Metropolitan picture, see Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2: no. 376; Alastair Laing, François Boucher (1703 – 1770) (New York, 1986), no. 60.
Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2: no. 340; Alastair Laing, François Boucher (1703 – 1770) (New York, 1986), no. 57.
Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), nos. 422 – 423. While the tapestries were intended for Bellevue, evidence suggests that the paintings were also displayed in the château; see John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Pictures (London, 1989), 3:68 – 78.
The latter genre was perhaps most amenable to the function of Bellevue, with its striking site overlooking the Seine and its luxuriant and intimate gardens.
See Paul Biver, Histoire du Château de Meudon (Paris, 1923); Danielle Gallet-Guerne, Madame de Pompadour ou le pouvoir féminin (Paris, 1985), 132 – 138. On Pompadour’s role in the construction and decoration of the château, see Donald Posner, “Madame de Pompadour as a Patron of the Visual Arts,” Art Bulletin 72, no. 1 (March 1990): 81 – 84; Madame de Pompadour et les arts (Paris, 2002), 99 – 109.
“C’est un endroit délicieux pour la vue, la maison, quoique pas bien grande, est commode et charmante, sans nulle espèce de magnificence.” Quoted in Christopher Tadgell, Ange-Jacques Gabriel (London, 1978), 157.
On this point, see Katherine K. Gordon, “Madame de Pompadour, Pigalle, and the Iconography of Friendship,” Art Bulletin 50, no. 3 (Sept. 1968): 249 – 262; and Donald Posner, “Madame de Pompadour as a Patron of the Visual Arts,” Art Bulletin 72, no. 1 (March 1990): 77; Pigalle’s marble Amitié (Paris, Musée du Louvre), part of Pompadour’s iconographic campaign celebrating her new friendship with the king, originally graced the “Bosquet de l’amour” at Bellevue. Katherine K. Gordon, “Madame de Pompadour, Pigalle, and the Iconography of Friendship,” Art Bulletin 50, no. 3 (Sept. 1968): 257, fig. 14.
D. G. Charlton, New Images of the Natural in France: A Study in European Cultural History 1750 – 1800 (Cambridge, 1984), 20.
“Les Eglogues de M. de Fontenelle ont enrichi nos Pastorales d’une nouvelle espèce de Bergers, remarquables par la galanterie et les délicatesse de leurs sentimens. Ceux que M. Boucher a introduit dans la Peinture, joignant à tout le mérite des premiers cette simplicité et cette naïveté si précieuse que n’ont pas toujours ceux de M. de Fontenelle.” Jean Bernard abbé Leblanc, Observations sur les ouvrages de MM. de l’Académie de peinture et de sculpture, exposés au Salon du Louvre en l’année 1753. . . . (Paris, 1753), 17 – 18. On Boucher and the painted pastoral, see Alastair Laing, “Boucher et la pastorale peinte,” Revue de l’Art 73 (1986): 55 – 64.
In the 1740s and 1750s Boucher was one of the most prolific painters of pastoral decorations, and his overdoor panels were often treated in pairs or series intended to represent allegories such as the Times of Day or the Four Seasons.
For example, the Four Seasons (New York, Frick Collection), painted in 1755 for Madame de Pompadour. Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2: nos. 454 – 457.
Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt, L’art du dix-huitième siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1880 – 1884), 1:147; translation by Robin Ironside in French XVIII Century Painters (New York, 1948), 67.
Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2: nos. 593 – 596.
For a survey of the critical response to Boucher’s later work, see Brunel, “Boucher, neveu de Rameau,” in Diderot et l’art de Boucher à David: les Salons, 1759 – 1781 (Paris, 1984), 101 – 109.
For example, the subject of The Interrupted Sleep probably was inspired by a similar treatment by Lancret, known as La Taquine (The Teaser), in which the woman teases the man; see Georges Wildenstein, Lancret (Paris, 1924), nos. 135 – 136.
“M. Boucher a continué de ravir par les graces et les agrémens de sa composition . . . dans les dessus de portes faits pour Bellevûe.” Comte de Caylus, “Expositions des ouvrages de l’Académie Royale. . . .” Mercure de France (Oct. 1753): 3.
“Ces deux morceaux caracterisent toujours mieux la vive et riante imagination de l’Auteur, qui met par-tout de l’esprit et des graces. Il s’est fait un genre qui lui est propre; et on est obligé de convenir qu’il y a réussit éminemment.” Anonymous [probably Père Marc Antoine Laugier], Jugement d’un amateur sur l’exposition des tableaux, Lettre à M. le Marquis de V*** (Paris, 1753), in Catalogue de la collection de pieces sur les Beaux-Arts (Paris, 1881), 59:29 – 30.
Boucher’s two compositions must have been popular, for numerous copies are recorded, and the composition of The Love Letter inspired a host of lesser artists and decorators, appearing as an oval tapestry, as decoration on snuffboxes, and in gouaches by Boucher’s son-in-law Pierre Antoine Baudouin (1723 – 1769).
For the tapestry, see Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2:18, fig. 928; the dog appears on a snuffbox in the Wrightsman Collection, New York (F. J. B. Watson and Carl Dauterman, The Wrightsman Collection, 5 vols. [New York, 1966 – 1973], 140 – 143); one of the Baudouins is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (Schlichting Collection); another, on ivory, is in the Jones Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see Oliver Brackett, Catalogue of the Jones Collection, 3 vols. [London, 1922 – 1924], 2:68, no. 588, repro., who lists other copies).
Paired with a picture called The Shepherdess; both paintings are oil on canvas, 125.5 × 89 cm (49 1/2 × 35 in.); J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, A71.P23 / 24; for numerous copies, see Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 2:66 – 67.
On the question of “narrative” in Fragonard’s cycle, see Donald Posner, “The True Path of Fragonard’s Progress of Love,” Burlington Magazine 114, no. 833 (Aug. 1972): 526 – 534; Mary D. Sheriff, Fragonard: Art and Eroticism (Chicago, 1990), 93 – 94.
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), 12–18.
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.
January 1, 2009
upper right on lintel beneath lion: f. Boucher / 1750
Painted for Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour [1721-1764], and installed in the chambre doré on the first [i.e., second] floor of the Château de Bellevue, outside Paris; removed c. 1757; recorded 1764 in the vestibule of the ground floor of the Hôtel d'Evreux, Pompadour's Parisian residence; by inheritance to her brother, Abel François Poisson, marquis de Ménars et de Marigny [1727-1781], Château de Ménars, Paris; (his estate sale, at his residence by Basan and Joullain, Paris, 18 March-6 April 1782 [postponed from late February], no. 17). (sale, Hôtel des Commissaires-Priseurs, Paris, 14-15 March 1842, no. 15). (anonymous sale ["Provenant du Cabinet de M. X***], Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 26 April 1861, no. 2). Emile [1800-1875] and Isaac [1806-1880] Pereire, Paris; (Péreire sale, at their residence by Pillet and Petit, Paris, 6-9 March 1872, no. 57, as Le Mouton chéri or Le messager); purchased by Sommier, possibly for Frédéric-Alexis-Louis Pillet-Will, comte Pillet [1837-1911], Paris. (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Paris, New York, and London); sold to William R. Timken [1866-1949], New York, by 1932; by inheritance to his widow, Lillian Guyer Timken [1881-1959], New York; bequest 1960 to NGA.
- Salon, Paris, 1753, under no. 181.
- Exhibition of French Art 1200-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1932, no. 228.
- French Painting and Sculpture of the XVIII Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1935-1936, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 29.
- Masterpieces of Art. European & American Paintings 1500-1900, New York World's Fair, 1940, no. 192.
- 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).
The support is a medium-weight, plain-weave fabric. The painting has been lined, and the tacking margins have been removed. Although the painting was intended to be viewed as a shaped composition, the original stretcher was not oval. The fabric was stretched as a rectangle from its inception. It is interesting to note that the pendant The Interrupted Sleep, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is painted on a similar fabric, and the shapes of the two compositions mimic each other precisely. At some point the corners were painted to extend the composition and turn it into a rectangular format. The ground layer is smooth, thick, and white. The relative density of materials in the X-radiographs suggests that the corners of the painting were prepared with a thinner layer or perhaps no ground at all, presumably because these areas were not intended to be painted. Air-path X-ray fluorescence showed some differences in the range of pigments used to paint the corners compared to those used to paint the main section, further indicating that the paint on the corners is a later addition.
The X-ray fluorescence analysis was conducted by the NGA scientific research department, July 12, 1990.
The painting is in good condition. There are a few scattered losses and some traction crackle. It was treated most recently in 1990 when it was removed from a plywood backing board, which had an impressed stamp on the back that read, “Tachet Brevete A Paris.” The painting was probably adhered to this panel in the early 1860s, because a newspaper clipping that referred to “le president Lincoln” was found between the laminates of the plywood. The painting was certainly attached to the plywood before 1872, when it was so described in the Péreire sale (Paris, March 6 – 9, 1872, no. 57). Also during the 1990 treatment, a discolored varnish was removed, and the painting was relined. Though the losses and traction crackle were inpainted, the spandrels were left with the old restoration untouched. The varnish and inpainting applied at that time have not discolored.
- Brüger, W. "Galerie de MM. Pereire." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 1st ser., 17 (1864): 201.
- Goncourt, Edmond de, and Jules de Goncourt. L'art du dix-huitième siècle. 2 vols. Paris, 1880: I:196.
- Mantz, Paul. François Boucher, Lemoyne et Natoire. Paris, 1880: 130 (possibly)
- Michel, André. François Boucher. Paris, 1906: no. 1438.
- Nolhac, Pierre de. François Boucher: premier peintre du roi. Paris, 1907: 157
- Wildenstein, Georges. "L'Exposition de l'art français a Londres: Le XVIIIe siècle." Gazette des Beaux-Arts. 6th ser., vol. 7 (1932): repro. p. 63
- Wildenstein, Georges. "Paintings from America in the French Exhibition." The Fine Arts 18 (January 1932): 26, repro.
- Cordey, Jean. Inventaire des biens de Madame de Pompadour rédigé après don décès. Paris, 1939: no. 1231
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 317, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 18
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 10, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 40, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 336, no. 448, repro.
- Ananoff, Alexandre. "François Boucher et l'Amérique." L'Oeil 251 (June 1976): 21.
- Ananoff, Alexandre, with Daniel Wildenstein. François Boucher. 2 vols. Lausanne and Paris, 1976: 2:66, no. 364, repro.
- Bordeaux, Jean-Luc. "The Epitome of the Pastoral Genre in Boucher's Oeuvre: The Fountain of Love and The Bird Catcher from The Noble Pastoral." The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 3 (1976): 87, repro.
- Jean-Richard, Pierrette. L'Oeuvre grave de Francois Boucher, dans la Collection Edmond de Rothschild. Paris, 1978: 346.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 334, no. 444, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 59, repro.
- Brunel, Georges. Boucher. New York, 1986: 177, 247, 273, figs. 143, 227.
- From El Greco to Cezanne, Pincothèque Nationale Musée Alexandros Soutzos, Athens, 1992, under no. 27
- Madam de Pompadour et les arts. Exh. cat. Musée national des château de Versailles et de Trianon; Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich; National
Gallery, London, 2002-2003: 245, under no. 96.
- 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. 2, 12-18, color repro.