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.