François Boucher was a member of an extraordinarily talented generation of artists born around 1700 who would dominate French painting for much of the eighteenth century. Heir to the grand manner of seventeenth-century art, Boucher nevertheless created a style and repertory of subject matter that was perfectly compatible with the intimate scale and refined taste of the court of Louis XV (r. 1715–1774) and his maitresse en titre, the marquise de Pompadour (1721–1764). Lavishly patronized and showered with academic honors throughout his career, Boucher came under harsh criticism later in his life, when his ebullient rococo style was attacked as decorative and his gallant iconography condemned as trivial.
A native of Paris, Boucher learned the rudiments of painting from his father, Nicolas (1672–1743), a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc. In the early 1720s he studied for a short time with François Lemoyne (1688–1737), one of the leading historical painters of the day, who would later be appointed First Painter to the King. According to Boucher, this experience did not have a great effect on his art, even if several early paintings bear the influence of Lemoyne (for example, The Surprise, c. 1723–1725, New Orleans Museum of Art).
Boucher won the Grand Prix in 1723, but there was no room for him at the French Academy in Rome, so his trip to Italy was delayed several years. He spent the intervening period painting (he exhibited several works at the annual Exposition de la Jeunesse in the Place Dauphine in 1725) and printmaking, which he learned while living in the household of the engraver Jean François Cars (1661–1730). This experience led him to the print publisher Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766), for whom he produced numerous etchings for the Recueil Jullienne, a multivolume compendium of prints after compositions by Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 - 1721). As a result, Boucher gained what amounted to a second education as he immersed himself in the visual language and imagery of the great master of the fête galante. He finally traveled to Italy in 1728 at his own expense, although next to nothing is known about his activities there or whether the trip had any effect on his art. He was back in Paris by 1731. That same year he was admitted as a history painter into the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, gaining full membership three years later with Rinaldo and Armida (Paris, Musée du Louvre), a painting that still demonstrates the influence of Lemoyne.
From these auspicious beginnings followed an exceptionally successful career, as Boucher won a succession of important commissions from the French Crown and aristocracy. For Louis XV he produced many painted decorations for royal châteaus at Versailles, Bellevue, Choisy, and Fontainebleau while also participating in the decoration of aristocratic residences in Paris, such as the Hôtel de Soubise. Among his most innovative works were two pictures of exotic hunts, La Chasse au Tigre and La Chasse au Crocodile, painted for the king’s private apartments at Versailles and now in the Musée de Picardie, Amiens. His prodigious oeuvre and the many engravings made after his works soon earned him an international reputation. With Charles Joseph Natoire (French, 1700 - 1777) and Carle Van Loo (French, 1705 - 1765) he was one of the principal exponents of the rococo, the ornate, colorful style of art associated with the reign of Louis XV. A tireless draftsman, Boucher made lyrical and often brilliant drawings that were widely collected, then as now, and disseminated through prints by such artists as Gilles Demarteau (1722–1776), who perfected a “crayon-manner” engraving technique that reproduced the soft textures of colored chalk.
Boucher is perhaps best known for his many mythological paintings, such as Diana at the Bath of 1742 (Paris, Musée du Louvre), and pastoral subjects, such as Pensent-ils au Raisin of 1749 (London, Wallace Collection). Generally idealized and lighthearted depictions of rustic life, these pastorals sometimes drew their imagery from the theater, such as the comic operas of Charles Simon Favart (1710–1792) and Jean Monnet (1703–1785), for whom Boucher designed stage sets in the 1740s and 1750s. A diverse artist, Boucher also produced religious paintings, some of them innovative, such as his devotional picture La Lumière du monde of 1750 (Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts), painted for Madame de Pompadour’s private chapel at Bellevue; genre scenes (his Le Déjeuner of 1739 in the Musée du Louvre is one of his highest achievements in the category of the tableau de mode); landscapes; and portraits. This latter category, encountered infrequently in his oeuvre, nevertheless includes one of his greatest masterpieces, the monumental Portrait of Madame de Pompadour of 1756 (Munich, Alte Pinakothek).
In addition to his many painted decorations and cabinet pictures, Boucher contributed designs for the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry works, the Sèvres porcelain factory, and stage sets and costumes for the theater. He also produced numerous chinoiseries, fanciful and exotic images of the Far East (such as the oil sketches, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, used as tapestry designs). He was the favorite artist of Madame de Pompadour, for whom he painted some of his most impressive works, including The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun of 1753 (London, Wallace Collection), large canvases that were made as tapestry cartoons for Beauvais. Boucher’s flourishing studio was the training ground for many young artists, the greatest of whom, Jean Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732 - 1806), would surpass his master in invention and ingenuity if not in public renown. During the 1750s and 1760s Boucher’s increasingly saccharine style and repetitive compositions came under attack from anti-rococo critics such as Etienne La Font de Saint-Yenne (1688–1771) and Denis Diderot (French, 1713 - 1784), who saw Boucher’s lighthearted subject matter and fluid, coloristic style as frivolous and morally corrupt. Yet Boucher, in defiance of an increasing demand from theorists, critics, and public agitators, continued to exhibit his cheerful and sugary visions of pastoral bliss and mythological trysts at the biennial Salons. Indeed, his social connections and efficient careerism resulted in his appointment in 1765 as First Painter to the King and his election as director of the Académie royale. This final triumph was short lived, however, as Boucher died in Paris in 1770.
 For a list of these artists, see Pierre Rosenberg in Alistair Laing, François Boucher (1703–1770) (New York, 1986), 51.
 Pierre Jean Mariette, Abecedario de P.J. Mariette et autres notes inédites de cet amateur sur les arts et les artistes, ed. Philippe de Chennevières and Anatole de Montaiglon, 6 vols. (Paris, 1851–1860, repr. 1966), 1:165.
 For a review of Boucher’s foreign clients, see J. Patrice Marandel in Alistair Laing, François Boucher (1703–1770) (New York, 1986), 73–88.
 For a good analysis of this painting, see Alistair Laing, François Boucher (1703–1770) (New York, 1986), 267–271, no. 64.
 Alexandre Ananoff with Daniel Wildenstein, François Boucher, 2 vols. (Lausanne and Paris, 1976), 1: nos. 225–228; Alistair Laing, François Boucher (1703–1770) (New York, 1986), nos. 41–44; Perrin Stein, “Boucher’s Chinoiseries: Some New Sources,” The Burlington Magazine 138, no. 1122 (September 1996): 598–604.
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), 11–12.
January 1, 2009
Goncourt, Edmond de, and Jules de Goncourt. L'art du dix-huitième siécle. 2 vols. Paris, 1880-1882.
Ananoff, Alexandre, with Daniel Wildenstein. François Boucher. 2 vols. Lausanne and Paris, 1976.
Ananoff, Alexandre, with Daniel Wildenstein. L'opera completa di Boucher. Milan, 1980.
Brunel, Georges. Boucher. New York, 1986.
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: 11.
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