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Boucher and high court rococo

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Robert Baldwin

Associate Professor of Art History

Connecticut College

New London, CT 06320
(This essay was written in 1195 and revised with a new section on the pastoral child in 2007.)

After a period in Italy where he studied Tiepelo and Albani (1727-31), the young Boucher returned to France. By 1740, he was one of the leading artists of the day with royal commissions beginning as early as 1735. By 1737, he was a Full Professor in the Royal Academy of Art with an annual stipend from the crown in 1742 (almost tripled in 1752). After being hired to teach engraving to Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, in 175X, Boucher's career took off. At least some of his later good fortune came from his friendship with Madame de Pompadour who remained a close confidante of Louis XV until her death in 1764.

Though she had considerable influence in French politics, Madame de Pompadour's greatest power was over French art, theater, and music between 1750-1764. And Boucher was her favorite painter. He was eventually named "peintre du roi" in 1765, director of the royal tapestry factory at Gobelin, and director of the Royal Academy of Art. On a more unofficial level, Boucher exercised great sway over the royal ceramic factories at Scèvres and elsewhere which reproduced hundreds of his images. Well before Boucher's appointment as painter to the king, the Rococo style born in aristocratic retreat from power occupied the very center of power at Versailles and had been transformed into a state style.
Boucher's great influence stemmed from at least three factors: the considerable power he came to enjoy within France's absolutist art world, his extraordinary artistic talent, and his diligent work habits which produced a thousand paintings. With Madame de Pompadour's support, he became a kind of artistic monarch in his own right, his influence spreading out widely into European painting, prints, textiles, ceramics, and other decorative arts even though he rarely painted for foreign patrons or traveled outside France.
Indeed, Boucher exercised more influence over Western art than anyone before or after except David. It was Boucher's version of Rococo which became a truly international style (though contemporary Italian artists were also important including Ricci, Pellegrini, Tiepolo, and Batoni). Ironically, while Watteau deserves credit for beginning the Rococo aesthetic in France, his works were most widely known through the many reproductive prints of Boucher. Watteau himself worked for a smaller number of noble and high burgher patrons and never achieved the high court patronage, official honors, and tremendous output of the prodigious Boucher. At his peak, Boucher earned the unprecedented sum of 50,000 livres a year. In comparison, a comfortable bourgeois income at that time was 4,000 livres and a professor's salary, 1,500. Boucher's portraits of the king's mistresses fetched up to 48,000 livres each.

Boucher's Rococo

Though Boucher painted a wide range of subjects, including rustic kitchens where beautiful, young peasants dallied, he specialized in erotic mythology and pastoral based on life studies. Even as he drew extensively on Watteau, Boucher developed a distinct Rococo manner all his own. In terms of style, Boucher's mature paintings showed a cooler palette, a more polished, smoothly blended brushwork (giving many of his figures a porcelain-like quality), and a greater sense of an overall decorative formal structure linking his compositions more fully with the larger decorative, ornamental arrangements of Rococo interiors and architectural form.

Thematically, his art was more explicitly erotic from the start when Boucher painted such steamy boudoir mythologies as Hercules and Omphale (ca. 1728-31). Although this and other works tend to sexualize men with the much of the same graceful charm applied to women's bodies and less of the overt display of male power seen in traditional mythological painting, 1 Boucher's art still tended to define the "erotic" as a puppet theater of female bodies manipulated endlessly to enact the fantasies of male courtly beholders.
Though his mythologies have their share of naked, frolicking, innocent young men, they give far greater attention to young, stripped female bodies who are objectified, passive, child-like, without consciousness, and physically powerless even amidst subjects where they ostensibly rule as powerful erotic goddesses (Venus, Diana, etc). By reducing female power to the traditional, sexist theme of a supposed erotic influence over men, Boucher confined their influence to the boudoir where it could be safely separated from any significant public sphere of policy and government and where misogyny could masquerade as worship. In this sense, Boucher's art parallels contemporary French political, economic, and religious institutions which tried to keep educated, high-class, potentially powerful women from any access to real power and to reduce their sphere of influence to private matters of artistic taste, patronage and decoration, music, gardening, theater, opera, fashion, and new literary forms. 2

Boucher's Pastoral

Pastoral was not a big category in French art until the 1840s when Pater, Lancret, and especially Boucher made it so. It was more common in French literature and theatre and in seventeenth century Dutch and Italian art. In the mid-eighteenth century, French theatre began showing peasants in rustic clothing, not fancy silk dresses with hoops and gloved arms and jewels as had been the custom. Boucher's mature peasants were part of the new natural look, especially a theatrical look. (His earlier peasants were more "natural" like those in Dutch and Flemish Baroque.) In this sense, they responded to Rousseau, even if this art was, from Rousseau's perspective, antithetical to his notions of nature.

For Boucher's audiences, the new pastoral (and new naturalism) erased the more explicit signs of social hierarchy and artifice from the image even while the exquisite brushwork, color, flowing composition, and white, porcelain bodies, untroubled nature, and endless leisure offered the requisite highly artificial world required for the refined sensibilities of courtly audiences. As one observer noted in 1770,
"he only painted nature under its beautiful aspects, that he never portrayed it as anything but cheerful and agreeable ... if he sometimes diverted himself with bambochades, [lowly peasants] he knew how to improve without distorting them, and never presented hideous or disgusting objects, because he knew that our eyes find repugnant what we cannot bring our hands to touch". 3
While rooted in pastoral tradition, Boucher' went considerably further in eroticizing the natural world giving all of nature with the sensual curves and light colors of the Rococo. This erotic quality celebrated an elemental nature shared ostensibly by nobles and shepherds and at the same time signaled a uniquely courtly leisure of erotic play. Like contemporary pornographic novels such as Le Portier de Chartreux, Boucher's world was dominated by an untroubled eroticism which eliminated all social consciousness and strife. In its freedom from all manner of pressing social problems, Boucher’s Rococo shows, perhaps, an anxious looking away into a timeless, “natural” world free from modern conflicts and disturbing changes. And in its imagery of women as innocent, young, compliant shepherdesses and nymphs, we sense male anxieties about changing ideas about gender and the emergence of modern feminism, rooted in the Enlightenment ideas.

Boucher’s Pastoral as Enlightenment Nature and Child-like Innocence
The dominance of pastoral in the art of Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard is the culmination of the steady ascent of pastoral in court culture from the beginning of the sixteenth century (Bellini, Giorgione, Titian) up to the French Revolution in 1789. In part, Boucher art continued and extended certain traditional aspects of courtly pastoral, especially its refined leisure, courtly love, and amorous delight in idyllic settings. Leaving behind the polite conversation and masquerading unreality of Watteau, Boucher developed a simpler, amorous pastoral both for his many decorous pastorals where clothed shepherds and shepherdesses play games and woo and his many erotic, mythological pastorals where naked figures intertwine. (I will use the phrase “decorous pastorals” to refer to the first group of Boucher’s pastorals, which are very different from his erotic pastoral mythologies.)
Two related features of the Enlightenment shed light on the new prevalence of pastoral in eighteenth-century French art. The first feature is the Enlightenment focus on “nature” as a new standard for reason, politics, morality, social behavior, language, fashion, gardening (now organic and irregular instead of geometric) architecture, and art itself. In this more secular world, nature, not religion, is the touchstone for all values. Nature and human nature were also seen as fundamentally rational and good. In this way, “nature” became a weapon used to discredit traditional ideas as false, “superstitious,” or “unnatural”. For example, the old idea that human nature was sinful gave way to the new faith in human goodness.
With the elevation of reason, human beings now claimed for themselves the power to comprehend nature and even to master it through the new natural science and the growing world of technological innovation. God’s creation slowly lost much of its sanctity and mystery, still found in seventeenth-century landscape art, and became a marvelous machine, an ingeniously engineered clock, to use one of the favorite Enlightenment metaphors.
In the political sphere, Enlightenment thinkers proclaimed that all human beings enjoy “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them” and “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. Despite the hostility of these new ideas toward traditional courtly ideas of nature as hierarchy, many educated aristocrats eagerly took up Enlightenment values, in part because they were fashionable, in part because they signaled a refreshingly progressive modernity. In the later eighteenth century, such ideas produced political and social upheavals including the birth of two democracies, the movement to abolish slavery and the struggle for woman’s rights. Even though Watteau, Boucher, and, to a lesser extent, Fragonard, all portrayed a decidedly courtly nature, with a growing libertine aspect, the dominance of pastoral as an overarching subject in Rococo art was impossible without this larger culture of nature in Enlightenment thinking.
It is when we look at Boucher’s pastorals of decorously clothed shepherds and shepherdesses that we can see more clearly how Enlightenment nature appeared more directly in at least one major group of his paintings, this despite their courtly qualities. For one of the most striking and innovative features of these pastorals is the youthful innocence of Boucher’s peasants. Seen as teenagers, with delicate, pure, milk-white porcelain bodies and tiny feet unmarred by dirt, these sweet, angelic faces give form to the new Enlightenment idea of the child, especially the rustic child, as an innocent creature unspoiled by modern civilization. In Enlightenment thinking, the child was inseparable from ideas of a pure, unspoiled nature. Thus the most perfect child was the pastoral or rustic child, uncontaminated by modern urban vices and habits.
First developed as an important subject in Dutch burgher art of the seventeenth century, 4 the child spread across European art in the eighteenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century, it was a major theme in the art of bourgeois painters like Greuze and Chardin and court artists like Boucher, and artists who worked for both groups like Fragonard. Boucher painted many small, decorative paintings of children doing adult activities like painting and sculpting, harvesting, and fishing. Although indebted to a classical sculptural tradition where cupids did all sorts of adult activities from hunting to chariot racing, this classical imagery had little impact until the eighteenth century when the new interest in the child generated a wide array of similar images.
The sentimental imagery of children emerged much more prominently in the generation immediately following Boucher, after 1770, as Enlightenment values turned away from a more impersonal, scientific reason to a more sentimental world of feeling and family. The best example in French art came in the family genre paintings of Fragonard where children were usually located in idyllic pastoral settings to underscore their deeper ties to a perfect Nature and a perfect natural order. The exemplary perfection of the child was also a major theme in later eighteenth-century literature as seen in Rousseau or Goethe whose Werther delights in playing with village children and even insists that they are the perfect example for adult happiness: “these children, who are our equals, whom we ought to consider as our models”. 5 In describing how he sketches two children under the trees in a perfect, pastoral setting outside a village, Werther moves quickly to the laws of nature, construed now in late Enlightenment terms, and to the highest forms of art, now grounded in this nature.
The chief charm of this spot consists in two linden-trees, spreading their enormous branches over the little green before the church, which is entirely surrounded by peasants' cottages, barns, and homesteads. I have seldom seen a place so retired and peaceable; and there often have my table and chair brought out from the little inn, and drink my coffee there, and read my Homer. Accident brought me to the spot one fine afternoon, and I found it perfectly deserted. Everybody was in the fields except a little boy about four years of age, who was sitting on the ground, and held between his knees a child about six months old: he pressed it to his bosom with both arms, which thus formed a sort of arm-chair; and, notwithstanding the liveliness which sparkled in its black eyes, it remained perfectly still.

The sight charmed me. I sat down upon a plough opposite, and sketched with great delight this little picture of brotherly tenderness. I added the neighboring hedge, the barn-door, and some broken cart-wheels, just as they happened to lie; and I found in about an hour that I had made a very correct and interesting drawing, without putting in the slightest thing of my own. This confirmed me in my resolution of adhering, for the future, entirely to nature. She alone is inexhaustible, and capable of forming the greatest masters. Much may be alleged in favor of rules, as much may be likewise advanced in favor of the laws of society: an artist formed upon them will never produce anything absolutely bad or disgusting; as a man who observes the laws, and obeys decorum, can never be an absolutely intolerable neighbor, nor a decided villain: but yet, say what you will of rules, they destroy the genuine feeling of nature, as well as its true expression.
(After 1790, the Romantics like Wordsworth and Dickens made a veritable cult of the child as a perfect, spiritual creature not yet ruined by the horrors of the modern, industrial world. This Romantic child continued in art and literature into the early twentieth century as seen in the Symbolist Redon.)
The Enlightenment idea of the child as an unspoiled human nature – often located in a pastoral setting - goes well with Boucher’s many decorous pastoral paintings. Although these works don’t depict children, the unprecedented youthfulness and innocence of Boucher’s shepherds and shepherdesses work well as slightly older, pastoral versions of the Enlightenment child. Even though Boucher’s child-like shepherds and shepherdesses tease each other amorously, they maintain a youthful innocence free from the explicit, adult sexuality shown endlessly in Boucher’s mythological paintings. In one

Boucher and the Boudoir Mythology of Mid-Century Rococo

Boucher, Triumph of Venus/Birth of Venus, 1740
This painting was commissioned from Boucher by Count Carl Gustaf Tessin, the new Swedish ambassador to France soon after he arrived in Paris in 1939. (One of the first things Tessin did after arriving was to visit Boucher's studio where he purchased a number of paintings and commissioned others including the aristocratic genre piece, Woman Fastening Her Garter, 1742.)
As a serious theme in Renaissance and Baroque art, the triumph of Venus celebrated love's power to bind disparate or warring elements of nature and society into a nuptial or political harmony. Even Carracci's Farnese Ceiling with its humorous, eroticized triumph of love had an overriding spiritual seriousness celebrating a marriage and the Farnese dynasty. In Boucher's hands, however, myth was reduced to an unprecedented erotic boudoir piece made delightful by the highly ornamental color and composition, light brushwork, and the complete unreality of the charming figures and cotton-candy seascape.
In the Triumph/Birth of Venus, the nymphs swimming in such a manner as to display their bottoms to the spectator are a virtual leitmotif in Boucher's art reappearing more prominently in his Berlin Leda and the Swan, his Pan and Syrinx, and a host of other history paintings. And in two paintings of Louis XV's favorite teenage prostitutes reclining on beds, Boucher made this leitmotif into the very subject and sole purpose of the work itself.
Of course, there was a gulf between these prostitutes and the king's official mistresses. The former were usually young girls such as the fourteen-year old Louise Murphy, who came to Louis's attention as Boucher's model and concubine. These girls didn't always know the identity of their royal lovers and were hidden away in a separate little brothel at Versailles. In contrast, official mistresses like Madame de Pompadour were ennobled or aristocratic women who enjoyed great status and power at court.
Madame de Pompadour was a highly educated and articulate woman known for her interest in the philosophes (as the Enlightenment writers were called). She was also a skilled amateur in music, theater, and engraving. Not surprisingly, when Boucher painted her portrait, she appeared in a splendid and decorous dress reclining on a couch in her library, a book in hand, with sheet music, maps, engravings, and more books scattered nearby. No official mistress like Madame de Pompadour would have ever posed naked on a couch like Louise Murphy. Of course, Louise herself had little choice in the matter of how she was painted or the other sexual uses to which she was put.
Despite the exceptional nature of Boucher's two portraits of royal prostitutes, these paintings are ground-breaking as Western nudes. Their main function seems to revolve around royal voyeurism, excitement and masturbation. Whereas earlier representations of nudes, male and female, invariably marshaled a higher level of values - religious, philosophical, and ethical - to sanction and legitimize the body (and to disguise a new and pervasive objectification of women), Boucher and his patrons felt less of a need to justify the realm of the sexualized female (and male) body with higher ideals.
To be fair, such higher ideals were still generally needed in so far as most of Boucher's erotic art used a mythological or pastoral framework. Nonetheless, one can see Boucher's paintings of prostitutes as a more extreme expression of a change in thinking about the human body which found less radical expression in his mythological paintings and which appeared in his pastoral art as well.
One might see this new, relative emptying of the body of its regulating codes and higher values as a liberation, a freeing up of bodily pleasure for its own sake and value (or at least a therapeutic release from the very stiff formalities of courtly etiquette). Or one might see Boucher's handling of the nude as an emptying of the human subject of its larger humanity, as a reductive transformation of the human being into a voyeuristic object without the independent consciousness, will, or humanity which would disturb the voyeur's erotic fantasy and projection.
When human psychological qualities did appear in these Rococo women, they tended to be the qualities of coyness, seductiveness, mock resistance, feigned innocence, or some other complicit feeling to strengthen the male viewer's projected desires with fictions of female eagerness and sexual compliancy. Whether we see this as a liberating or impoverishing of the body, as feminist or as sexist, the Rococo reinterpretation of the nude unashamedly confessed a new voyeuristic or masturbatory function. The nude was now to be offered as an erotic-voyeuristic spectacle, a delightful aid to self-pleasuring and a stimulus to courtly seduction and lovemaking itself.
Embodied in large decorative Rococo mythologies, the sensations and distractions of the boudoir spread out into other spheres, rooms, palaces, and cycles, into the lofty mainstream of history painting. What had once been heroic, public, philosophical, and moral was now suffused with the private world of erotic genre. Except for their large formats and ideal forms, the exalted realm of much traditional mythological painting was nowhere to be found in Boucher's Venuses, Dianas, and Ledas.
In such an artificial, innocent-looking, beautiful, charming world, anything could be depicted, even the masturbating nymph at the lower left of Boucher's Triumph of Venus. Here was another sign that Boucher's history painting had been transformed into a quasi-secret boudoir art charged with the voyeur's thrilling peep at an unseen female world. Here the mythological distance which made it easier for Boucher to depict such unprecedented activity resembled the psychological distance of Fragonard's later voyeuristic genre scenes (and the endless number of similar scenes in eighteenth-century French book illustrations) where the secret amorous lives of women and sometimes men were observed by artist and spectator.
Boucher's nymph masturbates not out of some autonomous and unconstrained female sexuality but primarily as a performance for male spectators. So too, Boucher’s many lesbian scenes of Diana and Callisto, Vertumnus and Pomona, Companions of Diana (a new subject), and the lesbian love and voyeurism obliquely represented, respectively, in the Stockholm Leda and the Swan and the Louvre Diana at Her Bath flirt with a world of female sexuality without men only to arouse the male viewer further with the voyeur's privileged, hidden gaze into the supposedly secret lives of women.
In this new art, it is precisely the fiction of an unconstrained privacy which operates as the constraining principle, turning supposedly autonomous women into puppets of male desire. This took place at a time when lesbian scenes were increasingly common in French pornographic novels and prints. The hidden, controlling male gaze and artistic presence in these works by Boucher is particularly clear in his Diana and Callisto in so far as Diana is really Zeus who disguises himself as the virginal goddess of the hunt in order to seduce her beautiful nymph, Callisto.
Without excluding the possibility that these scenes could have appealed to female viewers by offering a sexual world without men, I see Boucher's lesbian mythologies and all Rococo lesbian imagery as offering a fantasy world into which the Zeus-like male spectator can creep. In an age where courtly and burgher elites placed a new stress on private life as seen in fete galante, boudoir history painting, and bourgeois genre, the realm of the lesbian was, for male viewers, the ultimate private world, a world completely invisible and inaccessible to men. The exclusion of men made the lesbian theme all the more exciting as a secret, private space available only to the male imagination. No wonder lesbian love and its first cousins, the erotic life of the convent and the monastery, became fixtures in eighteenth-century French pornographic novels and book illustrations.
From the very beginning, large mythological painting had emerged in the late fifteenth century in part as a form of soft-core pornography legitimized by its heroic, sacred, and refined subject matter. Thus Botticelli's Primavera modestly clothed Venus to develop a chaste marriage theme while leaving the Three Graces stripped and posed in such as way as to show off the young, female body from every angle. Yet even the most erotic mythological painting of Renaissance and Baroque art had generally offered more than a simple pretext for male fantasy and masturbation by framing and ordering sexual desire within a cosmic, bounded Nature tied to courtly notions of order and government, a pastoral dream of a lost simplicity, or some Christian moral order usually tied to marriage. So too, the courtly love gardens of Baroque artists like Rubens and early Rococo artists such as Watteau remained governed by laws of decorum. Courtly love appeared as a refined series of conversations, dances, and promenades, or at worst, an indiscreet male advance which was usually rebuffed. Most of this decorum was abandoned in the boudoir mythologies and pastorals of Boucher and even in the later genre scenes and pastorals of Fragonard.
The explicit sexual action which appears in the Triumph of Venus was all but inconceivable in a major mythological painting before Boucher. That it could appear repeatedly in the leading court painter of the mid-eighteenth century suggests a break-down in the larger courtly values which governed traditional history painting and interwove love with lofty spiritual, moral, political, and historical themes.
To be fair, the Rococo did not bring a completely hedonistic aesthetic of "anything goes". Rococo painting was far more decorous than the world of private prints and drawings where a much more pornographic license prevailed. The comparison with prints (or modern pornography) makes it easier to see how even the most licentious Rococo painting was still restrained by a series of courtly codes, moral and aesthetic, which governed and "elevated" the sexual body. Despite these qualifications, Rococo art displayed fundamental shifts within history painting as court culture turned away from the lofty, the serious and the public.

1 As noted by Lipton


3 Met cat. p. 141

4 Except for the Netherlands, the child was a rare subject in Renaissance and Baroque art. Most images of children from that period are portraits of the offspring of rulers who take on a serious, formal appearance as little rulers in training.

5 All learned professors and doctors are agreed that children do not comprehend the cause of their desires; but that the grown-up should wander about this earth like children, without knowing whence they come, or whither they go, influenced as little by fixed motives, but guided like them by biscuits, sugar-plums, and the rod, -- this is what nobody is willing to acknowledge; and yet I think it is palpable.

I know what you will say in reply; for I am ready to admit that they are happiest, who, like children, amuse themselves with their playthings, dress and undress their dolls, and attentively watch the cupboard, where mamma has locked up her sweet things, and,

when at last they get a delicious morsel, eat it greedily, and exclaim, "More!" These are certainly happy beings; but others also are objects of envy, who dignify their paltry employments, and sometimes even their passions, with pompous titles, representing

them to mankind as gigantic achievements performed for their welfare and glory. But the man who humbly acknowledges the vanity of all this, who observes with what pleasure the thriving citizen converts his little garden into a paradise, and how patiently even the poor man pursues his weary way under his burden, and how all wish equally to behold the light of the sun a little longer, -- yes, such a man is at peace, and creates his own world within himself; and he is also happy, because he is a man. And then, however limited his sphere, he still preserves in his bosom the sweet feeling of liberty, and knows that he can quit his prison whenever he likes.

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