François Boucher (1703-1770) was one of the most relevant painters of the so-called Rococo style. During his life, he portrayed the languid lives of the French aristocracy. In less than a century, when France precipitated in the revolutionary upheaval, Boucher’s art became a synonym of the debauched existences of the country’s indolent ruling class. Boucher had a fervid imagination, which blended mythological and literary tropes into sensuous compositions. In his paintings, each form expresses a vibrant sense of life, abundance, and opulence. The characters and their bodies take part too in this joyous feast, which leads the viewer through an Edenic illusion of grace and beauty.
Allegory of Music – François Boucher – 1764
In Boucher’s works, mythological themes are a recurrent feature. References to classical antiquity allowed the painter to depict nude bodies and linger on sensual details without the risk of the painting becoming wanton or inappropriate. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between mythological and erotic subjects and Boucher’s tendency to oversexualize his pieces makes the task even more arduous. Paintings such as The Toilette of Venus place the viewer in a voyeuristic position, spying on the naked goddess who enjoys a moment of leisure. Elements such as the dove that Venus holds against her breast have multiple functions: it partially hides her body and saves the composition from bare explicitness, even though at the same time it attracts the spectator’s gaze. Moreover, the dove is a symbol of Venus, so that its pointing function is partially hidden by the more evident mythological symbology.
The Toilette of Venus – François Bucher – 1751
Rococo painting is characterised by soft and fleshy colours, far from the over-saturated style of Baroque artists such as Rubens. Both in the Allegory of Music and The Toilette of Venus, we can notice an insistent use of yellow, orange, and light-blue pigments which create a pleasant composition by removing tonal contrasts. Also, Boucher avoids rigid geometric forms. The lines blossom like flowers and twist into elaborate decorative designs. These elements are a common feature of Rococo art and mimic the taste of the time, which can be studied through all sorts of applied-art pieces, from ceramics to glasswork, from furniture to embroidery. In Madame de Pompadour, the artist provides an impressive account of this tendency. The sumptuous clock reflected by the mirror, the vegetal frame of the latter, the overtly elaborate dress of the sitter and the refined decorations of the commode in the background display the same love for decoration. While it is always wise to avoid generalisations on the account of art-historical labels, it is undeniable that to the contemporary viewer the elaborate Rococo interior scenes show a remarkable degree of visual unity.
Looking at Rococo art, it is tempting to embrace a Hegelian narration and see in the opulence of Boucher’s paintings the fruit of the Ancien Regime near its inevitable end. This is probably a romanticisation that would not benefit our understanding of the phenomenon, even though such artworks represent a visual example of the stark division that characterised French society throughout the eighteenth century. Nowadays, we can appreciate the elaborate intricacy of Rococo decorative designs and get lost in a daydream of languid lines and soft colours. This is the visual legacy of a long-lost ruling class, its sensibility and aesthetic aspirations.