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11.2.05

François Boucher in London

The French often have conflicted feelings about the art and music produced in and for its now-vanquished royal court. I have been told that concerts of Baroque music, created for the entertainment of Louis XIV, for example, have occasionally been targeted by loud antiroyalists, because they think such interest in the past can only be supported by royalists. (Yes, there are actually people in France who want to restore the monarchy, and they do sometimes take an interest in and support performances of the music of the ancien régime.) The Rococo painters, I suspect, suffer similar opposition. In 2003, the tricentennial of the birth of François Boucher, Mme. de Pompadour's favorite painter, came and went, but no French museum commemorated it with a major exhibit. As an article (François Boucher, la douceur de vivre, January 29) by Véronique Prat for Le Figaro points out, that duty has been taken up by a museum in London, the Wallace Collection, Boucher: Seductive Visions (until April 17), in honor of the Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain.

Boucher, Portrait of Mme. de PompadourThere was no one more Parisian than François Boucher. He was born in poverty in 1703, but he died in opulence and fame in 1770. In between, he was the most sought-after artist with the largest number of commissions, the most copied artist of his time. In spite of that, in 2003, Boucher received no major exhibit at the Grand Palais. As if France had remained true to Diderot's (harsh) criticism: "What do you expect Boucher to throw on his canvas but what he has in his imagination? And what can be in the imagination of a man who spends his life with gutter prostitutes? His Virgins look like hot little numbers, his angels like little libertine satyrs."
The gossip about Boucher was that he slept with all of his models, and it has long been supposed that the model for many of his female nudes is his own wife, whom Grimm called "one of the most beautiful women in France." However, how much sweet loving he could have been up to seems limited by his incredible work ethic and artistic output (more than 10,000 drawings alone, by his estimate).
He lived the existence of an artist submerged in work, who spent between 10 and 12 hours each day in his studio, the price of wild success. He was simultaneously a member of the Académie, the protégé of Mme de Pompadour, who covered him with money and commissions, Inspector of the Tapestry Factory of the Gobelins, designer for the porcelain makers of Sèvres, and First Painter to the King. [...]

Boucher was able to realize his dream of being housed in the Louvre, from 1752 on, and to enjoy the use of a studio there: that was formerly the custom for the painters patronized by the king. It was there that he died on May 30, 1770, at 5 am, among the stunning collection of precious and strange objects he had gathered. An avid collector, he had acquired paintings and drawings, including several Rubens and Rembrandts, bronzes, Chinese porcelain. [...] The painting Marche de bohémiens, which he showed at the 1769 Salon, a few months before his death, did not find any approval from terrible Diderot, who wrote with an acerbic pen, "The old athlete did not intend to die without once more stepping into the arena. He is still given to a criminal vulgarity." Ever since, all of the 18th-century French painting has met the same disdain, from which only Watteau partially escapes. A stubborn disdain since, even today, one does not admit to liking Boucher except out of the side of one's mouth.
Le Figaro is often criticized for being a right-wing newspaper, so its apology for the Rococo is hardly a surprise. Boucher: Seductive Visions will be at the Wallace Collection, in London, until April 17.

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