Francois Boucher
Biography of 18th Century Rococo Painter, Tapestry Artist.

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Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1756)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
One of the great patrons of
18th century French painting.

Francois Boucher (1703-70)

A protege of Madame de Pompadour, the French Rococo artist Francois Boucher was the leading, French painter of the early to mid 18th century. He was the consummate Rococo decorator and the finest exponent of fashionable mythologie galante - a decorative style of fine art painting in which the undramatic mythological theme is an excuse for erotic display of the female nude, a genre which Boucher executed with great wit and charm. His works embody the frivolity and sensuousness of the rococo style, and outstanding examples can be seen in the Museum of Art Stockholm, and the Louvre Paris. He also completed several fine portraits of his patroness, Madame de Pompadour. French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot (1713-84), whose view of Boucher was mixed, famously described him thus: "Cet homme a tout - excepte la verite" (This man is capable of everything - except the truth). However, the exquisite detail and texture in a number of his portraits - notably The Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1756, Pinakothek, Munich) - rivals the work of the great Flemish masters like Jan van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes.

Odalisque (1749) Louvre, Paris.
A typical example of Rococo erotica.

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Born in Paris to a humble background - his father was Nicolas Boucher a lace designer - Boucher began his art training in the studio of Francois Lemoyne (1688-1737), one of the leading decorative artists of the time. Although after less than three months, his talent must have developed rapidly because within 3 years he won the coveted Prix de Rome, entitling him to several years free study of fine art in Rome - an opportunity he delayed taking up until 1727. Meantime, from 1725 to 1727, he earned money as a printmaker and illustrator under Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766), creating etchings after drawings by Jean-Antoine Watteau. After this came four years of study in Rome, where he focused on works by Old Masters of the Baroque, and became familiar with both the Italian countryside and the Dutch landscape painters who painted it in the 17th-century. In addition he learned about Venetian 18th-century painting and the rustic caravans and animals of the Genovese Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-64).

Returning to Paris in 1731, Boucher devoted himself to large-scale mythological and history painting and received official recognition both in the form of membership at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. A prolific and imaginative artist, his output encompassed oil painting, decorative panels, and book illustration as well as designs for tapestries and the theatre. He was appointed a professor of the Academy in 1734, and later became head of the Gobelins Tapestry factory in 1755. At the same time, he received a number of important commissions from Royal patrons including King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour (who encouraged and supported his rise), and Count Carl Gustav Tessin, Swedish ambassador to Paris, and from numerous bourgeois collectors. In 1765, he was appointed to the two most prestigious positions in the French arts establishment: first painter to the king ("Premier Peintre du Roi") and director of the Royal Academy.

For the extraordinary renaissance of applied arts in France during the Rococo, see: French Decorative Art. For furnishings, see: French Furniture. For artists and craftsmen, see: French Designers.


Influenced by the sensual mythological painting of Correggio, as well as the Mannerist artist Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), the great Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and the contemporary Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Boucher's unique contribution to Rococo painting was his exceptional handling of the mythologie galante - in which he turned traditional mythological themes into wittily indecorous scenes with suggestions of erotic and sentimental love. "The Interrupted Sleep" (1750, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), created as an overdoor for Madame de Pompadour's château at Bellevue, exemplifies this type of subject matter, as does "Diana Leaving Her Bath" (1742, Louvre, Paris), "Triumph of Venus" (1740, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) and "Nude Lying on a Sofa" (1752, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Another example is the exquisite cabinet painting "The Toilet of Venus" (1751, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) whose highly polished surface sets off the pearly flesh tones of Venus and the luxurious fabric that surrounds her. A talented amateur actress, Madame de Pompadour had earlier assumed the title role in a production of La Toilette de Venus staged at the Palace of Versailles in 1750, which perhaps inspired Boucher to create this work of art. Needless to say, these works are sentimental and intimately amorous rather than traditionally epic, although as the Goncourt brothers said of Boucher: he is "one of those men who represent the taste of a century, who express, personify and embody it." The French Royal Court wanted this type of playful, erotic art and Boucher was happy to provide it. (See: Female Nudes.) He was also a major influence on other Rococo artists, like Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), noted for The Swing (Fragonard) (1767).


Nonetheless, Boucher's output was in no way limited to this form of mythologie galante. He was also a master of genre-painting as exemplified by "The Breakfast" (1739, Louvre, Paris). In addition, he executed a vast number of different types of portraiture, ranging from his delicate, finely executed portraits of Madame de Pompadour - such as "Madame de Pompadour" (1758, Victoria & Albert Museum, London) - to his notorious Odalisque portraits. He was also noted for his chinoiserie paintings, like The Chinese Garden (1742, Museum of Fine Arts, Besancon).


A contemporary of the great Venetian draughtsman Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Boucher was also a prolific sketcher, creating drawings both in preparation for his major canvases and as finished works of art for the growing market of bourgeois collectors. His figurative studies for his paintings, executed in chalk, oil or gouache, include drawings like "Two Winged Putti" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) a preparatory work for "Apollo Revealing His Divinity to Isse" (1750, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Tours). Stand-alone works include his drawing in black and red chalk with white highlights on beige paper "Naiads and Triton" (1763, Louvre, Paris).

Printmaking and Decorative Arts

In addition to producing some 1,000 paintings and 10,000 drawings, Boucher also had a significant effect on printmaking, tapestry and ceramics. Quite apart from his own modest output of etchings, many other French printmakers jumped on the Boucher bandwagon to reproduce his fashionable paintings, while porcelain factories at both Sevres and Vincennes churned out replicas of his mythologie galante designs in the form of soft-paste biscuit ceramic figurines and other decorative pieces. Tapestry art was another area in which Boucher excelled. Over twenty years, he was commissioned by the Beauvais tapestry workshops to produce a total of six separate designs, including "Fêtes Italiennes" and "Cupid and Psyche". Then in 1755 he became the Director of the rival tapestry factory at Gobelins, where he continued to work on textile design.

Towards the end of his working life, as French taste veered away from the whimsical frothy Rococo towards the more severe Neoclassical art style, Boucher was criticized for his lack of aesthetics and stereotyped forms. He died in Paris in 1770 at the age of 67.

Artistic Reputation

Boucher's reputation has suffered because of his reliance on artificial, overworked themes. He also objected to painting from nature because, as he put it, it was "too green and badly lit." However, while often superficial and repetitive, he also produced works of great charm and brilliant execution. Ironically his very success contained the seeds of his ultimate decline and lack of enduring reputation. For many years, he was the most sought-after painter in France for almost every type of picture, notably his vivid paintings of mythological and classical subjects, however unsubtle. Thus engaged, and battling to keep up with demand for his decadent style of art, it is hardly surprising that he failed to appreciate changing fashion. After all, what can be more seductive for an artist than a clientele of Kings, nobles, ambassadors and other wealthy patrons, all clamouring for his work?

Paintings by Francois Boucher can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world, including the Frick Collection New York.

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