François Boucher

The French painter François Boucher (1703-1770), a leading exponent of the eloquent and frivolous rococo tradition, was perhaps the greatest decorative artist of the 18th century and a consummate draftsman.

François Boucher seems to have been perfectly attuned to his times, a period which had cast off the pomp and circumstance characteristic of the preceding age of Louis XIV and had replaced formality and ritual by intimacy and artificial manners. Boucher was very much bound to the whims of this frivolous society, and he painted primarily what his patrons wanted to see. It appears that their sight was best satisfied by amorous subjects, both mythological and contemporary. The painter was only too happy to supply them, creating the boudoir art for which he is so famous.

Boucher was born in Paris on Sept. 29, 1703, the son of Nicolas Boucher, a decorator who specialized in embroidery design. Recognizing his son's artistic potential, the father placed young Boucher in the studio of François Lemoyne, a decorator-painter who worked in the manner of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Though Boucher remained in Lemoyne's studio only a short time, he probably derived his love of delicately voluptuous forms and his brilliant color palette from the older master's penchant for mimicking the Venetian decorative painters.

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Early Work

Boucher next joined the workshop of the engraver Jean François Cars, where he learned the fundamentals of this art and also provided many illustrations for the engravers in the workshop. Among the most notable was a series of drawings for Daniel's Histoire de France, engraved by Baquoy. Later, Boucher was to illustrate the Molière comedies, which were engraved by his boyhood friend Laurent Cars.

The engraver Jean de Julienne entrusted Boucher with the engraving of many of Antoine Watteau's drawings for the important Recueil Julienne. Boucher, who never knew Watteau personally, came to know his style intimately; the indelible impression it made upon him both stylistically and iconographically is evident in Boucher's painting.

In 1723 Boucher won first prize in the Academy competition, which normally would have meant going to Rome to study as a pensionnaire du roi. However, since he did not enjoy the favor of the Duc d'Antin, Superintendent of the King's Buildings, Boucher was denied the trip. By 1725 he had saved enough money to go to Rome with the painter Carle Vanloo. Boucher's sojourn in Italy seems to have affected his style very little, for the great classical schools of Italian painting were incompatible with his temperament. Upon his return to Paris in 1731, he was immediately swept up in the world of opera and high fashion, a world with which he was in complete harmony. And it was his destiny to provide it with an appropriate pictorial expression.

In 1733 Boucher married Marie Jeanne Buzeau, who frequently modeled for his paintings. Two girls and a boy were born of the marriage. Juste, the son, died at a young age; both daughters, Elizabeth Victoire and Marie Emilie, married pupils of Boucher: the painters Jean Baptiste Deshays and Pierre Antoine Boudouin, both of whom predeceased their father-in-law.

Boucher was admitted as a full member to the French Academy in 1734 with the diploma piece Rinaldo and Armida. The painting already reflected the major sources of his style, namely, Peter Paul Rubens, Watteau, and Tiepolo and other Venetian decorative painters.

Madame de Pompadour

Boucher soon caught the attention of Madame de Pompadour, who virtually adopted him as her official painter. The artist became her friend and teacher, instructing her in drawing and etching and serving as artistic counselor for her art purchases. Boucher decorated her several residences, most notably the châteaux of Bellevue and Crécy. Thanks to the patronage of Madame de Pompadour and her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, Director of the King's Buildings, the painter soon enjoyed the favor of Louis XV. In 1755 Boucher became inspector of the Gobelins tapestry works and in the following year, succeeding Jean Baptiste Oudry, its director. It was at this time that he executed many tapestry designs and decorations for the Paris opera and public fetes; some of his tapestry cartoons for the Gobelins and Beauvais works are masterpieces in this medium. Upon the death of Carle Vanloo in 1765, Boucher, once more through the efforts of Madame de Pompadour, was appointed First Painter to the King, and that year he also became director of the French Academy. He died on May 30, 1770, in Paris.

Boucher was an extremely prolific artist and seems to have been able to turn out his pink and blue "confections" with unparalleled ease. He executed more than 1, 000 paintings, at least 200 engravings, and well over 10, 000 drawings in various media. Although extremely prolific, he never bored by endless repetition, so extraordinarily inventive was he in his landscapes, portraits, genre themes, and mythological and religious scenes. Boucher lived long enough to see his artistic popularity wane, for after 1760 his work was attacked by the famed Encyclopedist and art critic Denis Diderot, an early exponent of a return to the antique.

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Further Reading on François Boucher

There are no recent studies in English of Boucher's work. Worthy of consideration, however, are Lady Emilia Francis Dilke, French Painters of the XVIIIth Century (1899), and Catherine M. Bearne, A Court Painter and His Circle: François Boucher (1703-1770) (1914). Of particular interest is Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, French Eighteenth Century Painters (3 vols., 1880-1882; abr. trans. 1948), since it was this work that rehabilitated Boucher's reputation and significance in the evolution of rococo art. R.H. Wilenski, French Painting (1931; rev. ed. 1949), contains a chapter on Boucher and a list of his characteristic pictures. See also S. Rocheblave, French Painting in the XVIIIth Century (1937; trans. 1937); Arno Schönberger and Halldor Soehner, The Rococo Age: Art and Civilization of the 18th Century (1959; trans. 1960); lan McInnes, Painter, King and Pompadour: François Boucher at the Court of Louis XV (1965); and Michael Levey, Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth-Century Painting (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Ananoff, Alexandre, François Boucher, Lausanne: La Bibliotheque des arts, 1976.

Brunel, Georges., Boucher, New York, N.Y.: Vendome Press, 1986.