Boucher was a master of playful eroticism. His works for the French court were designed to titillate; yet they always maintain a light, almost innocent tone, regardless of the numbers of nubile girls and cavorting couples that fill his canvases. He also produced a large body of more homely work, depicting stylish, wealthy households engaged in domestic life. But it is for the lively fleshy scenes like this one that Boucher is most celebrated.
Here we have a beautiful Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, assisted at her bath by a lovely nymph. Instead of the more typical Diana – who is often depicted as a strong, bow-wielding huntress – Boucher presents a charmingly innocent girl, unabashedly nude. Diana’s bow and arrows lie on the ground beside her next to a grouping of hare and birds, evidence of a successful hunt (though it is difficult to imagine how this sweet soft Diana could even handle such a bow). Her hunting dogs drink from a stream in the background as the young goddess reclines on silky drapery in the middle of lush woods, wearing nothing but a crescent moon, pearls and ribbons in her hair.
Boucher used this thin mythological guise to explore the beauties of the female body. Expertly drawn, the young women move with an exquisite delicacy – note the gentle point of Diana’s feet, the languid turn of her body. Light emanating from the left sensuously highlights every curve and line of both women’s figures; Diana’s nipples are daubed a rosy red, the sort of naughty detail Boucher loved. His luminous palette – smoky blues, shimmering white, subtle greens – add to the sense of a charmed world. With creamy complexions, fair hair, rosebud lips and rounded bodies they are effortlessly feminine and innocently titillating; perfect reflections of the concept of the ideal woman during the reign of Louis XV.
Diana was also a symbol of chastity and Boucher plays up her innocence (almost to the point of imbecility) as a foil against charges of impropriety: unaware of the spectator or her potential affect on one, her nudity is innocence itself. The scene is a masterpiece of guiltless voyeuristic pleasure, which is exactly what Boucher intended: the painting was first exhibited at the Salon of 1742 as part of a series of small sensuous works destined for collector’s private cabinets. The image is a compendium of the Rococo style: glossy surfaces, a high-toned palette favouring blues and pinks, a playful grace and lightness and tone that is both sentimental and filled with erotic possibilities.
Boucher is famed for his development of the mature Rococo; a style wildly admired at the time and as strongly criticised as it fell from favour. Rejecting rule and order in favour of the natural and light-hearted, the Rococo was all the rage in 1730s France; but by the 1760s it was being criticised as superficial and decadent. Denis Diderot famously wrote of Boucher in his review of the 1761 Salon, ‘Cet homme a tout – excepté la vérité’ (That man is capable of everything – except the truth). However, all did not share Diderot’s opinion: Boucher had a wide-ranging clientele, from bourgeois collectors to Madame de Pompadour and four years after Diderot’s biting review he was named first painter to King Louis XV and director of the Académie.
Though his pretty, playful art suggest a sybaritic character, Boucher’s output was prolific and he often worked 12 hours a day; he died at the age of 67 in his studio in the Louvre. A devoted family man, he frequently used his wife as a model and his children followed in his footsteps: his two daughters married his students, the artists Deshays and Baudouin, and a son, Juste-Nathan, would specialise in drawing architectural fantasies.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1741 Francis Hayman: Samuel Richardson, the Novelist Surrounded by his Second Family, London, Tate
1742 William Hogarth: The Graham Children, London, National Gallery