François Boucher: A Lady on her Day Bed (Madame Boucher) - 1743
New York, Frick Collection
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.
And indeed, few could deny the appeal of works like this pretty portrait most likely of Boucher’s wife, Marie-Jeanne Buseau (1716–after 1786). Madame Boucher frequently appeared in her husband’s paintings as the model for a goddess or a queen but rarely as herself. When this was painted, she was 27 years old, a mother of three and had been married for ten years.
Pertly propped up on a chaise-longue she looks as if she might have just woken from a mid-afternoon nap. Charmingly déshabillé, her voluminous dress is bunched up around her revealing a shapely ankle and stylish high-heeled slippers. Pink bows set off her pale skin and rosy cheeks, one of which she leans coquettishly into a soft hand. It is a candid image of a much-loved wife and as well as a compendium of the Rococo style: glossy surfaces, a high-toned palette favouring blues and pinks, a playful grace and lightness and a sentimental, vaguely erotic tone.
It is also a glimpse into the Bouchers’ new apartment on the Rue de Grenelle-Saint-Honoré where they had moved a year before. The joys of domesticity were also a popular theme of the Rococo and the image’s easy-going, almost teasing tone suggests a happy home-life. The Oriental porcelain figurine and tea service on the hanging étagère reflect the Bouchers’ taste for chinoiserie, which was so à la mode in the 18th century. The luxurious wall coverings and the gold watch on the wall suggest a measure of financial success, as does the fashionable dishevelment of the room: crumpled papers, a ball of yarn on the floor, a cloth tossed on the footstool. Madame Boucher, like the fine ladies Boucher worked for, was clearly not concerned with tidiness. For this reason and because Boucher borrowed the picture’s composition from famous depictions of Venus by the likes of Giorgione and Titian, this painting has been nicknamed the ‘Untidy Venus.’
Though his pretty, playful art would suggest a sybaritic character, Boucher’s output was prolific and he often worked 12 hours a day; he in fact died at the age of 67 in his studio in the Louvre. 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. And despite her leisurely depiction here, Madame Boucher was an artist herself and in later life painted miniature reproductions of her husband’s more popular pictures and made engravings after his drawings.
1742 Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida, Chicago, Art Institute
1743 William Hogarth: Marriage à la Mode (six scenes), London, National Gallery
1744 Jean-Siméon Chardin: Grace Before a Meal, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage