fig. 1 
François Boucher

Boucher was one of those men who indicate the taste of a century, express, personify, embody it. In him, French eighteenth-century taste was manifest, in all the peculiarity of its character. Boucher was not only its painter but its chief witness, its chief representative, its very type.

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, 18611 Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, French Eighteenth-Century Painters, Phaidon, London, 1981, p. 55. The chapter on Boucher was originally published in Revue européenne XVI, Paris, 1861.

The acquisition of two pastoral paintings, The agreeable lesson and The mysterious basket by François Boucher (1703–70) (figs 1­–2), marked a turning point in the development of the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Their acquisition was made possible only by combining the two great endowments of the Gallery: The Felton Bequest acquired The agreeable lesson on the recommendation of the Felton adviser, Dr Ursula Hoff, and The Art Foundation of Victoria acquired The mysterious basket with the generous assistance of Dinah and Henry Krongold, the Myer Emporium and the Commonwealth Bank. The National Gallery of Victoria for some years had sought to represent French Rococo with a major example of the style. The Boucher paintings enable the Gallery to show a major master of the French Rococo at the height of his powers in the pastoral vein. 

This pair of paintings now becomes the climax and focus of the small but fine group of 18th-century French works. They join the remarkable pastel of Madame de Pompadour by Boucher, and the handsome group of portraits by Roslin, Quentin de la Tour, Drouais, a bust by Pigalle and a profile relief of Louis XV by Jean Baptiste Lemoyne. The themes, the character and the date of the Boucher pastorals all combine to make them works of exceptional interest within this group. 

The Melbourne Bouchers originally belonged in a group of four paintings owned, perhaps commissioned, by a Monsieur Perinet, whose identity remains quite shadowy.2 The four works in question are recorded in Alexandre Ananoff, Francois Boucher, La Bibliothèque des Arts, Lausanne-Paris, 1976, vol. II: L’Agréable leçon (no. 311), pp. 6–7: Berger accordant sa musette (no. 319), pp. 12–13; Le Panier mystérieux (no. 320), pp. 14–15; Les Amants surpris (no. 341), p. 41. Engravings by Rene Gaillard were announced in Le Mercure de France, February 1758, and each is inscribed: ‘d’Après le Tableau de Monsieur Perinet’. Impressions of the two taken from the Melbourne paintings are now in the NGV Print Room. Of the other two paintings only one apparently survives, Shepherd playing the bagpipes, or The shepherd rewarded, in an English private collection; the fourth, The lovers surprised, is known through engravings (figs 3–4). Curiously, in March 1982 the group was reunited in a modified form when four glass panels ‘after Boucher’ appeared in the London Art market.3 The four glass panels were illustrated in colour in an advertisement tor Richard Riley Ltd in Apollo CXV, March 1982, p. 93. All four scenes were painted in reverse, showing a dependence on the engravings rather than the original paintings. 

The mysterious basket and Shepherd playing the bagpipes are signed and dated 1748. The Agreeable lesson is unsigned, but was exhibited at the Salon of 1748 and there described as ‘one of the loveliest things to have come from the brush of the Anacreon of Painting . . ., the most pleasing painter that ever was’.4 Observations sur le Salon de 1748, in Ananoff, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 40–41. Two years later Boucher publicly united these three and added the fourth painting, The lovers surprised, when they were catalogued as a ‘set’ of ‘four pastorals of oval format. . .’ in the Salon of 1750 (and once again praised by the critics in glowing terms). The Melbourne pair are the most distinguished of the group, and have more in common with each other than with the other two. In the Melbourne paintings the figures are placed in a verdant wood and set against a background of classical ruins. In the other two (The lovers surprised and Shepherd playing the bagpipes) Boucher employed more of a stock repertoire of figures and rustic settings. 

The subjects of the Melbourne paintings, particularly The agreeable lesson, were to become widely popular and were copied throughout the 18th century. As early as 1752 the Sèvres factory had produced a porcelain version of the shepherd teaching his shepherdess the flute, derived directly from Boucher’s image.5 Reproduced ibid., p. 7; see also Rosalind Savill, ‘François Boucher and the Porcelains of Vincennes and Sèvres‘, Apollo CXV, March 1982, pp. 162–70. It had reached England by 1765, when the Chelsea manufactory produced one of its most ambitious figure groups based on the same motif.6 Joseph Burke, English Art 1714–1800, O.U.P., London, 1976, pp. 145–46, pi. 40A. Yet, despite the contemporary fame and popularity of this image and that one of Boucher’s finest and most frequently reproduced drawings (now in the British Museum) is for the youthful shepherd in The mysterious basket, as recently as April 1982 the two Melbourne Bouchers were catalogued as ‘lost’ paintings.7 Denys Sutton, Francois Boucher, Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, 1982, p. 119. Their significance in the artist’s oeuvre, their excellent condition, fully autograph character and their high aesthetic quality are sufficient recommendation in themselves; in addition, a depth and clever irony can now be documented and demonstrated in their subject matter, which make them exceptional works among Boucher’s pastoral paintings. 

Boucher has generally suffered from being characterised exclusively in terms of Rococo charm and prettiness. What Denis Diderot and then the younger French Revolutionary generation objected to so strenuously in Boucher’s late work – ‘simperings, affectations … the degradation of taste . . .’ – became the grounds on which he was admired once again by the end of the 19th century. Even such perceptive and sympathetic critics as the Goncourt brothers pay tribute to him in similar terms: 

Prettiness, in the best sense of the term, is the symbol and the seduction of France at this airy moment of history. It is the essence, the formula of her genius, the quality of her moral tone and the pattern of her manners. It is the spirit of the age – and the soul of Boucher’s genius.8 Goncourt, op. cit., p. 55. 

Summing up Boucher the Goncourts are hardly less harsh than Diderot himself: 

He was simply an original, highly gifted painter who lacked one superior quality, the birthmark of all great painters, namely distinction . . . Elegant vulgarity – that is the hallmark of Boucher.9 ibid., p. 86. 

This slightly pejorative literary tradition surrounding Boucher continues even into much recent writing. ‘Brainless Boucher’ has become something of a rallying cry. But do the Melbourne pastorals bear this out? The sensuous prettiness is undeniable, but it is by no means mere superficial charm. The lively figures certainly cannot be dismissed as ‘marionettes’ for there is a narrative insistence in their specific actions, linked deliberately and inseparably with the settings in which they occur, which places them far beyond ‘mere decoration’. 

Two general points should influence a correct reading of the Melbourne Bouchers. Firstly, as Denys Sutton has said: 

Boucher is the artist par excellence of the French Rococo, in which a perceptive wit, a sense of elegance and a conscious feeling for style were combined with a fluent imagination; this was art designed for a sophisticated audience, for an urban and courtly society.10 France in the Eighteenth Century, Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968, p. 24.  

Nobody was meant to believe that barefoot country girls wore satin gowns or tied up their sheep with blue silk ribbons. This was the milieu in which Lords and Ladies ‘dressed down’ for a ball, where a Lady could declare her disposition for love by assuming the guise of a shepherdess; in which the poetic phrase, ‘I’heure du berger’ (the hour of the shepherd), translated exactly as ‘the time for romance and amorous dalliance’. But it was also a society which had raised the conduct of human relationships to the level of an art, in conversation, letter-writing, music, dancing and seduction. Much of Boucher’s appeal to such a sophisticated audience lay in the narrative element of his paintings: the ironic intricacy of the Melbourne pair is an essential part of their aesthetic quality and effect. 

Secondly, the Goncourt brothers, ever the most perceptive and persuasive of Boucher’s critics, pointed out that 

for a proper appreciation of Boucher’s talent, and in deference to his fame, we do better to judge him in smaller, less pompous, less official pictures. As an artist full of natural spontaneity, his personality is nowhere more delightfully manifest than in his compositions on a less ambitious scale, in which his heart and hand penetrate every corner of the canvas without fatigue.11 Goncourt, op. cit., pp. 77–78. 

Such is the case with the Melbourne paintings where the fully autograph character maintains their vitality and crispness of handling. They neither flag in invention nor lapse into facile theatricality; they present Boucher at his intimate and immediate best. 

The theatre – the real stage – does provide, however, an important clue to Boucher’s choice of subject matter. For some thirty years of his career (c. 1737–68) he designed sets and costumes and made backdrops for the Opéra Comique and other theatres, and he well understood that the audiences flocking to these risqué musicals were also the public to whom he sold his paintings. Much more specifically, according to contemporary theatre chroniclers Claude and François Parfaict, ‘Monsieur Boucher, the Painter famous for his graceful compositions, borrowed the idea for several of his pictures’ from a pantomime called The Vintages of Tempe. This play was first presented by his friend, Charles Simon Favart, on 28 August 1745, and ‘never was a pantomime so successful’; it toured the provinces, was repeatedly reprinted, and revived in Paris by the Théâtre Italien in February 1752.12 ‘Les Vendages de Tempé’, 1745, printed in Claude and François Parfaict, Dictionnaire des Théâtres de Paris, Roset, Paris, 1756–70, vol. VI, pp. 70 ff. (republished by Slatkine Reprints, Geneva, 1967, 7 volumes in 2). For the later enlarged version, La Vallée de Montmorency, ou Les Amours Villageois, see p. 30. Savill and other recent writers on Sévres have tentatively linked The agreeable lesson with this later ballet-pantomime; but the date of the NGV painting (1748) makes this impossible, and the Parfaicts, who knew both Boucher and Favart, are clear in their statement. C. S. Favart (1710–92), librettist, playwright and impresario, entered Madame de Pompadour’s personal service at much the same time as Boucher did, and was addressed by the artist as ‘mon cher ami’. 

The story has little to do with either grape-gathering or sheep, but the Melbourne paintings are clearly amongst the ‘several’ mentioned by Claude Parfaict. In Scene V of The Vintages of Tempe Favart’s Little Shepherd tries to teach his maîtresse how to play the flute: ‘Le Berger touche le flageolet pendant qu’elle souffle dedans.’ In another scene the Little Shepherdess (called ‘Lisette’, like the vast majority of 18th-century French pantomime Bergères) lies sleeping while the Little Shepherd steals away her basket and replaces it filled with grapes, transposed to flowers by Boucher and partly covering a sealed letter: ‘& après l’avoir rempli, il revient, le poser à côté d’elle, sans faire de bruit’.13 As well, Shepherd playing the bagpipes probably relates to Scenes I and II, where Lisette comes upon the Little Shepherd playing and responds in song and dance; and The lovers surprised certainly relates to Scene VII, when Mathurin, the Little Shepherd’s father, catches the couple in flagrante delicto.The four paintings bought by Monsieur Perinet by no means illustrate the whole story of the pantomime, nor do they make a sequential narrative series. (For one thing, the ‘characters’ do not look the same in each picture; and it is interesting that no literary parallel was remarked by Salon reviewers in 1750.) As noticed already, the Melbourne pair have more in common with one another than they have with the other two in the group. Boucher’s use of his source is characteristically light and allusive, rather than directly illustrative. The two simple incidents – a shepherd teaching a shepherdess to play, and a shepherd placing a basket beside a sleeping shepherdess – triggered off a more complex, intricate and ironic response in Boucher’s imagination.   

Both episodes are set in an Arcadian pastoral landscape where the abundant world of nature, teeming with vines and creepers and decorated with flowers, stands in contrast with the ruins of time, the remnants of a classical past, which appear behind both couples. In The mysterious basket Boucher underscores the point by juxtaposing a fallen tree trunk in the foreground with the fallen column above the head of the sleeping girl. Perhaps this is the Grecian valley of Tempe, associated since antiquity with ‘rustic delights’ and sacred to Phoebus-Apollo and his music; it might just as well be a forest in the countryside somewhere near Versailles. Quite clearly the figures belong to the abundant world. They are denizens of the timeless world of Arcady. They are its natural citizens. 

  

If, as the Goncourts put it, ‘voluptuousness is the essence of Boucher’s ideal; the spirit of his art is compact with it’,14 Goncourt, op. cit., p. 65. then he subtly inverts conventional expectations in both paintings. 

The agreeable lesson has ostensibly the charm of innocence. The lesson is given before an imposing ruined fountain, bearing the inscription Fontana de la Verita (Fountain of Truth) and surmounted by a splendid stone lion, the image and icon of faith and fortitude (and also one of Apollo’s own personal beasts). But are truthfulness and faith borne out by the actions of the shepherd and shepherdess? The lesson proceeds, after all, by the shepherd embracing the shepherdess, giving rise to a beautiful passage of Boucher draughtsmanship in the play of the shepherd’s hands round the flute. The young girl’s arms fall slackly by her side, but not altogether carelessly, for she lightly fingers the shepherd’s crook which rests between his legs. Without a touch of prurience, but with a delightfully light-handed suggestion of hidden eroticism, Boucher transforms the apparently innocent scene into an implicitly sexual encounter. Nor can it be an accident that the goat, staring balefully out of the picture at the viewer, should be such a dominant presence: in contemporary emblem handbooks the goat is a symbol for sexual passion ‘the most potent and easily aroused of all animals’.15 Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Hertel ed., c 1760), p. 70, where the goat is also linked with ivy and grapevines under the heading of ‘Lewdness’ or ‘Luxuria’. Ripa’s handbook was first published in 1598, and subsequently enlarged many times. 

A similar inversion of customary expectations can be found in The mysterious basket. The shepherd, a handsome athletic figure, rushes in from the wood and is checked by the fence which forms a niche for the sleeping shepherdess; his virility and physical alertness contrast with her soft, reclining form. Instead of a scene of threat, however, Boucher transforms it into a passage of innocence and delicacy. The shepherd places his mysterious basket with the letter, a token of civilised behaviour, before the sleeping nymph. He invades neither her person nor her space. Only her small dog wakens to the intruder; but the dog is a well-known symbol of fidelity in love and friendship, used, for example, by Madame de Pompadour in a set of etchings which she executed under the guidance of Boucher himself.16 Katherine K. Gordon, ‘Madame de Pompadour, Pigalle and the Iconography of Friendship’, Art Bulletin 50, September 1968, fig. 10. Exactly the same dog (with several other details from the Melbourne pair) appears in a painting commissioned by Madame de Pompadour in 1750, Le Sommeil interrompu (which, incidentally, also relates closely to Scene IV of Les Vendages de Tempé)•, Ananoff, op. cit., vol. II, no. 363, and its pendant, no. 364. Clearly this dog in The mysterious basket is the counterpoise to the image of the goat as an ‘attribute’ in the scene of The agreeable lesson. Similarly, while the flute lesson was conducted before the Fountain of Truth, Boucher’s ruins in The mysterious basket create yet another counter-twist. The great urn above the sleeping girl is carved with a stone ram’s head entwined with vines; an emblematic suggestion that the gentle scene played out by the young man may also be contrasted with knowledge of a wilder, more animal sexuality. There is a hint of that wilful carpe diem theme – ‘seize the day, live for the moment’ – which infected so much of fashionable 18th-century French existence; for the pleasures of youth and beauty, after all, are more transient still than any man-made statuary. 

Boucher attracted both his general audience and his particular patron, Madame la Marquise de Pompadour, through his inventions as much as his decorative skills. The subtle ironic intent of these pastorals clearly delighted his contemporaries. (In just the same way they could choose to read infinite ‘galant’ implications into Favart’s musical pastorals: double meanings abounded because the lyrics were set to old vaudeville tunes which were universally familiar with all their traditional, more indecorous words and connotations.) 

Boucher’s fleetness of hand and lightness of touch convey the best of Rococo taste and sensibility. Yet within that very lightness and delicacy of sensibility, his art undoubtedly sounds some of the deeper notes and antinomies of 18th-century civilisation; with the perspective of two hundred years’ hindsight posterity may even detect a shadow of Nemesis hovering in Boucher’s Arcadian world. The contrast between nature and history are set forth effortlessly in the contrast between the teeming forest and the ruins of the classical past. The constancy and inconstancy of love and dalliance are balanced against both, against timeless nature and the time-bound past. Love among the ruins for this ‘Peintre des Graces’ is a subject for ironic pleasure, ironic delight.

Jane Clark, Assistant Curator of Special Exhibitions, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1983).

Patrick McCaughey, Director, National Gallery of Victoria (in1983).

Notes

1           Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, French Eighteenth-Century Painters, Phaidon, London, 1981, p. 55. The chapter on Boucher was originally published in Revue européenne XVI, Paris, 1861. 

2          The four works in question are recorded in Alexandre Ananoff, Francois Boucher, La Bibliothèque des Arts, Lausanne-Paris, 1976, vol. II: L’Agréable leçon (no. 311), pp. 6–7: Berger accordant sa musette (no. 319), pp. 12–13; Le Panier mystérieux (no. 320), pp. 14–15; Les Amants surpris (no. 341), p. 41. Engravings by Rene Gaillard were announced in Le Mercure de France, February 1758, and each is inscribed: ‘d’Après le Tableau de Monsieur Perinet’. Impressions of the two taken from the Melbourne paintings are now in the NGV Print Room. 

3          The four glass panels were illustrated in colour in an advertisement tor Richard Riley Ltd in Apollo CXV, March 1982, p. 93. 

4          Observations sur le Salon de 1748, in Ananoff, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 40–41. 

5          Reproduced ibid., p. 7; see also Rosalind Savill, ‘François Boucher and the Porcelains of Vincennes and Sèvres‘, Apollo CXV, March 1982, pp. 162–70. 

6          Joseph Burke, English Art 1714–1800, O.U.P., London, 1976, pp. 145–46, pi. 40A. 

7          Denys Sutton, Francois Boucher, Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, 1982, p. 119. 

8          Goncourt, op. cit., p. 55. 

9          ibid., p. 86. 

10         France in the Eighteenth Century, Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968, p. 24. 

11        Goncourt, op. cit., pp. 77–78. 

12        ‘Les Vendages de Tempé’, 1745, printed in Claude and François Parfaict, Dictionnaire des Théâtres de Paris, Roset, Paris, 1756–70, vol. VI, pp. 70 ff. (republished by Slatkine Reprints, Geneva, 1967, 7 volumes in 2). For the later enlarged version, La Vallée de Montmorency, ou Les Amours Villageois, see p. 30. Savill and other recent writers on Sévres have tentatively linked The agreeable lesson with this later ballet-pantomime; but the date of the NGV painting (1748) makes this impossible, and the Parfaicts, who knew both Boucher and Favart, are clear in their statement. C. S. Favart (1710–92), librettist, playwright and impresario, entered Madame de Pompadour’s personal service at much the same time as Boucher did, and was addressed by the artist as ‘mon cher ami’. 

13       As well, Shepherd playing the bagpipes probably relates to Scenes I and II, where Lisette comes upon the Little Shepherd playing and responds in song and dance; and The lovers surprised certainly relates to Scene VII, when Mathurin, the Little Shepherd’s father, catches the couple in flagrante delicto

14       Goncourt, op. cit., p. 65. 

15       Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Hertel ed., c 1760), p. 70, where the goat is also linked with ivy and grapevines under the heading of ‘Lewdness’ or ‘Luxuria’. Ripa’s handbook was first published in 1598, and subsequently enlarged many times. 

16        Katherine K. Gordon, ‘Madame de Pompadour, Pigalle and the Iconography of Friendship’, Art Bulletin 50, September 1968, fig. 10. Exactly the same dog (with several other details from the Melbourne pair) appears in a painting commissioned by Madame de Pompadour in 1750, Le Sommeil interrompu (which, incidentally, also relates closely to Scene IV of Les Vendages de Tempé)•, Ananoff, op. cit., vol. II, no. 363, and its pendant, no. 364.