Making Up the Rococo: Francois Boucher and His Critics
Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006. 272 pp.; 18 color and 53 b/w ills. $49.95 paper
MELISSA HYDE AND MARK LEDBURY, EDS.
Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006. 312 pp.; 19 color and 66 b/w ills. $55.00 paper
Reviewing the 1765 Salon exhibition sponsored by France's Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Denis Diderot not only derided the paintings of the aging Francois Boucher but also hurled personal insults at the man who had recently been named premier peintre to Louis XV. Entwining aesthetic judgments with matters of gender, class, and propriety, Diderot likened the favorite painter of the late Madame de Pompadour to the art he produced. In Boucher, Diderot fulminated, "degradation of taste, color, composition, character, expression, and drawing have kept pace with moral depravity." (1) Then again, he asked, what more could one expect from "a man who spends his life with prostitutes of the basest kind?" The two books under consideration proceed from the premise that Diderot's unflinching critiques, in tandem with the equally vociferous rhapsodies penned by the nostalgic brothers Goncourt, have unjustly determined the parameters of Boucher's subsequent reception. Setting their sights high, Making Up the Rococo and Rethinking Boucher share the ambitious goal of rehabilitating Boucher's reputation by eschewing, complicating, or outright challenging the received wisdom concerning both his art and his character. While the authors make impressive strides, their exemplary scholarship also points to the quantity of work remaining to be done before we can fully understand Boucher from the perspective of the gout moderne (modern style), as his style was known before it was saddled, at the turn of the nineteenth century, with the political and moral baggage of the term "Rococo."
Why Boucher? And why now? These questions frame the brief essay that introduces Rethinking Boucher, a compilation of articles written by nine well-established American and European academics and curators specializing in eighteenth-century French art, literature, and culture. First, and most directly, editors Melissa Hyde and Mark Ledbury observe that the three-hundredth anniversary of Boucher's birth generated an unprecedented outpouring of interest in the artist. Between 2003 and 2005, museums in France and New York presented four separate exhibitions of Boucher's drawings, and London's Wallace Collection single-handedly mounted four exhibitions of its own Boucher paintings. (2) Moreover, all of these shows followed close on the heels of a major traveling exhibition that addressed Pompadour's influence on the arts, which necessarily featured Boucher quite prominently. (3) Three symposia further assessed and advanced the state of Boucher scholarship, with the present volume arising from a two-day colloquium held at the Getty Research Institute in 2003.
More broadly, Hyde and Ledbury suggest that Boucher's long-awaited moment in the spotlight can be explained, at least in part, by the postmodern turn in both art and scholarship. In the mid-twentieth century, the heyday of a modernist aesthetic that advocated a "self-critical, pure, anti-theatrical, autonomous, and above all, 'deep' and serious-minded painting" (p. 2), Boucher's luxuriously ornamented erotic reveries found scant appreciation. (4) Perhaps a more recent "emphasis on the ludic, the anti-hierarchical, the androgynous, on process, surface, and the performative" (p. 3) has allowed us to see Boucher anew. Finally, the editors note that prior to the tercentenary, nearly twenty years had passed since Boucher, one of the most prominent and influential artists of the eighteenth century, had received serious scholarly treatment. (5) In short, it's time.
The nine essays that follow the introduction are grouped into three sections, "according to the nature of their challenge to our understanding of the artist" (p. 3). Each author represented in part 1, "The Various Boucher," takes a new approach to works that have received relatively little attention in the Boucher literature. For instance, Colin B. Bailey's "'Details That Surreptitiously Explain': Boucher as a Genre Painter" proposes an alternative to the existing biographical readings of Boucher's scenes of daily life and, more generally, argues for "the merits of an iconological approach to eighteenth-century French genre painting" (p. 41). Focusing on Boucher's pastoral and rustic genre scenes of the 1730s, Bailey demonstrates the merits of an emblematic methodology by teasing a remarkable amount of witty, naughty narrative out of such humble items as cabbages and root vegetables. Moving from the profane to the sacred, Martin Schieder investigates Boucher's rarely studied forays into devotional pictures in his essay "Between Grace and Volupte: Boucher and Religious Painting." Schieder's contributions are twofold. First, considering the drawings and paintings of Old Testament subjects that Boucher produced in the 1720s and 1730s, Schieder speculates that the budding young Boucher might well have envisioned a career as a painter of religious histories. Second, Schieder reconsiders the galant renderings of New Testament themes that Boucher created for Pompadour in the 1750s. These, he maintains, should be understood not merely as Rococo confections shaped by the idiosyncratic tastes of artist and patron but rather as part and parcel of the era's emerging "ideal of 'happy Christianity'" (p. 77), which sought a harmonious blend of the earthly and the divine.
Melissa Hyde's contribution to part 1 is especially provocative. In "Getting into the Picture: Boucher's Self-Portraits of Others," Hyde identifies instances of self-representation in a range of paintings, drawings, and engravings by and of Boucher. None of these works could properly be called a self-portrait, yet Hyde makes a compelling case that Boucher both references and shapes his identity through these images. For instance, looking at Boucher's 1726 engraving after a self-portrait by Antoine Watteau, Hyde observes that Boucher has signed his name on the portfolio depicted in Watteau's hand. The resulting play of authorship grows dizzying when we realize that Boucher might well have invented Watteau's so-called self-portrait, thereby establishing an indissoluble link between the twenty-three-year-old Boucher, who was still eight years away from his reception at the Royal Academy, and the deceased master of the fete galante.
Part 2, "The Unexpected Boucher," features three essays that examine Boucher's participation in, and influence on, spheres beyond the traditional boundaries of the fine arts. The Boucher literature has long cried out for just this type of analysis, which recognizes the artist's far-reaching engagement with some of the key cultural issues of his time. Mary D. Sheriff's discussion, "Boucher's Enchanted Islands," connects Boucher's Rinaldo and Armida (1734), among other works that foreground desire, to contemporary visualizations of the erotics of empire. Sheriff's starting point is the 1771 publication Voyage autour du monde, par la frigate du roi la Boudeuse et la flute l'Etoile by Louis Antoine de...