To celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of François Boucher (1703-1770), an unprecedented international loan exhibition of his drawings is on view at The Frick Collection through December 14.
This is truly the first major survey of the artist’s graphic work to bring together a substantial number of loans from both international and national public and private collections. Presenting approximately 75 sheets of the highest quality, the exhibition provides a deeper understanding of Boucher’s prolific output of works on paper and demonstrates his extraordinary technique and style as a draftsman.
The artist’s wide variety of subject matter is revealed by a selection that includes depictions of pastoral scenes and landscapes, various conceptions of mythology, religious narratives, historical events, representations of literature and allegory and contemporary scenes.
“The Drawings of François Boucher” makes its debut at the Frick and then travels to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (January 17-April 18). It is curated by Alastair Laing, advisor on paintings and sculpture to the National Trust, London.
Boucher is said to have made as many as 10,000 drawings over the course of a career that spanned nearly five decades. Not only did he make preparatory compositional and figure studies for his paintings, but also used drawings in the process of designing cartoons for Beauvais and Gobelins tapestries and as models for Sevres porcelain. From early on in his career he provided drawings to be engraved as thesis plates, book illustrations, frontispieces and allegorical vignettes.
As a mature artist he pioneered the concept of the autonomous drawing, creating individual works specifically for collectors. Following innovations in printmaking in the 1740s, Boucher also made drawings to be engraved in facsimile, which could, therefore, reach broader audiences. Furthermore, he explored the graphic medium in all its variety, drawing in sanguine (red chalk); sanguine brûlée (reddish-brown chalk); pen and ink (both black and brown); brush and wash; pastel; in the trios crayons technique perfected by Watteau; and in black chalk heightened with white on blue, gray or fawn paper.
The son of a master painter in the Paris Guild (the Académie de Saint-Luc), Boucher spent a brief apprenticeship in the studio of the brilliant, but unstable, history painter François Lemoyne. During the early to middle 1720s, Boucher created etchings of more than 100 drawings by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and was thereafter strongly influenced by the artist’s figural style and use of color. In 1723, Boucher won the academy’s annual Prix de Rome, the premiere student prize that would enable him to study classical and Renaissance art in Rome at the Académie de France. Surviving drawings from this period (the trip was delayed and he actually traveled to the Eternal City in 1728) suggest that he was most interested in the vigor and grandiloquence of the Italian Baroque. On this sojourn, he also encountered the work of Northern mannerist Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651), whose rustic protagonists had a considerable influence on the young artist’s own peasant scenes and early pastorals.
Back in Paris by the summer of 1731, Boucher quickly ascended the academy’s hierarchy as a history painter and was made a full professor by 1737. Among the most successful of the extracurricular activities he undertook at the same time for private, sometimes royal, clients was the set of illustrations for a new edition of Molière’s works in 1734-35. Setting the narratives in contemporary Parisian interiors, Boucher approached each episode as a miniature history painting and prepared his compositions accordingly with figure studies of unprecedented verve and spontaneity. Featured in the exhibition is an exemplary study on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in which the costume, tricorn, gestures and expressions of the protesting La Flèche are masterfully delineated, while his pockets are being picked by the suspicious figure of Harpagon.
Despite the caliber of such drawings, it was primarily as a painter of mythological subjects that Boucher made his reputation in the 1730s, one that became unassailable with Madame de Pompadour’s installation as titular mistress in 1745. Indeed, under these circumstances, Boucher quickly gained ascendancy as the foremost painter in her circle. His masterpieces, “The Rising of the Sun” and “The Setting of the Sun” (now in the Wallace Collection, London), from which a single set of Gobelins tapestries was woven, were conceived as a part of mythological decorations for Pompadour’s Château de Bellevue. A drawing of a male nude, based on the figure of Apollo in “The Rising of the Sun,” is included in the exhibition.
The exhibition includes “Landscape with the Aqueduct at Arcueil,” a rendition of the structure created in the Seventeenth Century for Marie de Médicis. Framed by overgrown trees, the scene evokes the abandoned grounds of a château south of Paris where artists of Boucher’s generation flocked to make paintings and drawings en plein air.
Although in the 1760s Boucher came under fire from progressive critics for his attachment to a purely fictive universe, he continued to produce monumental mythological and pastoral decorations that display an inventiveness and acuity that would be matched only by his pupil Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the next decade. Still in royal favor, Boucher became premier peintre to the aging Louis XV in 1765. The artist seems also, however, to have been receptive to the emerging classicism that infiltrated all aspects of French art, decorative arts and architecture in this decade. An example of this aesthetic shift can be found in the exhibition, which features the dignified and magisterial “Study of a Despondent Woman in Drapery.”
A fully illustrated catalog, published by the AFA in association with Scala Publishers Ltd, accompanies the exhibition and features entries that reassess the dating of many of Boucher’s drawings, trace their history of ownership, discuss the relationship between drawings and specific paintings, and reveal other new research. The catalog (264 pages, more than 100 color illustrations) is available in English and French hardcover editions at $55, and in an English softcover version at $37.50 through the museum shop of The Frick Collection, www.frick.org or 212-288-0700.
On Wednesday, December 10, at 6 pm, Katie Scott of The Courtauld Institute of Art will give a free lecture entitled “Homo Orientalis: François Boucher and China.” Throughout his career, Boucher was an avid collector of lacquer, Chinese ceramics and prints. Boucher created prints and tapestries that reflected his own distinct vision of China.
The Frick Collection is at 1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue.