PRINT April 1986


No dog is more intelligent or more sociable than the French poodle, nor has any lent itself more freely to the ornamental whims of mortals. A poodle at a dog show seems not so much to compete with other breeds as to measure itself against standards of comportment and topiary design established at Versailles. So much culture, so much style, yet only the chihuahua is more often ridiculed. When it comes to undisguised artifice—wagging pompoms, say, or too much millinery—unaware of stigma or unimpressed by it, we are on the defensive, guarding our individual conceits and credentials, our private parts, and whatever vision of strength we have concocted for ourselves to pass muster. These lonesome trials have many of us paying lip service to vague pieties about cultivation, while under our breath we nervously deride its most meticulously distilled products, its virtuoso turns.

The era spanning the first three quarters of the 18th century, and in particular the reign of Louis XV, is the poodle of history. It is remembered equally as the Enlightenment, and as the longest-running picnic ever for vacuous aristocrats. The literary and visual manifestations of the period seem furthermore to have been lined up on opposing sides of this schism and pitched against one another through time. The France of Voltaire (1694–1778), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), and Denis Diderot (1713–84) is routinely admired for its universalist, reformist verve, for its Encyclopédie, for its pamphlets and satires, its notions and theories—we call it the dawn of the Modem Age. But the France of Jean Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), of Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), and most precisely of Francois Boucher (1703–70) has more frequently been likened to dusk, albeit a pink one.

We do not hate Gianlorenzo Bernini because we are antipapist, nor do we discount Marcel Proust because of the Counts he flattered. But despite these and other facts—such as that Louis XV was a mild monarch; that life at court had relaxed a lot since the days of the Sun King; that while state coffers may have been low, France at large was prospering; that the zeitgeist was optimistic, secular, tolerant, and, if large numbers of prominent and intellectual women among the upper classes can be allowed as evidence, practically protofeminist, that the fashions of the period entailed an explosion and dissemination of the decorative arts unrivaled until the turn of this century—French Rococo art is to many people the outstanding symbol for the callousness and denatured excesses of the rich. Though common lore has placed the crown of royal villainy on Marie Antoinette’s pasty little head, the pictures and furniture in her boudoir had already assumed some of the severity of revolutionary-age Neoclassicism, and would be forgiven. The guillotine of disciplinarian taste fell upon her predecessors, Mme. de Pompadour et al.

The term “Rococo”—like “Cubism”—was coined scornfully, in this instance by younger contemporaries as a combination of the words rocaille and coquille, referring to the extravagantly garlanded, rock- and shell-encrusted motifs typical of the style. (The Petit Larousse, a standard dictionary for schoolchildren, defines Rococo as slang for a style that is “swollen” and “overwrought”) The Rococo was the great orgy of polymorphousness and fabrication. A flood of Chinese exports into the West (hence “china”) was followed by the establishment of virtually every great name or center for porcelain manufacture in Europe, including Meissen, Sèvres, Limoges, Vincennes, Nymphenburg, Copenhagen, Capodimonte, Staffordshire, Derby, Bow, Chelsea, Worcester, and Wedgwood. Thousands of casually disposed figurines—stock genre characters in three dimensions—soon cluttered fashionable mantelpieces, demonstrating the virtuosity of new ceramic techniques. What we have come to think of as the “typically Parisian” taste for well-planned spontaneity was evidently baked into the process as well. Table legs were wave-crests of ormolu, tabletops were Chinese landscapes and “op” kaleidoscopes in wood marquetry. A combination vanity and writing desk—a maze of drawers and secrets, sometimes surfaced with porcelain, and probably the most ladylike piece of furniture ever devised—could be called a “bonheur-du-jour,” which translates grossly as “well-being of the morning” Terra-cotta became popular again among sculptors like Jean-Antoine Houdon and Clodion, and painters, with their even more tractable medium, painted on porcelain, over doors, on ceilings, and on wall panels as well as on canvas, as if with one fluid gesture expressing the artifice of all beauty.

The engravings, sketches, porcelain and tapestry designs, panels, and paintings of Boucher are the undiluted essence of Rococo taste. They are more specifically Rococo than the work of Boucher’s student, Fragonard, whose lyric style and more schematic intelligence prefigure later Romanticism, or than that of Watteau, whose work Boucher once copied and engraved, but in whom there is the chill of emotional realism. There is none of that in Boucher, no realism at all, only realities of materials and the senses. The whole of his enterprise hits one as a giant metaphor for pleasure—babylike pleasures, domestic pleasures, pagan euphorias, sexual love. As if official France has gone on holiday, the perennial French amour de Dieu (love of God) with Boucher becomes amours des dieux (loves of the gods), of which he did many series, in different mediums. We find Venus Requesting Vulcan for Arms for Aeneas, 1732, looking blithely self-satisfied as she barters sex on behalf of Aeneas, the object of her not entirely maternal love. At the center of this, in many if not most of Boucher’s paintings, there is nothing: a bit of plasm, a daub of flesh, allegorical vapor, a grape. Even in an ostensibly Christian subject, like the tiny Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and Angels, 1765, the pictorial center is occupied by a blurp of nacreous gas, and all that registers, really, is “angel.”

Elliptical, asymmetrical, convolute, or cycloid composition is a characteristic of all mannerist styles, but if one looks at Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Boucher’s great Venetian contemporary, this sort of organization summons one’s attention to the perspectival dizziness of the heavens, and even les dieux, as it were, are at the mercy of les cieux (the firmament). Boucher shows no special inclination for cosmic pyrotechnics, nor, Parisian provincial that he was, for the grand world view of the far-more-traveled Tiepolo. His “Venus” and “Virgin” are in the thrall not of Eternity or Destiny, but of the startling cerulean and robin’s-egg blues, and flesh-flattering blue greens, that would dominate his work from about 1750 onward. These blues reflect the brilliant glazes at Sèvres, and also the palette of almost every significant artist with an eye to the joys-of-the-nursery, from Raphael and Sandro Botticelli—and Luca della Robbia—to Guido Reni, to Mary Cassatt, and perhaps ultimately to Walt Disney. Small wonder, then, that Boucher may be the most-often- snubbed major artist in European art history: he is one of its all-time charmers, but he wags his tail.

Though Boucher was evidently the faithful husband of a Parisian belle, “guilty” of little more than freemasonry, hiring actresses for models, and frequenting the theater, he was attacked for licentiousness during his own, famously libertine age, with one critic claiming that “he had seen the Graces in no good place; he painted Venus and the Virgin from the nymphs of the boards; and his language, just like his pictures, smacked of the morals of his models and the tone of his studio” Even Diderot—by all accounts a one-man Enlightenment—thought Boucher’s art showed everything but “the truth,” and wondered what else might be expected of a man “who spends his life among prostitutes of the lowest sort.” Yet a stringently doctrinaire Jacques Louis David grudgingly admired him—“n’est past Boucher qui veut” (not anyone can be Boucher)—and came, late in his life, to make paintings that bespoke him. To trace the peaks and slumps of Boucher’s popularity is to plot a comedy of class, manners, and mores, and, further, it is to chart an occluded territory, notoriously overgrown with two of esthetics’ most tortuous vines: taste and kitsch. The subject of Boucher and the Rococo touch these issues from every possible side and angle.

Boucher had a long, successful, immensely productive career: he was First Painter to the king, the favorite of Madame de Pompadour, under contract to Beauvais, then director of the Gobelins tapestry manufacturers—for about half of his life, he was the most famous artist in France. Yet after his death, and with the Revolution, his reputation went into nearly total collapse. He was “rediscovered” in the second half of the 19th century by the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, who found something modern in the very “falsity” that once drew slander and precipitated his rapid eclipse. This was, of course, the heyday of the avant-garde dandy whose cult of beauty defied the new-found horrors of industrial life, a time when the poet Thèophile Gautier could understand Boucher’s “shampooed sheep,” and found “the lie far more agreeable than the truth?’ A little later, Boucher’s paintings and decorative panels became fragile darlings, ”civilizers," to a far less effete assortment of Victorian industrialists (Henry Clay Frick, etc.), who collected them. Next, while mincemeat to 20th-century Modernists, they nonetheless became status symbols from out-of-the-past for the post–World War II generation of nouveaux riches, who tried to evoke their Rococo context on Park Avenue, or in the suburbs. Le style dix-huitième has most often been the bread-and-butter of America’s furniture-reproduction outlets, but it, in general, and Boucher above all, have been mistrusted, if not detested, by most of this century’s more anxious intelligentsia. The allergy is a by-product of nervous heightened consciousness, since just one glance at Boucher sets off associations that seem to run counter to beliefs about art’s visionary role.

Children under ten set loose in a museum will tend to gravitate toward Boucher as if to light, but adolescent art-school students draw an embarrassed line. Just one glance at Boucher will also be met by an all-out affront to any puritanism, sexual or formal. It is useful to consider Boucher’s rivals for the disfavor of the sophisticated American 18-year-old and the eternal Modernist—certainly Pierre Auguste Renoir (fat women, too bourgeois, too sensuous), and probably Peter Paul Rubens (fat women, too grandiose, too sensuous), or Paolo Veronese (fat women, too lavish, too sensuous). Boucher surpasses them in sheer shamelessness, and his work, never “heroic,” becomes increasingly besotted with the fleshly attributes of paint. He was not possessed of anything like Fragonard’s sophistication or acumen for the telling detail or flash of psychology. He made relatively few portraits, and literal references to fashions or habits of the day are scant in his work. A rare interior genre scene like Woman Fastening Her Garter, with Her Maid, 1742, or the eponymous Mme. Boucher, 1743, might present the expected folding screens, chinoiseries, sewing bag, and book, but all are subject to a sense of theatrical advent, as ifa genie were about to pop out of a ginger jar or figurine at any moment. A shimmering portrait probably of Mme. Bergeret, from 1746, tells us about the vogue for wearing corsages on the arm (or one’s heart on one’s sleeve), but this is foremost a gardener’s hallucination, an Oz of flowers.

Boucher was among the last “old masters” for whom religious, bucolic , and mythological subjects could have an un-self-conscious primacy Classical and biblical subjects were rhetorical devices for David’s generation, and while they continued to occupy the academies for some time, and had a number of revivals in the next century (the Nazarenes, for instance, and the Pre-Raphaelites), new philosophies, scientific discoveries, industry, and the development of modern cities would thereafter complicate the requirements for belief. And the pastoral landscape would, of course, soon be seen as the memento mori of the natural world. On the other hand, the flagrant tactile hedonism of Boucher’s involvement with paint, the lack of “perspective” in his allover gestural style, and his idiosyncratic use of “synthetic” color—virtually Technicolor—seem prescient. The “what” in his paintings is always subordinated to the “how” and one can easily get the idea that Boucher, while painting, had a hard time “sticking to his subject” and instead expressed the ambient sensations to which he was subject. Anachronistic flareups of impasto occur in his work, and one could say that the brushiness of Claude Monet and Renoir, the color saturations of Henri Matisse or Pierre Bonnard, and some of the more curvaceous abstract expressionisms of a still-later generation are further leaps in a direction toward which he strayed. By temperament and in his technique, Boucher was a nonobjective painter, which may in fact explain some of his less “convincing” physiognomies. In his late years especially, Boucher, who suffered from cataracts, often blurred contours, rendering them in thick, fleshy strokes . The rather amphibious-looking putti in late paintings such as Venus at Vulcan’s Forge, or Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds, both of 1769, are passages of pink paint barely bounded by darker pink inflections. Both paintings have the feeling of derailed fantasy unfettered—bacchanalias whose trumpeting colors seem paradoxically “pure” and knowing.

These simultaneous qualities of the naif and the experienced are constants in Boucher, and are perhaps responsible for the uniquely silly gracefulness with which he portrayed children. The toddler models in his allegories of The Arts and Sciences, ca. 1750–53—often taken for kitsch because of later vulgarizations and cynical manipulations of similar imagery—are essential children, though no more realistically human than the animal anthropomorphs in Aesop or Jean de La Fontaine, so popular in the 18th century, and of course with children. The 18th century, like our own (and unlike, say, the 19th, which glorified the patriarch), idealized youth . Its vogues for “spontaneity” and various “infantilisrns” —playing shepherd and shepherdess—as well as its fashion excesses , might be said to find their analogy in today’s tastes. In each period one is confronted by a familiar sexual chimera, articulated by one century’s “childlike” hedonism and the other’s psychoanalytic fixation on childhood. In each period there is the theme of impotence. The 18th-century aristocracy, already disempowered by the previous monarch and “kept busy” at court, expressed the image of both its privilege and ever diminishing effectiveness through its ornamental horror vacui and its fetishistic treatment of the physical self, its five-foot wigs featuring battleships in full regalia, for example. Today, impotence has become a rather more democratic issue , affecting in different ways, say, undereducated, unemployed youth , the individual in a corporate whale, the adult in a sexual minefield , the artist as dinosaur in a technological maze. Postpunk fashions, the normalization of cross-dressing, and most recently the ’80s-via-’60s 18th-century revival of brocade coats, panier dresses, and Talleyrand hairstyles—all halfhearted references to the dynamisms of previous decades, worn at half-mast—are pretty obvious expressions of current disenfranchisement.

In recent years, as mannerist styles and materials have also proliferated in art, the Rococo period has begun to, well, surface, as a bridge to the imaginative freedom that once genera ted all the styles currently on view and that once defined the very notion of “artist.” Boucher is among the freest of artists. The lavishness of his sensuality, as free of guilt as it is of realism , gives him, or at any rate the spirit he so consummately exemplifies, the potential of being a Marilyn Monroe figure to artists see king release. Th e Canadian members of General Idea (a three-artist group), in manifestos that beg questions of taste, freedom, kitsch, and difference, celebrate pink poodles as the guard dogs of the imagination. Georg Jiří Dokoupil , in his most recent show in New York, last fall, capitalized on the more loaded, saccharine aspects of Boucherlike characterizations in an exhibition that mapped the short distance between cute-and-harmless and deadly kitsch. James Albertson, a San Francisco-based painter, sometimes seems to refer directly to Boucher in style as well as content , in scenes involving children, dreams, nightmares, and taboos, and in New York this January an artist named Robert Greene presented several city-park pastorals that sent out the perfume of Boucher’s various “Chinese” and “Italian” outings in Arcadia. Kenny Scharf, Judy Pfaff, and Eric Fischl are among the many who have let loose with a few “Boucherisms”

Perhaps the most glorious and surprising kinship is that between the notoriously “frivolous” Boucher and an artist associated with the painting style most heavily burden ed by postwar Modernism’s laurels of angst, asceticism, and moral seriousness:Willem de Kooning. In their most exalted paintings Boucher and de Kooning have in common a peculiar perspective in which, say, streaks of pink and blue assume the generative faculties of DNA and per form their necessary combustions neither in “heaven” nor on earth, but at a point set just above the horizon, in the realm , we have to assume, of the imagination. For twenty years the painter Richard Hennessy has traveled the supposedly blocked roads of expressive freedom in abstraction with techniques, illusions, and compositional brio that in a sense reinvent the Rococo. In paintings such as Leaping Laocoön, 1985, Sidewinder, 1984, Diana, Huntress Chaste and Fair, 1985, and Living Fragonardishly, 1985, you might say that he wears his love for the Rococo and for de Kooning’s art on his sleeve.

The cur rent exhibition of Boucher’s paintings and his influence on the decorative arts of his time, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,1 is the first comprehensive show on the subject to be assembled; it may provide much-needed inspiration to all those now straying toward the pastures of confection.

Lisa Liebmann, a writer and critic who lives in New York, contributes frequently to Artforum.



1. The exhibition will remain on view at the Metropolitan through May 4. It will run at the Detroit Institute of Arts from May 27 to August 17, and at the Grand Palais, Paris from Sepember 19 to January 5, 1987. Initiated by the Detroit Institute of Arts, it was organized by that institution, the Metropolitan and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux de France, Paris.