Perhaps one of the most celebrated decorative artists of the 18th century was François Boucher of France. To us, transported by time and space and culture, he’s obscure and a bit strange, but interesting nonetheless because his life and career not only demonstrates an important era in art history but on an interesting time in French history. This was said of him: “Boucher is one of those men who represent the taste of a century, who express, personify and embody it.”
While most of Boucher’s work reflected the Rococco style, his early work celebrated the idyllic and tranquil. He portrayed nature, the landscape, and the four seasons with great flamboyance, but his art eschewed traditional rural innocence for a definite style of eroticism. His mythological scenes, for example, were passionate and intimately amorous, and not epic as was the tradition for such scenes at the time.
It’s a mistake to think of the Rococo style as only being about French rooms and furniture, and Boucher’s works proved this. Rococo is really a style-a way of thinking about and producing art. It includes all types of art produced around the middle of the 18th century in France, from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV to the end of Louis XVI’s reign, and covers the kind of ornament, style, and design produced during that era.
Rococo art developed when Baroque artists gave up the symmetry inherent in that style for art that was more ornate, fluid, and playful. Rooms decorated in the Rococo style were designed as total works of art, with elegant and ornate furniture, small sculptures, ornamental mirrors, and tapestry that complemented architecture, reliefs, and wall paintings.
Madame de Pompadour, court mistress of King Louis XV and a patron whose name became synonymous with the Rococo movement, was a big fan of Boucher, and commissioned him to create many paintings and portraits. Boucher’s portraits of the Madame de Pompadour, out of any of his works, clearly exemplified this style, with their ornate, florid, and playful depictions of his patron.
Boucher was also a master of the genre scene, which gave him great opportunities to depict the seasons. (Genre scenes are pictorial representations of scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes.) Boucher used his own wife and family as models in these paintings, as in “The Breakfast,” painted in 1739.
In stark contrast to Boucher’s genre scenes are his “Odalisque” (or “slave girl”) portraits, a common theme in portraiture paintings. These paintings were considered “licentious” even in the era of court mistresses and concubines. His “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Autumn,” three paintings the Madame commissioned, are probably the best examples of Boucher’s combination of the Rococo style and genre scene style in painting. (“Spring” and “Autumn” are pastoral scenes, while “Summer” depicts three nude women cooling themselves near a fountain.)
The Rococo style is a style in art that lends itself particularly well to landscape art depicting the four seasons. This is true, in spite of Boucher’s famous quote, in which he said about nature: “[It is] too green and badly lit.”