NGV Old Masters: François Boucher

NGV - Francois Boucher - Installation ViewSaturday, 8 January 2011

NGV Old Masters: François Boucher

Among the undisputed gems of the National Gallery’s collections are two small oval paintings by François Boucher (1703-1770). Together with Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) and Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), he was among the three artists who encapsulated the essence of the French Rococo.

NGV - Francois Boucher 1

Boucher’s paintings capture the playful and youthful spirit of the French Court, which was so vividly brought to life in the writings of Nancy Mitford. The artist was very popular at the court of Versailles, and the Sun King’s mistress, Marquise de Pompadour, was among his most prolific patrons. Paintings depicting eroticised pastoral scenes were en vogue among the French aristocracy. The choice of peasants – and most frequently shepherds and shepherdesses – was dictated by the utopian take on their lives by a number of contemporary philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as numerous writers and playwrights.

In both paintings lovers’ trysts take place within a shaded wooded setting, a natural place for a secret rendez-vous. In the first painting, The Mysterious Basket (1748), a young man lays a basket of flowers with a hidden love note next to a sleeping girl. Everything within the painting points towards an innocent courtship and budding love. The sleeping girl denotes dormant sexuality; a baby cupid, appearing on the marble relief in the background, also points to the sexual innocence of the couple. Though our young lover firmly grips the phallic log with his left hand, clearly stating his intentions towards the girl, his sexuality is not threatening. The little dog at the girl’s feet, which usually stands for male sexual prowess, is only just waking up, raising its head towards the girl. The basket of flowers, a trope for female genitalia, is likewise full, denoting that the girl’s virginity is still intact.

NGV - Francois Boucher 2In the second painting, The Enjoyable Lesson (1748), where a young man is teaching shepherdess how to play a flute, the love affair has progressed much further. Not only the couple is in a much closer physical proximity of each other, the marble lion with its raised head in the background, and the foreground goat staring directly at the viewer both indicate matured sexuality and ardent desire. The young man puts a flute into the shepherdess’s mouth, while she firmly grips the rod that descends from his loins. The erotic connotations of this scene are obvious, and are further affirmed by the woven basket on the right hand side of the picture that is about to tip over and spill the precious flowers contained within.

Most highly regarded artists, such as Boucher, eschewed the depiction of openly pornographic scenes, substituting them for a highly inventive iconographic language. Both paintings contain erotic symbols and allusions that would have been clearly understood and read by the spectators of the era. Each subsequent encounter with the paintings would have uncovered a previously overlooked nuance or connotation, and unfailingly brought another knowing smile to the faces of its audience.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

1 Response to “NGV Old Masters: François Boucher”

  1. January 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2011


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