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Special Report

The Drawings of François Boucher at The Frick

François Boucher
Recumbent Female Nude, c.1742-43
Red, white, and black chalks on cream antique laid paper;
Collection Jeffrey E. Horvitz, Boston

François Boucher
The Continence of Scipio, ca. 1766–67
5/8 in. (42.9 x 27 cm)
The Phillips Family Collection

François Boucher
Young Woman with Two Cupids and a Vase
on the Extrados of an Arch, c. 1768
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

François Boucher
Study of a Young Chinese Woman Seated at a Table, c. 1742
Red, black, and white chalks with light brown wash
Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum (TL-18050)


NEW YORK.- To celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of François Boucher (1703-1770), an unprecedented international loan exhibition of his drawings opens today at The Frick Collection in New York. 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 seventy-five 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 (October 8 through December 14, 2003), and then travels to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (January 17 through April 18, 2004). It is curated by Alastair Laing, Advisor on Paintings and Sculpture to the National Trust, London. The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and is made possible, in part, by grants from the Fino Family Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Pfizer Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the Benefactors Circle of the AFA. Presentation of the exhibition in New York, which is coordinated by the Frick’s, Chief Curator Colin B. Bailey, is made possible through a major grant from The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation with additional support from Jean A. Bonna and the Fellows of The Frick Collection.

Comments Dr. Bailey, "This is a remarkable selection that includes both the unexpected and the unfamiliar and represents Boucher at his fullest and most comprehensive. The compelling variety of works assembled here bears out Jacques-Louis David’s praise of his first mentor, ’Not everyone can be a Boucher’ (’N’est pas Boucher qui veut.’)"

By his own admission, Boucher is said to have made as many as ten thousand 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 he also used drawings in the process of designing cartoons for Beauvais and Gobelins tapestries and as models for Sèvres 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 trois 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 one hundred 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 (above left) 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 the1730s, 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. Similarly, the hoary Head of a River God in Profile (at right) is not a preparatory study, but one made after a figure in a lost tapestry cartoon, Rinaldo Asleep. The recycling of motifs to create satisfying individual sheets for the private market is an important aspect of Boucher’s production, one that only recently has been given the attention it deserves.

The subject of the female nude was a constant in Boucher’s graphic output, from the cat-eyed studies in black or red chalk that date from the mid-1730s to the 1740s, to the more weighty figures that characterize his later production. Close examination of the provocative Recumbent Female Nude, illustrated on the first page of this release, suggests that the function of these erotic studies is more complex than is immediately apparent. Part courtesan, part Venus’s handmaiden, the figure adopts a pose that Boucher had studied many times before in the previous decade. While it anticipates the more blatant carnality associated with his Odalisques, the drawing retains an ethereal grace and delicacy more appropriate to Mount Olympus than to the seraglio of a sultan’s harem.

As a painter, Boucher embraced all genres within the Academy’s hierarchy with the exception of still life, and his graphic work was no less compelling and all encompassing — treating religious, mythological, and historical narratives; scenes from everyday life and domesticity; studies of adults and children made from life models; depictions, real and idealized, of the male and female nude. The exhibition includes outstanding examples of all of the above and even presents one of Boucher’s rare portraits in pastel, the genre least congenial to him.

Boucher not only operated within the parameters established by the Academy, but he recast and reinvented certain of its categories. Just as his creation of the painted pastoral scene civilized the prevailing Dutch-inspired rustic subject, so did his treatment of landscape renew that genre. The exhibition includes Landscape with the Aqueduct at Arcueil (at left), 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. However, the artist seems also 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 (at right). While the work cannot be connected to any surviving composition, it may have been intended to assist his son-in-law, the history painter Jean-Baptiste Deshays, with a figure for a tapestry cartoon of The Anger of Achilles. Boucher remained a master of the heroic narrative, which is exemplified in the wash drawing The Continence of Scipio, a fully worked-up compositional study made in preparation for an aborted commission from King Stanislas Poniatowski of Poland.

A fully illustrated catalogue, 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. Included is an essay by Alastair Laing that explores Boucher’s development as a draftsman through his range of subjects, his contemporary appeal, and his innovations in the medium. A foreword by Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Musée du Louvre, Paris, addresses Boucher’s place among the great French draftsmen of his time. The catalogue (264 pages, more than 100 color illustrations) will be available in English and French hardcover editions ($55) and in an English softcover version ($37.50) through the Museum Shop of The Frick Collection, the institution’s website (, or by calling (212) 288-0700.

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