Exhibition embarks the visitor on an enchanting voyage of discovery
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Exhibition embarks the visitor on an enchanting voyage of discovery
François Boucher (1703 - 1770), The Toilet, oil on canvas, 1742 © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

BESANÇON.- From 9 November 2019 to 2 March 2020, Besançon’s Museum of Fine Art and Archaeology is presenting Une des provinces du Rococo. La Chine rêvée de François Boucher (One of the provinces of Rococo. François Boucher’s idealised China), an exhibition which embarks the visitor on an enchanting voyage of discovery.

The illustrious yet little known François Boucher was one of the key figures in eighteenth century painting along with Watteau or Fragonard, and was one of the artists displaying the greatest talent in his efforts to renew the decorative arts. At a time when China, an ancient and distant civilisation, was drawing closer to France thanks to the trade in objets d’art, Boucher offered a window into this fascinating world, creating numerous Chinese subjects which were almost instantly adopted as part of Parisian decorative schemes and print collections and, inevitably, in the decorative arts, porcelain, furniture and first and foremost tapestries.

The Museum of Fine Art and Archaeology in Besançon, which for the last two centuries has been home to the sketches produced in 1742 for the Beauvais Manufactory, a producer of tapestries, is presenting an ambitious exhibition with one hundred and thirty international loaned items, offering a poetic take on a theme never before presented to the public: the creative process of an artist who successfully created an exotic and original repertoire through his outstanding curiosity and creativity and who, in the words of the Goncourts brothers, «made China one of the provinces of Rococo».

This exhibition is recognised as being of public benefit by the Ministry of Culture / Directorate General for Heritage/French Museums Service. Accordingly, it receives special financial support from the state.

Tipsy boats
One of the exhibition’s objectives is to help the visitor understand François Boucher’s keen artistic eye, finely honed during his visits to Parisian traders dealing in exotic items, a trade which was booming at the time. The exhibition begins with a series of items sold by marchandsmerciers around 1730-1740 (lacquered screens, wallpaper, porcelain, etc.), presented in a specially laid out scene resembling the interior of a shop.

Produced for a pair of exotic item enthusiasts, the Chinese décor created by Antoine Watteau around 1710 at the Muette hunting lodge on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne also decisively influenced the way Boucher came to view Chinese subjects as ornamental features. He was among the artists who visited the site in 1731, to etch the subjects. Dismantled in the eighteenth century, this decor is represented by 12 prints produced by Boucher and by the two surviving paintings by Watteau.

Taste’s hidden surprises
The research conducted by the exhibition confirms that Boucher was one of the most ambitious collectors of Asian items in his day. His collection, which was dispersed in 1771 after his death, includes around 700 Asian items. It stands out from contemporary collections thanks to its size and above all its virtually boundless diversity. A selection of some fifty items matching descriptions of this collection are presented with a view to presenting its richness and variety, while at the same time giving you some idea of the proportions of the different categories of items and forms involved including statuettes, mounted porcelain items, lacquered butterfly-shaped boxes, locks and musical instruments from China, etc. Very early on, Boucher used this collection as a visual meaning but also as a means of getting himself better known as an artist but also as an enthusiast. He arranged for Gabriel Huquier, the famous print merchant who went on to become his business partner in the field of chinoiseries, to publish a collection of figures drawn by himself based on items from his collection. In the exhibition, these etched prints are compared with Asian models to highlight the changes of form through which the artist succeeded in bringing his collection to life.

China in silk
His mastery of the vocabulary of forms, something which he alone managed so effortlessly, inevitably saw Boucher emerge as the artist of choice for the tapestry cartoons from the second Chinese series. An initial series had been woven at the Beauvais Manufactory in the late 17th century but the cartoons gradually became worn and their subjects outdated. Boucher was therefore asked by Oudry, the Manufactory’s manager, to supply new models. He created ten «mini-cartons» converted into larger works by the painter Dumons, for the weavers in the low-warp workshops. Eight of these cartons were presented at the 1742 exhibition and six were finally used for the series. The series became one of the greatest successes in the French tapestry industry of the eighteenth century with ten follow-up works being woven between 1743 and 1775. For the first time since the eighteenth century, the exhibition brings together the six tapestry items, forming a set which is truly spectacular in terms of its size and the exotic yet lively nature of its subjects.

China’s gallantry
Presented in an elegant and intimate atmosphere resembling an art enthusiast’s lounge, this section examines Boucher’s Chinese paintings. The artist produced no easel paintings in this register although he was perfectly able to do so. China was simply a «sideline» in his painted work but a side-line of outstanding quality. It can be seen firstly through the insistent representation of Asian objets d’art like those he had the opportunity to see and collect at first hand, in four interior scenes or «fashion pictures» produced in the late 1730s and put together for this exhibition. These paintings, produced in small sizes for an impeccable result, demonstrate the artist’s great familiarity with the Parisian luxury goods market, which was undergoing profound change at the time, and of which these pictures were part. Three lintel pieces also reveal another function of painting, this time a decorative one. Two of these paintings, delicate blue-and-white monochromes, are seen near the chest of drawers and corners of the Comtesse de Mailly’s blue apartment at the Château de Choisy as research suggests that they came from this same sumptuous decor designed as an outstanding blue and white symphony.

Copyright Boucher
Even more so than through painting, Boucher’s creativity in the Chinese register is also expressed through paper: the artist is the author of almost a hundred print models, mostly distributed by the printmaker and merchant Gabriel Huquier. They both developed a significant repertoire of subjects inspired by Chinese models and adapted to European tastes, which were then reused by craftsmen for screens and for decorating porcelain or furniture. The number of prints featuring Chinese subjects produced by Boucher is extremely impressive for someone who was not a professional ornamentalist and their influence on the decorative arts in France and elsewhere was immense.

The drawings and prints exhibited here therefore allow for a better understanding of the transition from one technique to the other, along with several luxury items produced by the manufactory of VincennesSèvres and by the best Parisian cabinetmakers, demonstrating their adaptation and use in the decoration of European objets d’art.

One hundred and thirty European and Asian works loaned by numerous museums and private collections also feature in the exhibition, as part of a poetic exhibition experience highlighting a unique approach, one which encompasses the history of art and the history of taste.

Objets d’art, drawings, prints, paintings and tapestries, including some never before seen, make it possible to appreciate François Boucher’s keen eye and to demonstrate his central decisive contribution to the growing enthusiasm for China which developed in France back in his day. The manner in which this artist, collector and enthusiast incorporates the exotic items he knows so well in his paintings and drawings suggests a link with the transformation and re-creation methods used at the same time by the marchands-merciers.

We should consequently consider Boucher as an inventor and even as an entrepreneur with a highly developed awareness of the social and artistic challenges of his time, looking beyond the all too convenient label of painter or draughtsman. His idyllic China marks an incredibly creative ten-year interlude in an immense career, the effects of which left their mark on the age of Enlightenment.

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