Off Cloud Nine

John Haber
in New York City

François Boucher: Drawings

When an academically trained artist, the son of a master painter, indulges in fantasy, surely he must first work from real life? Well, yes and no. When it comes to François Boucher, one can easily forget where fantasy ends and ordinary life begins.

At the Frick, his drawings reveal a compulsive draftsman and a perpetual student of art. They also offer a survey in miniature of eighteenth-century France. Despondent Woman in Drapery (private collection, Switzerland, 1761)

Boucher was born in 1703. Without these seventy-five drawings, his three hundredth birthday could pass all but unnoticed in America. And a good thing, too, some might add. So what makes a famous painter go in and out of historical fashion? The show has something to say about that as well.

Cavorting with art

I, too, have a way of skipping from the central Baroque to Romanticism. Modernism recognizes itself in both of these. In different ways, their drama tumbles in the viewer's lap. In different ways, the 1600s and 1800s delight in nuanced observation, whether of nature or of the inner life. In short, they anticipate a modern demand for immediacy and transparency—even of artifice itself.

The intervening century highlights aristocracy, academicism, and sentiment. No wonder it appears so often as a whipping boy, as a cause of the French Revolution. In its demand for storytelling, it anticipates the Salon art that rejected Edouard Manet.

Even given his time, Boucher may look odd to modern eyes, which might prefer a more sober contemporary like Jean-Étienne Liotard, much as Boucher did to many even by the start of the next century. Fashionable women stand for the seasons, while the naked variety sprawl on clouds. Their round, smiling faces lack for nothing, except perhaps something to do. Their primary colors look extracted more from tubes than from the landscape. Children play at the arts and sciences, as if grown men found all this beneath them. Boucher may give me my first chance to use cavort in a sentence.

Of course, that story omits a lot. Somehow, Modernism has to inherit the Enlightenment. Somehow, it has to discover the solitary individual and the mask of a clown. Somehow, it needs narratives strange enough to look romantic or surreal.

Jean Antoine Watteau notably initiates the Rococo by stripping back the late Baroque's cool tones and extravagant narratives. One sees a greater sympathy for men and women reduced to musicians, soldiers, and carnival attractions. One sees his virtuoso displays of red, black, and white chalk that stretch the precision and tonal range of quick sketches. Jean-Siméon Chardin gives the melancholy of that passing show metaphysical foundations, with still life that grows coarse and slippery around the edges. Jean-Baptiste Greuze roots serious narrative in simple households. Women, even aside from Marie Antoinette, enter the picture, including a meticulous depiction of marine life from Anne Vallayer-Coster, who somehow survives the Revolution with her head on her shoulders.

The Frick has a special fondness for that era. It has put all these artists on view in the recent past. Now it shows a single artist who may seem incapable of any of the above—spontaneity or melancholy, naturalism or feminism, empathy or cold science. Yet it also shows a man able to absorb every one of these influences in the course of nearly a century. Is there anything left at the core, however? The whole question may hint at what makes Boucher halfway interesting.

An obsession with drawing

For starters, some of these drawings urge themselves on the viewer, more closely than anything Greuze or Chardin attempted. They take one person, and they draw close. They cast off even household sagas along with grand histories, leaving only a figure in action. A nude lies on an invisible bed, but one feels her weight in her pose, in the thighs unfashionably large for her butt, and in the folds and sags of her stomach. A young man, fashionable and disheveled, endures having his pocket searched. An intimate landscape interweaves noble stones and peasant cottages. A hen just stands there.

At least it seems that way. Boucher has in fact copied the hen from a Flemish painting, just as he has adapted the landscape closely from Watteau. Its harmony of command and humility expresses an aristocratic illusion. The young man is performing in a comedy by Molière. The posing nude, perhaps a prostitute, has lost her bed so that Boucher can transport her to a cloud.

Boucher is obsessed with art. He sees nature through art and looks for its models back in nature. He turns it all back into art, and then he recycles his own ideas for others, in still further paintings, drawings, and models for tapestry and prints. He copies his own sketch mechanically, by rolling it against another sheet, but then he takes his chalk to the counterproof to heighten its form and shadow. He changes the pose or face anyhow to integrate it into his next composition.

He tumbles on influences just as quickly, beginning with Italianate historical scenes. As with Giambattista Tiepolo some years later in Italy or Charles Coypel in tapestry, individuals outgrow their niches and dissolve into another. Instead of Tiepolo's sweeping circular rhythms and enormous aspirations, one sees a gentle fabric of light and dark, as if he were already designing a tapestry, so long after tapestry sustained the Renaissance. One figure, all but faceless, puts the wrong hand in the fire, if one may judge by the mythic subject. Yes, the young painter has some book learning to do. He may, however, just have wanted a sword in the man's right hand and then got on with the job.

Boucher enters the Academy before he turns twenty, but within a decade its demand for formal history starts to pale. He discovers an alternative to the high Baroque in Watteau and, through him, Dutch painting. One can never know for sure when to call an outdoor scene here landscape or narrative. Clutter starts to diminish and, after a trip to Italy at last, the single figures grow larger. Once Boucher stops trying to copy Jacopo Bassano's Renaissance piety, they assert their volume and their personality all the more. As with the earlier dramas, he composes even the most casual sketch with an eye to filling the sheet.

He remembers the academic rankings of genres in another way as well. Just as in history painting, these people do not just pose. They act. A mere shepherd lying on the ground seems to work at taking a rest. Where Jean Honoré Fragonard, about thirty years younger, takes cavorting to insane levels, Boucher celebrates the seasons with solitary, seated women. His love of history and his constant study of art alike make Boucher open to the coming generation as well. Near the end of his life, his vision faded, he returns to the sobriety of religious art under the influence of Classicism.

The passing show

As with Tiepolo's ceilings, Greuze's aged parents, or Chardin's cats about to spring, Boucher's world is in constant flux. A tireless worker, Boucher never worries about keeping up with it all. He claimed to have turned out ten thousand drawings in under fifty years—perhaps as much as his wildly prolific pupil, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. That amounts to more than a drawing every other day. Somehow, he had time left over to paint, to court commissions, to direct the output in related media, and apparently to live indulgently, too. The curator, Alistair Lang, had up to two thousand surviving sheets to consider.

The constraints of a sketch naturally make this show more pertinent to modern eyes than his painting. The children may look too sweet for their own good, but at least they do not overdress for their age. The drawings also better attest to Boucher's skill. He uses Watteau's three chalks especially well to capture light, although in the painstaking final rubbing, or stumping, he shies away from anything so somber as deep shadow. Only in two pastels does he succumb to the porcelain surfaces and colors of his oils.

The drawings also give renewed relevance to the focus on women. Certainly this art caters to the male gaze. Whereas in modern art, women get to stare right back, Boucher makes eye contact with a single person—a male friend and patron. When women look away, in the pose called profil perdu, they gain in sensuality from all that one cannot see. Still, at the same time their frank, active eyes give them far more than a shred of dignity. As women turn away from the artist and toward their own objects of interest, they assert a life of their own.

Like his belief in transience, Boucher's femininity made him a something of a problem for his successors. A contemporary artist, Susan Hamburger, has even made old period rooms like his into emblems of another empire, the one on the brink of invading Iraq. With the Revolution, art demanded firm, masculine truths. Denis Diderot got even more annoyed at the children than I. David noted that "not everyone can be a Boucher." Colin Bailey, the Frick's chief curator, hears praise for the artist's technical brilliance. I suspect at least a touch of irony.

I do not think that this exhibition can really recover Boucher for modern eyes. I cringe at the paintings in the Frick's permanent collection much as before. The drawings share their alert but ever-smiling faces, their figures shorn of human context, like the prostitute shorn of her bed. No one here has pressing needs, rather like the poor that The Wall Street Journal calls "lucky-duckies." Unlike the curators, I find that the later, classical turn only accentuates the blandness by burying the central figures in more to-do. I suggest starting the show in its first room, on the lower level.

Yet in the qualities that the Revolution rejected, I see an implicit criticism of art to come. Postmodernism shares that distrust of immediate vision, transparent truth, and macho posturing. Today as then, amid the pageantry of life, it makes sense that one cannot sort out art and theater from direct observation. Perhaps my favorite drawing shows a despondent woman. I cannot feel the melancholy one bit, but her bent pose, the sweep of her arms, the wrist falling heavily against a plinth, the fullness of her drapery, the perfection of the shadows, and the scale of the actual sheet give her a quiet majesty and an assurance of life. Need I add that she, too, could represent a scene from myth or art?

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The drawings of François Boucher ran at The Frick Collection through December 14, 2003.


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