Boucher, Chardin and the essence of Frenchness (or not)

This new exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London is titled Boucher and Chardin: Masters of Modern Manners. It came to my attention thanks to an article by Waldemar Januszczak, a noted British art critic, in The Times. I found Mr. Januszczak’s pronouncements on both Boucher and Chardin rather startling.

Boucher Breakfast

Boucher Breakfast

Here is what he writes of Boucher: “Sly, sycophantic, corrupt and giggly, this bouncy peddler of soft porn was Madame de Pompadour’s favourite artist. Anyone wishing to understand why the French Revolution had to happen need only examine a handful of Bouchers. The stink of French 18th-century corruption wafts up from his art.”

A sweeping statement. Now Madame de Pompadour, the best known of Louis XV’s mistresses, was a cultured woman. She used her position in Versailles to patronize the best writers, musicians and painters of her time. Being one of her favorite artists is not in my eyes a claim to shame.

So what do I think of Boucher? True, I find him often shallow, his nudes are sometimes lewd, but there is far more to him than “soft porn.”

I have always loved his Le Petit Déjeuner (Breakfast) to the left. True, it speaks of privilege and refinement. This aristocratic family is enjoying chocolate, a luxury at the time. Look at the exotic objects surrounding them: the buddha on the shelves, the blue-and-white china jar, set in gilded bronze, the lavish toys of the elder child, in particular the doll.

The attention of two of the adults is focused on this little girl, a reflection of the changing attitudes of the time. The second woman, in a dark blue smock, spoon feeds another, younger child sitting on her lap. Does any of this reek of corruption, or make the French Revolution a foregone conclusion?

Now how about Chardin? Well, according to Mr. Januszczak, Chardin miraculously escaped the noxious miasma of French 18th century corruption. “Surrounded by fops and fools, in a century that specialised in frippery, he managed somehow to create a body of work that impresses us with its solemnity and its weight.”

Chardin Benedicite

Chardin Benedicite

Indeed this meal scene by Chardin, painted around the same time as the Boucher, reflects a totally different atmosphere. It is called the Benedicite, the blessing of the food. Here too there is an interaction between a child and an adult, but the hands of the little girl are joined in prayer . No luxury, the setting is a well-to-do bourgeois household. I agree that this scene is impressive in its unsentimental solemnity.

But soon Mr. Januszczak loses me again: “There is something so unFrench about Chardin: so modest and Protestant and plain.” Mr. Januszczak is obviously a man who embraces ethnic and religious stereotypes.

I believe it behooves an art critic, if he is to opine on French 18th century paintings, to acquire an understanding of the time and place. The Chardin is actually just as French as the Boucher, maybe more so.

Most French people before the Revolution would have identified far more easily with Chardin than with Boucher, whose art reflected the luxurious, libertine lifestyle of a tiny minority.

If you follow Mr. Januszczak’s article to the end, you will see that he tones down his assessments (we would say in French that il met de l’eau dans son vin, he waters down his wine). Maybe after all Boucher is not that bad, nor Chardin that good. Whatever.

I will visit the exhibition. The Wallace Collection also happens to house what may be Fragonard’s most famous painting: Les heureux hasards de l’escarpolette (The Swing.) Another piece of French “soft porn?”

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12 Comments to “Boucher, Chardin and the essence of Frenchness (or not)”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    Penny, I will post on Volupte du Gout this week, especially since the show has now opened in Portland. I applaud your choices of Adelaide and Le Petit Dejeuner!

  2. Penny Klein says:

    as I have said, I am looking for art for my new apt. so far I have decided on Le Petit Dejeuner & LouiseMarieAdelaide de Bourbon-Penthievre for my walls. I still have room for anything you come up with from your Tours Trip. why a critic blames an artist for such upheaval is beyond me.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Certain, but Fragonard is very much his own artist. Much as I like Boucher, I often prefer Fragonard. Rougher, more powerful.

  4. Penny says:

    I can’t beleive he is No.1British art critic. I feel sarcastic about it but I won’t stoop to that level. I loved the Boucher pastoral you recently posted. I agree with all the other comments made. I am curious about his influence on Fragonard.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Apparently he was voted No. 1 British Art Critic a couple of years ago, for what it’s worth. Had you heard of him?

  6. Sheramy says:

    There was a wonderful Chardin exhibition at the Met several years ago. If you’ve not been to the Wallace Collection before, you’re in for a treat: I’ve been only once, years ago, but I enjoyed it. I use Fragonard’s Swing every time I teach the Ren-Present art history survey as one of the warm-up, first-day-of-class pieces to get students talking.

    The article you quote seems to say more about the critic’s tastes than 18th century tastes, no?

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Elena! Perhaps Mr. Mr. Januszczak simply meant to be funny… I was nonetheless surprised to read this kind of statement in such a news outlet as The Times. And thank you for reminding us that nudity does not equal pornography.
    The good thing about this article is that it made me take a serious, and very appreciative, look at Boucher and Chardin. And other major 18th century French painters, like Watteau and Fragonard.

  8. I enjoy the works of both Chardin and Boucher. I agree with you, Catherine, about Mr. Januszczak’s article. I suppose there are some works by Boucher that would qualify as “soft porn” but indeed there is far more to him than that. People think that anything nude is pornographic but not necessarily. Pornography reduces the human person to a mere object of gratification. Boucher’s scenes often show a fanciful, mythical world that was a return to the pastoral scenes of classic mythology rather than a celebration of vice. And yes, Madame de Pompadour was a courtesan but she was not a lewd sort of person– she captivated the king with her wit, culture and intelligence. She was many things, but not a pornographer.

    As for Chardin, his scenes are indeed a window into the past, as Richard said. The life of the peasants is captured in way that shows the beauty and dignity of their simple life, a beauty which hardship and poverty could not diminish. And I see nothing necessarily “Protestant” about it at all……

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Richard. Both paintings, I believe, are very French, and they emphasize in a lovely way the contact between generations over a meal.

  10. Ma Cher Madame, These portraits are like windows unto the past. Our littlest grandaughter has the privledge of saying grace at our meals. (I think it is the only prayer she knows by heart). Therefore as in all true art the connection is made between that which has past and that which is to come.
    I very nice post.

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