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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