Boucher at the Wallace Collection

Article excerpt

THE Director of the Wallace Collection, London, who has a passion for rearranging its contents, has moved the pictures by Francois Boucher (1703-1770) into the Large Gallery to form (with changing displays far off in the new exhibition corridor in the basement) an impetuously conceived exhibition called Boucher: Seductive Visions. The result is partially successful. All the Wallace Collection's pictures by Boucher and his Studio, as well as a few from elsewhere, have been available for clear and close inspection since October. Yet pictures intended to be placed over doors or in small rooms look uneasy when marooned in the spaciousness of the Large Gallery, with the Regency amplitude of the scene of the amateur theatricals at Lord Steyne's Gaunt House in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Boucher's huge masterpieces, Sunrise and Sunset, which now overwhelm the smaller paintings, made a better impact when they poured their visual abundance out across the Grand Staircase. The exhibition has produced two laudable results. One is fair treatment for Boucher, who may now be judged on the evidence of his artistry, not by preconceptions about his social seriousness and his moral worth. The other is Jo Hedley's catalogue-cum-monograph, well thought-out, thoroughly to the point and amply illustrated with 160 accurate reproductions in colour: a desirable acquisition in an age when, for all his gifts as draughtsman and painter, comprehensive studies of Boucher are rare.

The philosopher Henri Bergson suggested that in a world of pure intelligence there would be no more tears, but there would still be laughter (Le Rire, 1900). From the rational inner world of Boucher's art passion and violence, both unreasonable, were rejected whilst wit, being clear-headed, prevailed. The sources of his pastoral and mythological paintings were Virgil's Bucolics and Ovid's Metamorphoses, that compendium of classical legends which often include metamorphoses, or magical and generally symbolic transformations.

In Virgil's Bucolics such sentiment as is expressed at all is stylised and in a literary tradition. Those who accuse Boucher of artificiality in his pastoral scenes miss the point that as a form the Pastoral is meant to be artificial. The first pastoral poet, Theocritus, wrote his Idylls for the delectation of his fellow librarians in the city of Alexandria. If he ever visited Sicily, the island of his agrarian fancies, he did so only as an excursionist. Like Virgil's, his shepherd-boys are marvellously bookish, and speak in well-turned phrases. Boucher's shepherdesses are not quite those manufactured in Nymphenburg and Meissen, although their complexions have something of the translucency of porcelain, whilst his herdsmen are streamlined terracotta. He insinuates a languor of sun-mist and lustre into his modish Arcadia: a region of roses, felicitously painted, and ruins sketched on his Italian journeys, all against the backdrops of the opera-ballets of his time. There beside a leaky fountain a child spies on M. Daphnis as he offers his vows and his grapes to Mlle. Chloe, who is watching sheep with her lapdog; there lambs curl up against the satin skirt and ribbon-strung sandals of the comtesse d' Amaryllis. Like a sundial Boucher recorded only the pleasing hours. In his pictures derived from the Metamorphoses Boucher shunned any harmful or grim actions that Ovid described. there is much to be said for his view that art should not ape but enhance life.

Since little is known about Boucher's early education, one cannot be sure if he was directly conversant with the two Latin poets. All we find is that Claude-Joseph Natoire, also a painter of classical bent, once said that he had been Boucher's school-fellow, although that may mean only that they were apprentices together in Francois Lemoyne's Studio. Did Boucher study the Latin classics formally at school, reaching even that repertory of myths, the Metamorphoses, too allusive to be a work for a beginner? …