Madame Boucher and Madame Chardin

Article excerpt

ART is not an ancillary to social history, which is why one is surprised that the current exhibition of the splendours of Boucher and Chardin at the Wallace Collection is designated Masters of Modern Manners, with some emphasis on which figures in their paintings drank coffee and which drank tea. Something is radically wrong with the present state of the Wallace Collection, particularly marked in the titles and direction of recent exhibitions there. That on the discerning patroness Mme de Pompadour was entitled 'The Art of Love' with giggly adolescent prurience, that on Francis Boucher was called 'Seductive Visions'. Since so many of the glories of the Wallace Collection derive from the ancien regime, the Jacobin impact it now makes is incongruous. Not many years ago it was manned by civil and affable older men in uniform. They have regrettably gone the same way as another part of the Hertford House heritage, the flagstoned washrooms of marble, slate and granite. The galleries now, for some reason, are watched over by seemingly inexperienced youngsters with identity cards on tapes around their necks: some casual in dress and manner, a few touchily egalitarian. Incautiously selected, they mar the pleasure given by the pictures presented to the nation.

A sparse exhibition space was created not long ago to display pictures not already in the Wallace Collection. Under the name of an exhibition a couple of short but wide corridors in the basement of Hertford House have somehow attracted world-famous pictures by Boucher from Stockholm and New York. The Chardins, or replicas of them by the master himself, were included in an exhibition devised by Pierre Rosenberg at the Royal Academy eight years ago. It is good to see them again, even if they are presented as glosses on eighteenth-century etiquette.

Better still was the rare opportunity to study Francois Boucher's portrait of his wife, Marie-Jeanne, nee Buseau, from the Frick Collection in New York. The portrait was painted in 1743, when she was 27 years old. Her face fully accords (allowing for the passage of eighteen years) with her portrait by Alexandre Roslin (1761) at Schloss Nymphenburg, in Munich, She also appears in two or three of Boucher's domestic scenes, more patrician and less endearing than those of Chardin. In 1742 the Bouchers had moved to rue de Grenelle-Saint Honore, where Boucher may have found his young wife's untidiness comical but mildly regrettable. In his portrait of 1743 and in another portrayal of Madame Marie-Jeanne as A Lady conferring with her Maid (1742) in the Thyssen Collection at Madrid, he attempts smiling censure to change her ways. Every detail confirms that supposition.

According to Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets Jonathan Swift, that master of censorious observation once commented to a dining companion about the man who served them, 'That man, since we sat at table, committed fourteen faults'. Boucher, equally although playfully observant, adds up on his canvas some dozen instances of the tousled state of his wife's boudoir. Propped up by a disarray of cushions, Madame Boucher sprawls boyishly, one foot on the floor and the reclining foot half in a pantoffle, on a chaise-longue. She is fully and elaborately dressed, although the dress is much crumpled. The handle of the open drawer of her side-table is decked with discarded ribbons. On the side-table lie an unfolded letter and a book with its bookmark remarkable near the title-page. The footstool is a secondary table spread with abandoned haberdashery and a needlework bag from which a ball of thread is unwinding. The foot of the chaise-longue is jammed against the open door of a flower-decorated wardrobe. A curtain, which would usually cover the wardrobe, swings free in heavy twists until it is checked by shelves hanging from the brocade-covered wall. On the shelves, stuffed in among Mme Boucher's chinoiseries (including a tiny tea-set) are more discarded ribbons and another crumpled letter. …