Domesticated Mirrors of François Boucher

In many postings in this blog (120 already, wow! -> proud of myself!) I told about the mirrors in artworks spanning across almost ten past centuries, from 12th to 21st. Only one century remained an orphan child, But why should it be? stroken me a thought, and I decided to write something about the mirrors and of the eighteenth century, too. And then why not about the mirrors of François Boucher, whose life covers nearly two thirds of the century (1703-1770)?

In the context of my mirror stories the total duration of his (art) life is not so  interesting, perhaps, but the large number of artworks with mirrors is, especially because of their diversity and sometimes subjects placed next to the mirrors.

Boucher was born, grew up, got married (and later died, too) in Paris, and in this sense he is a more Parisian artist than a French one. Also, he is artist of one king – of course, when he was born, Louis XIV still ruled, but the king died when François was just 12 years old, and then his whole life went under the light (or in the shadow, depending on your take) of Louis XV (the latter died in 1774, outliving the painter for four years).

When I was writing about the Fontainebleau School № 1, I was grumbling about how devastatingly poor was the situation with the visual arts in France as late as the 15th century. Two centuries later, and the things in the European art market have changed to the opposite: under the rule of Louis XIV it was France that became a role model in terms of art developments for all other European countries. In the beginning of 1700s Paris boasted to have one of the largest and most complex art markets in Europe (and de fact, in the world).

I am not sure they would describe a lot of things they produces as ‘high art’; most of the items was fairly functional, like the tapestries, furniture, jewelry, other decorative objects for home interiors and luxury goods. Artists were not seen as ‘thought provokers’ or ‘meaning reformers’, but rather as craft makers  and manufacturers of ‘things’.

This was also the case with Boucher – his father, Nicolas Boucher, was a fashion designer, how we would say today, he was creating the designs for fabrics and laces (a large and important business during the reign of the King of the Fashion), and François was helping his father from his early years. When he start showing the skills of a draughtsman (and perhaps also because his father wanted to move him a little higher in the food pyramid of the art market), he was sent to study, first in the workshop of François Lemoyne, an artist of the Rococo style, and then to Jean-François Cars, the famous French engraver.

We have a fairly early (assumed) self-portrait of the artist, made in 1720, when he was only 17 years old:

Below is the painting picture is of a bit later period, but also very typical for the early Boucher, pretty realistic, yet also unmistakably Baroque:

Usually at this point the biographers jump to his visits to Italy, and then start discussing his more typical late paintings. But I was curious to see more of his earlier prints, which he was supposed to produce quite a lot, especially in the early years. We tend to perceive as the ‘real artists’ only those who produce the ‘real artworks’, large oil paintings, for example. A whole lot of other forms, e.g., prints, water colors, is regarded as of second grade. That’s very unfortunate, since many artists make wonderful series of drawings, or etchings, but all these pieces are considered unimportant.

We’ve recently been to the exhibition of another French artist, of the same time,  Antoine Watteau, shown in Bozar, in Brussels. Watteau made many wonderful, light and translucent pencil drawings, something of this sort:

Watteau was also making the ‘real paintings‘ too, of course, but even they are very tender and semi-transparent, with a lot of ‘thin air’ in them. Yet the city is plastered with such thick and fleshy, almost Rubensesque posters, entirely misrepresenting the master:

But I digress; back to Boucher.

I dug around a bit in the collections of his early drawings and prints, and found a few amusing works.  For example, this design (I’ve learned a beautiful word escutcheon, that originally meant a heraldic shield, but then became the name for anything resembling such a shield, for example, a plafon on ceiling or furniture, or an engraving of such form, as this case):

The work was made​​ for no less than the Earl William Cowper, than the Lord Chancellor of England.

In the upper part of this escutcheon we see a very interesting mirror:

What is remarkable here is not even the mirror itself, but its frame made in form of a snake biting its own tail (a good hint for modern designers, by the way). I’ve seen many old mirrors by now, but I can’t recall seeing such an animalistic frame (I would expect more of such frames, to be honest, especially for the round convex mirrors; for example,  they would fit the mirrors of melusines. Alas).

Here is another interesting picture; it’s of later date, made in 1753, but basically uses the same allegorical figures than the Boucher’s early works. We see the Glory and Truth (an option – Glory & Reason) hailing Louis XV:

The Dame Truth (or Reason) holds a small convex mirror on her lap:

We can track the depiction of such relationships, of mirrors and mind (Reason), back to the miniatures of Christine de Pizan, it’s an old and persistent meme.

And the last picture, or rather, a sketch, a study for the painting Pygmalion and Galatea:

I think, there is a mirror here too, it lays on the ground, by the Pygmalion’s feet; and here it’s also of rather archaic form, like in the previous drawings. Convex mirrors were still in use in the time of Boucher (I assume, although I don’t have any solid proofs of that), but modern, flat mirrors were much more present.

As I already wrote, Boucher made a LOT of such drawings and sketches, and it is very  possible that there are many more mirrors in them, a subject for further research.

The same is true for other forms of art/design he was creating, like these wall paintings or tapestries (second picture); I bet one can find more mirrors there (although I don’t see them on these specific works).

But now it’s time to move to ‘real paintings’ by Boucher. Some of his earlier, Rococo work have mirrors too:

This picture, by the way, has already appeared in this blog, when I was writing about Rinaldo and Armida story. There I didn’t really describe each and every picture I presented (for example, I skipped to mention one of those ‘sweet nonsenses’, like the shield of Medusa laying on Rinaldo’ legs – who was a crusader, to remind you). So, it may be worth to spend a few seconds and look at this mirror again. 

The mirror painted here is an interesting one; from the first glance it looks like an old convex mirror, but in fact is very contemporary (for Boucher, that is). It’s flat, and quite large, with a richly decorated frame, typical for that time (again, Boucher’s time, not the time of the First Crusade). Not so much is reflected in this mirror (this will be very common for other mirrors of Boucher, too):

Nevertheless, it is a beautiful work (condition that you don’t hate Rococo style in general). In fact, it is an actual ‘masterpiece’ of Boucher – it was for this painting he was accepted as a full member into Royal Academy of Arts in 1734; he was only 31 by then.

By that time he already made several trips to Italy, not only to Rome, but also to  Venice, which greatly impacted his own style.

Here are a couple of his Venuses, of 1743:

and of 1751:

In both portraits we see mirrors, appropriate for the Goddess of Love, yet not playing any significant role; we see the Venus’ head reflected in the first one, and depicted fairly accurately, but the second is only presented as a fragment of a frame.

By that time Boucher is an acknowledged master, his works are well-known to the public and at the court, including patronage by Marquise de Pompadour (the unofficial queen of France of that time). Yet he will be never called a “genius” master, but only “skilled” and “successful”.

The works Ive shown earlier are all outstanding examples of allegorical and/or mythological themes, but Boucher also painted more “realistic”  works too, including, for example, many portraits; they are, of course, were seriously beatified and glamorized, but still kept some resemblance with the ‘reality’.

I started this posting with one of his portraits, so called Breakfast (Petit déjeuner), painted in 1739. Here it is one more time, now in frame, as it is presented now in Louvre:

This is not a very large painting (80 x 60 cm), but it’s filled to the very top by many  interesting and revealing details that reflect (sic!) the life of Paris at the time. Some of these things are describe at the museum website, but most of my knowledge came from from the same Masterpieces in Details.

Another title for the painting is The Family Breakfast, we can really feel the atmosphere of a cozy, homey joint breakfast, of apparently a mother with her two young kids and a maid (earlier they believed that the man here is a father, but he is not, in no way a  head of the family would serve in that way in that time. Most likely, he is a servant or a seller of hot chocolate, which became very popular by then).

The scene looks very modern, very contemporary, when we are not surprised by the presence of the children in our homes – by then it was something exceptional, and a clear sign not only of a wealthy household, but of its very progressive views.

According to the police departement of Paris, about 21,000 children were born in the city in 1780. About 700 of them were very very poor and stayed with their mothers. Other 700 were from the rich parents, and stayed with them, too. The remaining 17,000 – that’s 80%! – had been brought to their relatives in the countryside or sent to the ‘guest houses’ (orphanages, in fact). The remaining 2.600 were left by their parents at birth and went to the orphanages, too (one in three children died there, by the way.) And these figures were not much different in Boucher’s times.

So, the very fact of such “family breakfast” was a manifestation of cutting edge cultural developments for the contemporaries. And many other objects on this painting too, for example, children’s toys in the house or a “harness” on the boy, that helps him in learning to walk.

There are more such ‘signs of the times’ in this painting – for example, the same hot chocolate I mentioned already, but also the Japanese porcelain figurine, as well as the porcelain set from which the lady is drinking coffee; it is of French origin, they’ve just learned how to make own porcelain). Or the fact that is is half-dressed and uncombed yet – the usual time for make-up and dressing was only after such a late breakfast.

If we take a closer look at the mirror, it will also reveal a lot:

To start with, it is a HUGE mirror both on the painting where it takes almost a third of the area, and in “real life,” where it rises almost to the ceiling (it actually doesn’t, but because of its frame we see it as a much large object). But even frame aside, it is about 1,5 m, way more than any mirrors I was showing so far.

And it’s not a ‘looking glass’, this is a fireplace mirror, it is designed as a decoration with beenfits, to somehow expand the room space. It does so in the picture as well,  we see receding doors and rooms reflected in it, which creates an illusion of a much larger space.

This architectural solution is also a sign of the time: more and more people start living in what we would today call flats, that is, the sections of large houses, and they are arranged and build differently compared to the previous stand-alone buildings. The room are becoming maller, they are placed in rows, tied by a single corridor; the ceilings are lowering, and everything looks more intimate and human: “The art of living comfortably and by oneself was emerging”, as noted by one of the architects of the time.

Indeed, the whole scene is very warm and emotional, intimate and “real” – as opposed to the large imaginary spaces of all those allegorical paintings, that were depicting the Heavens, or Paradises, or Olympuses, or at least palaces – but not the places where normal people would live.

According to some researchers, the model for the Breakfast was Boucher’s real wife, Marie-Jeanne Buzeau, a charming daughter of a judge, whom she married when she was only 17 years old, and who posed for many of his nymphets:

Boucher created few more genre portraits with mirrors, for example, the famous  Modiste (1746), where we see one of the possible after-the-breakfast scene: a young beauty is shown the latest fashion stuff – belts, handkerchiefs, garters, & whatnot – by a sales lady.

In this case action is the bedroom (or boudoir), and so the mirror is a tabletop looking glass. Its frame resembles the earlier mirror of Venus, but more modest.

The next work with a mirror, The Garter (1742), depicts one of the most frivolous, if not obscene, scenes in Boucher’s oeuvre: a girl tightens a garter on her stocking, lifting their skirts so high that we can see her bare skin thigh – o_O!

And in fact we see not one, but two mirrors here – one above the fireplace, and another large looking glass, half covered by a wrap.

The whole scene is filled with perverse voyeurism – everything and everybody is flirting here and peeping on each other! We see here the beginning of a theme that will be played by the whole fashion industry for centuries, to conceal is to reveal, to (half) hide is to attract attention, expose but not over-expose, to cover slightly is better than to completely open (but only “slightly”).

It is not an accident then the mirror on the table is also covered – slightly. The mirror covers is an interesting topic itself, and will write a separate story about them, just note here that in this scene it supports a game of concealing/revealing very well.

I mentioned already that Boucher enjoyed art patronage provided by Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, better known as the Marquise de Pompadour (or Madame de Pompadour), who became the official mistress of Louis XV in 1745 and who was in fact the de fact Queen of France for almost 20 years, until the end of her life (she died in 1764.)

Boucher painted many of her portraits, from the huge, through-the-whole-wall paintings to tiny, intimate works. Some of them have quite remarkable mirrors – like on this one, perhaps the most famous Portrait in the Green Dress:

This is a very large picture, one of the largest by Boucher; it’s more than 2 meters high (that is, it is almost real-size portrait of the marquise). Her incredibly decorative green dress occupies nearly a third of the painting’ surface (and have been making zillions of fashionistas mad for centuries.

Few people, however, pay attention to the fact that almost the same, if not greater surface of the painting is occupied by a mirror. It is framed in a lavishly rich frame, and should cost a fortune by then (it wouldn’t be very cheap today, too). They were able to make such large and flat glass mirrors by then, but the mirrors of that size would be still affordable only to the kings, really:

I reverted the fragment to also show the time: 8.20 – AM? PM? Both times look slightly awkward to me, it’s either too early (for the Queen to wake up, dress and sit) – or too late, at least too late for a good light.

There are few other portraits of the Madame with mirrors , this time with a harpsichord, but I have a reproduction of very poor quality:

I also recently found another work, also very interesting: it has two mirrors, but its quality is inferior to the previous, extremely detailed portraits of Marquise. It is either later copy – or a study for the portrait, not sure:

As I already said, Boucher was making not only these grand and pompous portraits of Marquise de Pompadour, but also much smaller and chamber portraits, for example, this lovely portrait of the Marquise before a mirror, doing her make-up:

Unfortunately, we don’t really see the mirror surface here; but an interesting work anyway.

As I said, I’m not sure that I found all the mirrors by Boucher; nor that I identified all the nuances of meaning with which he was placing them into the paintings (the later is true for any of the masters, so that’s not a news).

What we see with Boucher’s mirrors is their gradual migration from the sacral (or sinful), but very special, remarkable objects to the place they occupy now – omnipresent in our domestic spaces, unremarkable and inconspicuous. Mirrors are just mirrors  there is nothing special in them.

We saw the beginning of such migration in Vermeer’s works (but there mirrors are still somewhat special, they are charged with with *the* meanings). We will see further  dissolution of mirrors in domestica space later in the works of other Dutch masters (like Ter Bosch, for example, or better even van Hoogstraten).

Here we see already quite an advanced stage of such unremarkablilization. It will be completed by the time of Degas (and in his time will also move further, into public spaces as well).

Finally, my visual take: Domesticated Mirrors Boucher:


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