François Boucher: Representing the Taste of a Century

The 18th-century artist, François Boucher, became known for his Rococo style. He is also known for his ties to King Louis XV and his famous mistress Madame de Pompadour.

Sep 29, 2022By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

Francois Boucher 18th century rococo artist


François Boucher became famous through his pastoral depictions of the countryside. His erotic themes, luscious bodies, and pastel shades perfectly embodied the fashionable style of Rococo. The French artist was held in high regard at the royal court. He created works for influential historical figures, such as Louis XV and the Marquise de Pompadour. During the later years of his career, though, his art was subjected to severe criticism. François Boucher’s work is still seen as one of the most important contributions to 18th-century Rococo painting.


The Artist’s Life and Career

Francois boucher self portrait
Self-portrait by François Boucher, 1720, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


François Boucher was born in 1703 as the son of Nicolas Boucher, a lace designer. The artist was trained by his father. He also studied with one of the leading historical painters and decorative artists of his time, François Lemoyne, in the early 1720s. Boucher won the Prix de Rome in 1723. The Prix de Rome was a scholarship that enabled students at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris to spend three to five years in Rome studying. There they would be able to refine their craft.


It was a prestigious award that was considered a stepping stone in an artist’s career. Many important French architects and artists won the Prix de Rome, including Jacques-Louis David. Since the funds were not sufficient to pay for Boucher’s stay in Rome, the artist earned a living by painting and printmaking. He went to Rome in 1728 at his own expense and came back to Paris in 1731.


françois boucher portrait
Portrait of François Boucher by Gustaf Lundberg, 1741, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


François Boucher’s immensely successful career started when he returned from Paris. He was admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture as a history painter in 1731 and received his first royal commission for decorations at Versailles in 1735. Boucher continued to work for the court. He also started to create tapestry designs for the Beauvais factory.

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In 1955, Boucher became director of the French tapestry manufactory Gobelins. Ten years later, the artist was made the director of the Académie Royale and received the honorable title of the first painter to the king, also called premier peintre du roi. François Boucher died in Paris in 1770 when he was 66 years old. After his death, Boucher’s collection was auctioned off at an estate sale for 98,829 livres. This was an exorbitantly high amount compared to the average income. Even for the wealthiest five percent of French households, the average yearly income in 1781 was 3,670 livres.


Boucher, the French Rococo Style, and His Love for Shells

Francois boucher venus bath
The Bath of Venus by François Boucher, 1751, via National Gallery of Art, Washington


The Rococo style originated in France in the early 18th century. It is also often referred to as the late Baroque period. It was probably one of Jacques-Louis David’s students who coined the term by combining the word rocaille with barocco. The term rocaille was used to describe extravagant rock-work and shell-work for fountains and grottoes. Later it was used for lavishly carved decorations based on this style. At first, Rococo had a pejorative connotation. The opulent and excessively ornamental style was often seen as tasteless.


Today, however, the use of the term is neutral. The style was a reaction to its heavier predecessor, the Baroque style. Both used complex forms, but the Rococo style was characterized by a lighter, more delicate, playful, intimate, and asymmetrical appearance with intricate curves and decorations. Even though the style originated in France, it soon became very popular in many European countries like Germany, Austria, Russia, Spain, and northern Italy. The style is often associated with Louis XV and Boucher, who was one of the most important representatives of the movement.


The light-hearted subjects, playful style, and often erotic nature of François Boucher’s work perfectly represented the painting style of the Rococo period. The naturalist writers of the 19th century, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt described Boucher’s immense influence by writing: “Boucher is one of those men who represent the taste of a century, who express, personify and embody it.”


Francois boucher triumph venus
The Triumph of Venus by François Boucher, 1740, via National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm


François Boucher was also an enthusiastic shell collector. He wanted his shells to be sold for 6692 livres at his posthumous estate sale. It is not surprising that his shells also found a way into his Rococo-style paintings since the French word rocaille literally meant rock or a broken shell. When Boucher returned to Paris from his trip to Rome in 1731, the collecting of shells had become a fashionable hobby, so the artist started to collect them as well.


In the 1940s, shells became a prominent characteristic of the artist’s mythological paintings, for which his 1741 painting  The Birth of Venus is the first example. It was made for the Comte de Tessin, who was also a shell collector. The triton depicted in the image is holding a large and spiky shell, which is a reference to the cover of a classic book about shells, the Recreatio Mentis et Oculi In Observatione Animalium Testaeceorum, Curiosis Naturae Inspectoribus by Filippo Bonanni. Boucher also used shells as motifs in his paintings The Risings of the Sun, Venus on the Waves, and Juno Commands Aelos to Unleash the Winds.


Pastoral Subjects and Mythical Themes 

Francois Boucher love letter
The Love Letter by François Boucher, 1750, via National Gallery of Art, Washington


François Boucher is known for his pastoral subjects. His reinvention of the theme was not only his most ingenious contribution to painting in the Rococo style, but it also became a trademark of the movement. The artist’s decorative and light-hearted paintings represented the predominant style until Neoclassicism came along in the second half of the 18th century. Meanwhile, his pastoral paintings showed idealized and carefree depictions of rural life, often with an erotic undertone. Common themes were young lovers, sheep, shepherds, and aesthetically pleasing landscapes. These images were inspired by operas of Charles Simon Favart and Jean Monnet, for which Boucher designed the stage sets.


The French artist is also known for his mythological depictions, including various illustrations of the goddess Venus, or Cupid Wounding Psyche and Jupiter, in the Guise of Diana and Callisto. Mythological subjects gave François Boucher the opportunity to display scenes with an erotic atmosphere, but his depictions of myths also had a practical reason. During Boucher’s time, wealthy art enthusiasts were most likely to pay for the pleasant portrayals of mythological themes. Moralizing pictures of biblical or ancient stories were less popular, which is reflected in Boucher’s work.


Boucher’s Relationship With the Royals

Francois boucher madame de pompadour
Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1756, via Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Alte Pinakothek, Munich


The Rococo style is often associated with King Louis XV and his influential mistress Madame de Pompadour. Since François Boucher received various royal commissions and was appointed the first painter to the king, it is not surprising that the artist’s style became characteristic of the king’s court during the 1740s and 1750s. The decorations Boucher created for Louis XV included works at Versailles, the Château de Bellevue, the Château de Choisy, and the palace of Fontainebleau. Boucher’s most original pieces for the king were two images depicting the subject of hunting titled The Tiger Chase and Crocodile Hunting, which he painted for the private apartments of Louis XV at Versailles.


François Boucher was one of the Marquise de Pompadour’s favorite artists. He painted several portraits of her and gave her lessons. Even though Boucher did not paint many portraits, his large depiction of Madame the Pompadour made in 1756 is considered one of his masterpieces.


Francois boucher pompadour
Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1758, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The two works titled The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun, which Boucher did for Madame de Pompadour were valued greatly by the artist and several of his contemporaries. Modern art historians often call them masterpieces, but the works were also harshly criticized at the time. The art historian Melissa Hyde suggests its threatening nature regarding gender hierarchies as one of the reasons.


The critic La Font de Saint-Yenne took offense to the fact that the naiads in the image, the nymphs of flowing water in Greek mythology, were not paying enough attention to Apollo. He also felt that female viewers should not be able to see these works. The critic was arguably concerned about the pieces’ diversion from the familiar (male) spectatorship, which was emphasized by the fact that they were commissioned by a woman, namely the Marquise de Pompadour.


Harsh Criticism: The Late Period of François Boucher’s Career

Francois boucher resting girl
Resting Girl by François Boucher, 1752, via Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Alte Pinakothek, Munich


During the last years of his career, François Boucher faced a lot of criticism. With the emergence of the more structured and symmetrical Neoclassicism, Boucher’s playful and frivolous Rococo works began to lose their appeal. Other reasons for the decline of his reputation were the repetitive and artificial nature of his works, overproduction, and his color palette. Denis Diderot, who was probably Boucher’s most famous critic, wrote in a quite funny manner that the artist “no longer has but two colors: white and red; and he does not paint a single nude woman without her bottom being as made up as her face.”


One of Boucher’s Odalisque portraits was also condemned by Diderot. The term odalisque was used to refer to a concubine in a harem and the subject was portrayed in many art historical images. Diderot claimed that François Boucher was using his own wife for the image. In another harsh review regarding the 1761 Salon, Diderot wrote: Cet homme a tout – excepté la verité, which can be translated as: That man is capable of everything – except the truth. Despite this criticism, Boucher continued to exhibit his light-hearted and playful scenes at the Salon.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.