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REEVALUATING BOUCHER’S BUM RAP

They said he was a lecher in silk knee britches. They said he painted dirty pictures for a kinky king who took his 12- or 14-year-old models as mistresses. They said his art was an erotic candy-box confection worthy only of a pastry cook. It was definitely a yarn to galvanize the attention of any art history student falling asleep behind his notes. But now they are saying it just wasn’t so, at least not quite.

Francois Boucher was just a happily married hedonist who worked much too hard for Louis XV, the marquise de Pompadour and other influential clients to have time for decadent shenanigans. Francois Boucher was the leading French 18th-Century painter whose innovations were the very essence of rococo playfulness. History has served him up a sneer because he was a minion of the ancien regime.

Well, J. Patrice Marandel set out to fix all that. He is the curator of European painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts and it was his idea to join two other institutions to organize an exhibition to rehabilitate Boucher. The results have already been seen at Paris’ Grand Palais and are currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 4. The show opens in Detroit May 27 but will not visit the West Coast.

A certain aura of embarrassment hovers about the whole exercise. Boucher (1703-1770) got something of a late start for an artist of his generation. He was still mucking about making a student-like pilgrimage to Italy in his late 20s and at 30 was still known mainly as an engraver. Once his career went into orbit, however, it had a virtually uninterrupted duration of nearly 50 years.

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Boucher was intensely industrious, painting by the yard, designing tapestries for the Beauvais manufactory and overseeing his figures reproduced in porcelain. His legacy was huge. But when the organizers of the present brave exhibit put it together, they found that museums and collectors holding the works were either reluctant to loan or forbidden by terms of bequests. The result seems to represent the best the curators could manage rather than the best there is. Disappointment laces Met director Phillipe de Montebello’s catalogue introduction. He bemoans the absence of such key Bouchers as “Lever and Coucher du Soleil.”

There is a slightly sunnier way to look at it. It is true that the 80 works on view sometimes have the gray aura of grimy old museum galleries one walks through only to get somewhere else. Gradually, however, the mind props up on its elbow saying, “ Waituhsecund. I have just schlepped past a little kitchen scene that reminded me of Dutch Genre, Hogarth and Chardin, a mythological painting that would not have embarrassed Tiepolo, an exotic view of a leopard hunt that might have inspired Delacroix, a picturesque bosky dell that would make Gainsborough sigh, a portrait worthy of John Singer Sargent and a gaggle of cute little nudes and religious pictures, one of which actually is quite reverent. (The religious one, not the nude.) None of them appears to have been painted by a beribboned little fop of a pornographer.”

To modern eyes, in fact, Boucher’s nudes fail to fall in line with almost any existing model of sexiness. They are neither aggressively liberated nor decadently fetishy. They do not look like good sturdy wife material or androgynous buddies. The famous erotic nude known as “Mlle. O’Murphy” is missing from the show. She is the lady who, according to Casanova’s famous memoirs, was seen by the king in Boucher’s painting and pressed into royal service. We do see a similar picture called “The Dark-Haired Odalisque” in a similar bottoms-up pose but she, like Boucher’s other nudes, appears so amused and innocent it is hard to imagine getting worked up over her without feeling like a vile old lecher.

Of course I could be missing the point.

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Anyway, Boucher’s nudes look too fresh and healthy for illicit sex, and Boucher--as a painter friend observed--seemed to be more enchanted by their shoulders than the more obviously erotic bits.

Almost everything else about Boucher’s art is more interesting. Preeminently, one is struck by his easy virtuosity as a composer of pictures. No task seemed too complex for him to simplify into an appearance of naturalness. There are, for example, nearly 20 figures in “Rape of Europa,” but they are made to read as one gently undulating mass crowned by a halo of flying cherubs. Europa seems to have thoroughly cowed the bull, who looks like a repentant husband with garlands round his ears.

The orchestration of these allegorical pictures is invariably impressive, the colors evermore gently harmonized and the details filled with wonderful patches like the reclining girl in “Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds.”

They never quite come off because Boucher was as temperamentally ill-equipped to do them as he was technically gifted. His figures lack either the heroic scale of Rubens, the aristocratic distance of Tiepolo, or the suave wit of Fragonard. (Incidentally, Fragonard’s lyric masterpiece “The Progress of Love” has just been cleaned and reinstalled at the Frick Collection, where its delicate empathy makes Boucher look a trifle vulgar.)

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Boucher’s youths look like darling little milkmaids and good-hearted young farmhands--a bit ill at ease playing gods in the school pageant.

Boucher was far more at home as an intimist. Pictures in present time and at close quarters, like “Le Dejeuner,” are superb social documents even though they lack either Hogarth’s bite or Watteau’s poignancy. His full-length “Portrait of Mme de Pompadour” is as enchanting a report of the stylish look of a time as history has left us. But it implies psychological insight and there isn’t any, just an aura of cultivated gentleness.

Boucher rather needed a sense of spectacle and built-in meaningfulness to exercise his virtuosity and compensate for a certain expressive vacuum. He is at his best in casual views of the allegorical, like the famous, lushly cosmetic “The Toilet of Venus” or the Louvre’s great, utterly unself-conscious skinny-dip, “Diana at the Bath.”

Probably only modern taste keeps his pastoral scenes from appearing as the heartfelt pictures they are. We find these stylized renderings of Rousseau’s noble savages impossibly cloying and artificial with their cunningly broken-down cottages, symbolic birdcages, pretty peddlers and innocent maids about as natural as a bad Italian verismo opera.

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But it is in them as much as anywhere that Boucher seems complete. They were based on popular dramas of the day, which sets one thinking of how like a theater person Boucher was, now playing a bedroom farce, now a noble Roman, now an honest country lad. He had a good range within a highly conventionalized tradition. But who was he?

On evidence he was a sweet, agreeable guy with immense natural talent which he capitalized through decades of unremitting practice. He was faithful, sentimental, pleasure-loving, modest, intuitively shrewd and probably un peu bete.

It is not his fault that his art seems such an apt subject of current revisionist history. His fundamental traditionalism, bourgeois virtues and willingness to please seem right in line with a neo-conservative, yuppiefied society where the entrepreneurial urge moves as the wind blows, from hanging plants to frozen yogurt and chocolate-chip cookies--ephemeral but, like Boucher, hard-working and harmless.

Awright, so he painted a few dirty pictures for the king.

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