With his pupil Fragonard, François Boucher is rightly held to epitomise the rococo sensibility in French eighteenth-century painting. Born in Paris in 1703, Boucher probably first trained with his painter father, Nicholas Boucher, before becoming a protégé – rather than a real pupil – of François Lemoyne. In 1723 he won the coveted Rome prize (prix de Rome), but he never received the grant to study in Italy this should have entitled him to. He found work providing designs for engravings and producing his own etchings after drawings by Watteau before finding the means in 1728 to spend a period of years studying in Italy. There he showed himself more responsive to the lessons of the baroque than the traditionally vaunted models of Michelangelo and Raphael.
On his return to Paris around 1731 Boucher began to establish a reputation, acquiring associate and, in 1734, full membership of the French Royal Academy and obtaining his first royal commissions. He soon proved himself an innovator in terms of subject matter, instituting the genre of the erotic pastoral and at the same time demonstrating his capacities as a painter of decorative cycles and as a tapestry designer.
Boucher’s A young lady holding a pug dog 1740s demonstrates his attention to detail and ability to create the sense of delight that is a defining feature of rococo painting. It is an an intimate portrait of his wife, Marie-Jeanne Buseau, who was his model for over two decades. The painting wittily, and not at either’s expense, juxtaposes the very different beauties of a charming woman and her lapdog.
Besides gaining commissions from the king, he also became the favourite painter of the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who was a major patron of the arts. Boucher supplied designs to the royal porcelain factory of Vincennes-Sèvres and also worked as a stage designer. His dominant position among artists working for the court was finally recognised in 1765 by his appointment as first painter to the king and his election in the same year as director of the French Royal Academy.
Well before Boucher died, the rococo style which he had been substantially responsible for developing was attracting criticism for its artificiality and frivolity. During the period of neo-classicism Boucher’s reputation plummeted, and did not revive until the mid 19th century.