During the long reign of Louis XIV, religious themes were a major part of French art—that is, when art was not glorifying the Sun King himself. Though artists often painted scenes from classical mythology and other “safe” areas, they tended to steer clear of more sulphurous topics, despite the libertinism that even by then had a firm grip on France’s aristocracy.
All that changed a few years after Louis’ death in 1715. When Antoine Watteau submitted his L’Embarquement pour Cythère to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1717, he was credited with creating a new category of painting, the fête galante, which typically depicted aristocats in idyllic pastoral settings absorbed in flirtatious pastimes. L’Embarquement was very much of a piece with Regency moeurs, which prioritized the pursuit of worldly pleasures, whether through drink, or, especially, through relations between the sexes.
Art was not alone in its new exploration of dangerous territory—French literature kept pace with curiosa like Le Sofa (1742), Les Baisers (1770), Thérèse philosophe (1748), and La Foutromanie (ca. 1780), and there was considerable cross-pollination between the two. François Boucher, who got his start by etching Watteau’s works, took the master’s light hedonism a step further, and Jean Fragonard, Boucher’s own pupil, further still. Just how far is the subject of the new eight-room exhibition at the Musée Cognacq-Jay.1 Suffice it to say that these artists, along with Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, Jean-Baptiste Pater, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, and Jean-Baptist Greuze, painted a wider array of subjects than those required by official commissions.
Indeed, a more fitting title for the exhibition would be “L’Empire du désir,” for it is desire, more than anything else, on display here. We see its power and occasional violence, its straining of convention, its progressive stages, and, in the show’s sobering conclusion, its consequences. Despite the exhibition’s combustible subject matter, however, the curators’ tone is cool, scholarly, and matter-of-fact. The accompanying catalogue contains essays on the genre by, among others, the Boucher specialist Alastair Laing and Guillaume Faroult, Senior Curator at the Louvre.
Two central works in “L’Empire des sens,” Boucher’s L’Odalisque brune (1745) and Odalisque Blonde (1751), famously inflamed—in both senses of the word—eighteenth-century audiences. While both paintings show reclining nudes, they are what might be termed “portraits des fesses” with the model’s face and body being of secondary importance to her provocatively displayed bottom. Placed in one of the middle rooms, the paintings are near the display case containing the naughty books that, according to Guillaume Faroult, strongly influenced Boucher. For all their pulse-raising qualities (for the time, that is), the Odalisques were carefully planned, as shown by Boucher’s meticulous pastel study of his model’s foot. Even in his most successful years, however—he was, after all, “peintre du roi”—his libertinism was not universally admired. L’Odalisque brune mightily displeased Denis Diderot, who in his Salon 1767 exclaimed that he had never anything like this “ . . . woman completely nude lying on pillows, legs here, legs there, poised for pleasure . . . ”
For the Greeks, life was about making good choices from bad alternatives. And as students of the Trojan War remember, Paris, son of the king of Troy, made many poor decisions. In Watteau’s Le jugement de Paris (ca. 1718–21), we observe a seductive Helen, deshabilée, facing a submissive Paris, who offers her the Apple of Discord. Oblivious to the presence of Juno and Minerva, Paris gazes in rapture, showing no inkling of their ire, and Watteau’s swirling, misty brushwork magnifies the heat and intensity of the scene. The theme of seductiveness continues with Watteau’s nearby Femme nue ôtant sa chemise (ca. 1716–18), while Paris’s fixed stare is redeployed in his marvelously creepy pair of drawings of satyrs gazing at their out-of-view victims. These satyrs are not the awkward-but-lovable, half-man-half-horse variety, but rather lean, muscular, and intent on one thing. In one, the Satyre soulevant une draperie (ca. 1715–16), in black and white crayon, Watteau places tiny red accents around the lower lip, creating a visual mark of depravity.
Pan et syrinx (1759) with its satyr-voyeur, Léda et le cygne (1742), and Danaé recevant la pluie d’or (ca. 1740) illustrate how Boucher and his fellows used mythological tales about the gods’ conquests to show desire’s irresistible power. “L’Empire des sens” shows voyeurs in other settings as well, including a female-on-male variant in Saint-Aubin’s Le cas de conscience (date unknown). In the Des caresses à baisers (bashfully translated as “From caresses to kisses”) section, we see ecstasy in full flight: Greuze’s La volupté (1765) shows a young woman, head thrown back, mouth slightly open, looking through the viewer with unseeing eyes. Fragonard’s Jeunne femme defaillant (ca. 1785) is in a similar vein while a few steps away we see a couple fully enjoying each other’s company in Boucher’s Hercule et Omphale (ca. 1732–35).
For all the imagination and technical skill used to create these libertine visions, some of the most affecting pictures are, unsurprisingly, the least erotic. Boucher’s three versions of La belle cuisinière (1735), with their wistful kitchen girl and her imploring companion, are populated by little clues (broken eggs, a boiled-over pot, and a cat savaging a chicken) hinting at what is about to happen. But it is Greuze’s powerful study for La Cruche cassée (1722), showing a pretty, wide-eyed innocent—dazed, disheveled, and clutching the eponymous broken jug—that wordlessly conveys what happens when desire becomes unhinged.