The Painter’s Touch: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About These 18th Century Painters

In her new book, The Painter’s Touch, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth reexamines three French eighteenth-century painters: François Boucher (1703-1770), Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). While these three artists were already successful in their time, reexamination and reflection of their works throughout the years have caused our understandings of these artists to change. Lajer-Burcharth examines the careers of these three painters, and provides close-readings of their work, to show how their paintings played a part in the emergence of modernity.

We’ve highlighted a few interesting facts about each of the painters showcased in this book, revealing what their careers were like, how their lives and societal standings may have inspired their paintings, and what new information has been unearthed to help us better understand their place in art history.

 

François Boucher:

  1. Boucher was not only a talented painter, but a financially savvy moneymaker: “Boucher’s practice inscribes itself in this commercial context — and in the broader realm of commercial modernity — more deeply than has been realized. … Scholars have noted how successful and prosperous the artist became as a result of his commercial savvy. We know for a fact that Boucher left a considerable fortune after his death, amounting to about 150,000 livres, more than half of which was obtained from the sale of his collection of art and curiosities.” (page 12)
  2. Boucher often used unique interpretations of well-known characters as his subjects: “Ancient myth was, moreover, represented by Boucher as a terrain of private fantasy based on the experiences of the senses. The subjects, though based on specific literary sources, did not require erudition to be grasped and appreciated. Boucher offered idiosyncratic interpretations that emphasized and encouraged a play of imagination linked to the interaction between the main figures in each pendant.” (pages 41-42)
  3. Even though he was the preferred portraitist for Madame de Pompadour, a member of the French Court, Boucher was notorious for his inability to have his paintings faithfully resemble their subjects: “Pompadour was well aware of his shortcoming — stating as she did in a letter written to her brother in April 1751 that the copy of Boucher’s likeness she was sending to him in Italy “greatly resembles the original, less myself” — she seems to have been entirely satisfied with his results, multiplying her portrait commissions from him more than from any other artists.” (page 83)

Jean Siméon Chardin:

  1. While he may be considered a great painter today, Chardin was known for less positive qualities during his life: “The master of illusion was, then, also a kind of neurotic avant la lettre. His legerdemain concealed painstaking effort, procrastination, dissatisfaction, and a frequent inability to complete the task of representation. Suggested in these commentaries is a connection between the painter’s character and his working method, his personality being seen as responsible for the idiosyncrasies of his process.” (page 89)
  2. When painting a domestic scene, Chardin was known to focus on mothers and children, frequently leaving out a paternal subject: “As has been noted, the domestic realm depicted by Chardin is dominated by the figures of women and children, in the near total absence of men. Whatever else these paintings are about, they construct a space of primary relations between mother, or a maternal figure, and child, a space of initial subjective experiences based in duality that seems yet unaffected by a third party, be it a paternal presence, language (the exchanges, when they do occur, are muted), or social experience. (page 127)
  3. While painting self-portraits, Chardin made the innovative decision to include his eyeglasses: “Unusual before Chardin, the choice of spectacles as an element of an artist’s self-definition signaled the artist’s social position. Besicles, relatively cheap to produce in the eighteenth century, were popular among the lower classes but were rarely worn by the elite, and never in public. At the theater or in another social context, members of the upper class preferred to use a monocle, considered more elegant. The inclusion of the besicles in Chardin’s self-portraits was something of a class act — one the matched the defiantly common character of the painter’s attire.” (page 172)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard:

  1. Fragonard’s art, which was typically sexual in nature, hurt his reputation even as it made him financially successful: “Fragonard’s involvement with erotic subjects, combined with his reliance on private patrons, placed him in an awkward position as an artist. While his paintings and drawings were sought after by the renowned collectors and amateurs of the period, and they fetched high, at times even notoriously exorbitant prices, they were not the object of any sustained critical examination. Many admired Fragonard’s sheer technical brio … but no one was interested in articulating what were the specific aesthetic merits, if any, of his erotic art.” (page 178)
  2. While sketching landscape settings, Fragonard enjoyed walking, an unusual choice: “Why would Fragonard have needed to sketch as he walked? Evidently, there was no topographical necessity to do so, the site having been much easier to render while sitting or standing under the trees. But if the artist chose to walk, was it not because he was interested in capturing precisely that movement from withinthat was then perceived as being at once nature’s and mother’s? By simulating the quasinatural growth of the shape of the alley from the inner core — a hollow — at the bottom center, the draftsman let the page itself give birth to an image. By drawing as he moved, Fragonard was coming as close as he could to enacting the process of generation, his sequence of progressing or receding arches mapping out an act of becoming — of an image.” (page 196)
  3. In 2012, an important discovery caused the art community to rethink a collection of portraits Fragonard produced in the late 1760s: “The names scribbled by the artist under his thumbnail renditions of each likeness confirmed the identity of only two figures —abbé de Saint-Non and Monsieur de la Bretèche — and contradicted most of the others. The presumed Diderot and La Guimard have proven false.” (page 213)

For more information about these three artists, and the development of artistic modernity in eighteenth-century France, read The Painter’s Touch.

Ewa Lajer-Burcharth is the William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University. Her books include Chardin Materialand Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror.