- François Boucher
- Study of a young Chinese woman seated at a table
- Red, black and white chalk and brown wash on light brown paper, within pen and brown ink framing lines;
signed, lower center, in black chalk: f Boucher.
Private Collection, England;
sale, London, Christie's, 1 July 1997, lot 135,
where acquired by Bernadette and William M.B. Berger, Denver, Colorado
New York, The Frick Collection; Ottawa, The National Gallery of Canada, Watteau and His World: French Drawings from 1700 to 1750, 1999-2000, no. 53;
New York, The Frick Collection, Fort Worth Texas, Kimbell Art Museum, The Drawings of François Boucher, 2003-2004, (catalogue by Alastair Laing), p. 128, no. 43, p. 129 reproduced
Whilst interest in the Orient and Far East was no new phenomenon in French society at the time, Boucher, along with the engraver and print publisher Gabriel Huquier (1695-1772), pushed this interest to another level by fulfilling the commercial demand for designs that could be translated into porcelain, terracotta, tapestry and furniture.
Boucher’s ‘China’, rather than a truthful representation of the Orient, was one of fantasy and masquerade. It was in essence a reflection of the tastes of French 18th Century society sprinkled with a Chinese seasoning. Boucher’s chinoiserie compositions did not differ so drastically from his other genre scenes: in fact, the base ingredients were the same but Boucher injected an exoticism by giving his figures Chinese costumes, and Chinese curiosities as attributes. Boucher’s Chinese figures and objects were not, though, totally western fabrications; he was actually well versed in the details of oriental attire and possessions, and as a passionate collector himself, he was able to draw inspiration from his own extensive collection of Chinese objets d’art.
The Berger drawing is a splendid example of one of Boucher’s chinoiserie single figure studies. As Alastair Laing observes, many of Boucher’s Chinese drawings for prints are often dry and formulaic.2 This is more a fact than a criticism, as they were executed in this manner, with linear accuracy and precision, for the engraving process. It is therefore refreshing to see a more spontaneous work where one can detect the exuberance so often associated with Boucher as an artist. Two other chinoiserie drawings that possess a similar freedom are A Chinese woman and four children around a well, a preliminary study for Curiostié Chinoise (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon) and A woman cooking for her children, a preliminary study for the engraving, in reverse, by Jean Joseph Balechou entitled Les Délices de L’Enfance.3
The Berger chinoiserie figure is not reproduced exactly in any of Boucher’s known paintings or prints, but does appear with some differences in a number of Boucher’s chinoiserie commissions. As Alastair Laing has noted, the figure is probably closest to the young girl in The Chinese Woman Taking Tea, accompanied by two children and a Cat (fig. 1), an observation first made by Alan Wintermute when the drawing was exhibited at the Frick in New York in 2000.4 The Chinese Woman taking Tea is in the Earl of Chichester’s collection at Little Durnford, and is one of a pair of chinoiserie overdoors, en camaieu bleu, signed and dated 1742, and now divided between Wiltshire and Copenhagen.5 The young lady is depicted in reverse in the painting and there are other differences in the chair and her attire. The two pendant purses seen in the present work are also absent in the painting.
The figure of the young girl also features in a number of other projects, again in slightly different guises, in particular Boucher’s celebrated oil sketches for the tapestries at Beauvais, Le Festin de L’Empereur de Chine (fig. 2) and La Danse Chinoise (fig. 3).6 The girl also appears in Huquier’s engraving, Le Carillon (with differences and in reverse), one of a series of 12 prints from Scènes de la vie Chinoise.7 Finally, she appears once more, in reverse, in the print by Aveline, Le Concert Chinois.8
The practice of re-using figures or objects played a large part in Boucher’s oeuvre. Boucher’s skill lay in the fact that he had an ample repertoire of characters and objects that he could incorporate into any of his compositions, and his talent was his ability to re-use these motifs, enlivening them each time with a renewed sense of energy and combining his vivid imagination with these stock characters. Boucher’s methods were of course nothing new and the use of pattern books and reference sketch books were common place in the history of art.
The Berger drawing represents an important element in Boucher’s career and also gives us an insight into the artist’s working methods. However, what is so special about this trois crayons figure is its unusually spirited manner of execution (seldom seen in the artist's chinoiserie drawings) and its success in being an accomplished work in its own right. Regardless of the repetition of similar young women in his other chinoiserie compositions, the Berger drawing retains a character all of its own.
1. G. Brunel, Boucher, London 1986, p. 166
2. A. Laing, The Drawings of François Boucher, exhib. cat., New York, The Frick Collection; Texas, Fort Worth, The Kimbell Art Museum, 2003-2004, p. 128, no. 43
3. A Chinese Woman and Four Children around a well, sale, London, Sotheby’s, 27 April 1977, lot 88 and A Woman Cooking for her Children, sale, London Sotheby’s, 4 July 1985, lot 85
4. Watteau and His World: French Drawings from 1700 to 1750, exhib. cat., New York, The Frick Collection; Ottawa, The National Gallery of Canada, 1999-2000, no. 53
5. François Boucher, exhib. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts; Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 1986-87, p. 208, fig. 146
6. A. Ananoff, François Boucher, Paris 1976, vol. I, no. 224, fig. 677 (Festin de L’Empereur de Chine) and no. 227, fig. 684 (La Danse Chinoise)
7. P. Jean-Richard, L’oeuvre grave de François Boucher dans La Collection Edmond de Rothschild, Paris 1978, p. 276, no. 1125, reproduced fig. 1125
8. Ibid., p. 79, no. 201, reproduced fig. 201