La Belle Cuisinière was painted shortly after Boucher’s return from Italy in the early 1730s and is one of a small group of genre paintings that he executed illustrating a snapshot of domestic life. Fueled by the increasing demand in France, at that time, for pictures in the Dutch and Flemish taste, Boucher responded by producing intimate, mildly erotic scenes with moral undertones that would satisfy his audience.
In terms of dating, the painting must originate from the early 1730s, as an advertisement for Pierre Aveline’s print (in reverse) after La Belle Cuisiniere appeared in the April 1735 edition of the Mercure de France, accompanied by the information that the painting had been recently purchased by an Englishman and taken to London.1
The painting depicts a young cookmaid standing in a kitchen setting, with an array of cooking utensils and surrounded by fruits and vegetables. This composition provided Boucher with ample opportunity to demonstrate his skill in the still life genre. Kneeling at the young woman's side is a young boy, clearly besotted by the handsome cookmaid, who holds her hand and gazes up into her eyes. The entire composition allows the artist to play to his audience in a very calculating way. There is no mistaking the strong influence of seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings, but La Belle Cuisinière shows Boucher’s more naturalistic approach, introducing a sensitivity often absent in the artist's more didactic genre scenes.
The Berger drawing focuses on the young cookmaid, and the inclusion of her captivated suitor’s hand clearly indicates that this is a preparatory study for the figure in the painting. Boucher has drawn her with much more freedom than we see in the oil on panel. His sprightly and crisp rendering of her drapery is reminiscent of Watteau’s red chalk figure studies and she is certainly no 'stock figure', but a real young woman, studied from life. The eggs that she holds in her apron are absent in the drawing, as are the key that hangs from her waist. Another painting, La Belle Villageoise (The Pretty Village Girl), now lost, engraved by Pierre Soubeyran, was advertised in the Mercure in 1738 as the pendant to La Belle Cuisinière.2
The Berger study is one of the most beautiful drawings from this period of Boucher’s career and its early provenance reveals it was greatly admired by Gabriel Huquier the Elder (1695-1772), who is the first recorded owner of this sheet. Huquier was an engraver and publisher, who owned a great many of Boucher’s works.
We are grateful to Alastair Laing, who, having recently seen the original, has reaffirmed the attribution to Boucher.
1. P. Jean-Richard., op.cit., p. 79, under no. 205
2. P. Jean-Richard., op.cit., p. 382, no. 1589
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