Frills and Frivolity

The bows, ruffles, and roses of Boucher’s Rococo style portraits may seem frivolous from a modern perspective, but he was a master of reflecting both the theoretical ideals and social realities of the time. He painted over eighty portraits of Madame de Pompadour, who entrusted the task to him more than to any other artist. She remarkably rose from a bourgeois background to become the royal mistress of Louis XV, and exercised her influence in political matters, social trends, and artistic ventures that ranged from the construction of lavish villas to the promotion of French-style porcelain. In fact, the scope of her projects was partly funded by the royal treasury, as she replaced the then head of finances with her mother’s lover and possibly her own father. It is unfair to assume that she had a monopoly over artistic patronage, but she was certainly interested in maintaining her social standing by exemplifying the styles of the period.

Boucher’s makes subtle references to all aspects of the real and the ideal through a playful sensuality, making it all the more difficult to deconstruct his intentions and those of Madame de Pompadour. In many of these portraits, she appears much younger and more flawless than she really was, as the fully made-up and dazzlingly white complexion was perceived as the height of beauty. At the same time, love poetry and engravings of the time praised natural beauty as well, presenting a seemingly unattainable paradox. The decorative aspects are all part of the equation, as, for example, the cameo bracelet in Madame Pompadour at her Toilette is a portrait of Louis XV, suggesting obvious flattery on the part of Boucher and Madame de Pompadour. The gestures, backgrounds, and almost theatrical perfection were also references to Renaissance paintings, as Boucher’s portraits echo a Titian-type Venus.

The contemporary art of Violise Lunn reflects the same kind of materialization of the impossible and imaginative. Her fragile paper garments, like the endless satin gowns of Madame de Pompadour, seek a timelessness that is perhaps unattainable but certainly worth pursuing. In his definition of frivolity, Voltaire, who was Madame de Pompadour’s friend and advisor throughout her career, says “if you would tolerate life, mortals, forget yourselves, and enjoy it.”

See also:

“Mme. de Pompadour as a Patron of the Visual Arts” by Donald Posner

“Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette” by Elise Goodman-Soellner

Louis XV’s Chocolate Recipe