François Boucher and Reinterpreting Greek Classics

François Boucher and Reinterpreting Greek Classics

Boucher, one of the most celebrated French painters of the 18th century, was in the eyes of his detractors (like Diderot), nothing but a pimp. He used his beautiful wife as a model and he privately indulged in erotica like the painting below, Leda and the Swan, which is only one of the versions he produced around 1740. That's not his wife in the picture. The other versions are more modest; this one is rarely seen. Is it a parody of Titian's Venus?

François Boucher: "Leda and the Swan" (circa 1740)

W.B. Yeats' poem about the same myth reads more like a forcible rape...


A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

The swan, of course, is Zeus - compare it with this image where Zeus is an eagle or these images.

Another set of risqué Boucher paintings is the Jupiter and Callisto series. In the one up top, from 1759, Jupiter has taken the form of a woman (the goddess Diana), so the picture takes on a subtle lesbian meaning. No rape here...

After his death in 1770, Boucher's reputation suffered - written off as a commercial hack, a vulgar libertine, everything that was wrong with the country before the French Revolution. However, in recent decades, he has been getting a makeover, whereby his rococo work is seen as ironical, sophisticated and gender-bending.