There was a time, and perhaps after a century of Modernism Fatigue we are returning to it, when the business of serious art was, unabashedly, pleasure. For a crisp but tenuous moment, delight ruled unencumbered by self-conscious moralizing or the strictures of reality. If you could dream it, and it was charming, you painted it. The era lasted all of about thirty years, born in the first flush of the Enlightenment’s love of sloppily amorous humanity, and was snuffed before its time by that same movement’s increasing need for classical and uplifting overtones in its artistic productions. But, if you’re of a mind to sit dreamily drunk before a bit of art for a while, you’ll find a welcoming home there.
The high priest of the Pleasure in Painting was the Parisian artist François Boucher (1703-1770). He came of age as an artist in that era when society, worn out by the somber realities of the end of Louis XIV’s reign, sought to recapture itself in the vigorous pursuit of life. Part of that endless quest included the construction of ravishing private spaces bedecked with charming and graceful illustrations. Boucher, their iconographer of choice, delivered a constant stream of pastoral simplicity, luscious nudes, and oh so very much drapery.
After spending his student years wrapped up in the obligatory production of obscure Biblical moments, Boucher broke into his own style by wedding mythological themes to a visual sense that combined Flemish and modern Italian influences with his own innate feel for dramatic elegance. There is a lot of loveliness to contemplate from his first decade and a half, but this, his Birth of Venus (1740), is perhaps the most wonderfully over-the-top love song to the marriage of art and pleasure:
In the mid 1740s a pastoral fad broke out, and Boucher responded with a series of hyper-idealized but entirely fetching canvases that still have the power to make us stop dead in our twitchy, nervous tracks and melt a bit with a yearning for something slower:
Even those who hated him couldn’t help but admit that they kinda liked him. In his famous attempt to wean the Parisian public from Boucher’s paintings and redirect its enthusiasm to more elevated artistic ground, Denis Diderot ended up basically advertising for him: “What colors! What variety! What richness of objects and ideas!… There is no part of his compositions which, separated from the others, does not please you; the ensemble even seduces you. That man has everything except truth… Where has one actually seen shepherds dressed with such elegance and luxury? …. [but] one cannot leave the picture. It fixes you. One comes back to it. It is such an agreeable vice!”
For better or worse, ours is a time of agreeable vices. We have all spent more on novelty tee-shirts depicting Daleks or Jayne Hats or Fluttershy Battling Medusa than on sober art-school originals because we think that amusement is the ideal wadding with which to stuff the gaps of life, even (or perhaps especially) as they yawn gradually into chasms. I certainly have, and I don’t feel any particular shame on that account. Agreeable vices are important, and deserve to be reckoned as such rather than cast off as unworthy of an artist’s labor.
I cannot deny, however, that, as much smack as I talk, I do love the callous challenge of modernism, indeed anything that sets out to make you do some work for your squirt of dopamine, but I am truly thankful that there was that rolling ripple of a time when artists were willing to indulge their fancy at the cost of their bottom-line profundity, and to let visual poetic discourse run where it would without philosophical theory dictating a curfew.