Boucher's Madame de Pompadour

François Boucher: Madame de Pompadour (1758)


"It is true that this is makeup (un fard), but we should wish that all current paintings were made up in this way. We

already know that all painting is only makeup, that it is part of its essence to deceive, and that the greatest deceiver in

this art is the greatest painter."

Roger de Piles, Cours de peinture par principes




Denis Diderot on Boucher's Marquise de Pompadour:


"I would say he's never for a single instant seen nature....

[In Boucher's painting] there are too many pinched little faces, too much mannerism and affectation for an austere art. He can show them to me unadorned if he likes, I still see the rouge, the beauty spots, the pompons, and all the little vials of the makeup table."

"I don't know what to say about this man. Degradation of taste, color, composition, character, expression, and drawing have kept pace with moral depravity. What can we excpect this artist to throw on the canvas? What he has in his imagination. And what can be in the imagination of a man who spends his life with prostitutes of the basest kind?"

With this portrait of Madame de Pompadour, Boucher is as far from Nature and Truth as one can be. He "makes the prettiest marionnettes in the world; he'll end up an illuminator. Well, my friend, it's at precisely the moment Boucher has ceased to be an artist that he's appointed first painter to the king." What a waste of talent! For indeniably, Boucher has mastered the technique of painting: the composition is right and brushwork is flawless.

Yet, I feel nothing when looking at this painting, it is certainly pretty but is it beautiful? I think not. It raises no other emotion than that of frustration and disbelief. There is nothing of life here, nothing for us to relate to.

Even the colours are dull and fake. There is nothing alive and moving behind this thick layer of rouge on her cheeks, she seems frozen in time. The colours and lines are meant to please the eye with their softness and curves, and it is true that they don't disgust or disturb but they don't appeal or drive the eye either. It is certainly decoration but not art.

"This man has no conception of true grace; I'd say he has never encountered truth; I'd say the ideas of delicacy, fortrightness, innocence, and simplicity have become almost foreign to him; I'd say he has never for a single instant seen nature, at least not the one made to interest my soul, yours, that of well-born child, that of a sensitive woman; I'd say he's without taste."*


*Quotes are from The Salon of 1765, pp. 22-24.



Rousseau on Boucher's Marquise de Pompadour:


This painting is the embodiement of the corruption and decadence of the French aristocracy. My God! Look at Madame de Pompadour's face! She shows absolutely no emotions. She seems to have buried deep within everything that nature gave her: her true appearance, her passions, her ability to have genuine and sincere emotions, and with it her virtues. I see only luxury and whim and above all, constraint, with a forged and deceptive attitude of carelessness and satisfaction.

Boucher gives a false sense of happiness and liberty that conceals true enslavement to conventions and class etiquette. He has become a tool in the hands of the king and his entourage to ensure the servility of the people by promoting a "state of happy ignorance." He leads us to believe that artifice, wealth, complicated apparel and fawless appearance are sources of happiness. 

"Civilized peoples, cultivate such pursuits: to them, happy slaves, you owe that delicacy and exquisiteness of taste, which is so much your voast, that sweetness of disposition and urbanity of manners which make intercourse so easy and agreeable among you - in a word, the appearance of all the virtues, without being in possession of one of them." (Disourse on Art and Science)   




Diderot, Denis. The Salon of 1765.

Hyde, Melissa. “The ‘Makeup’ of the Marquise: Boucher’s Portrait of Pompadour at her Toilette.” The Art Bulletin. 82. 3. (2000): 453-475.

Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, "Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Science." London: Everyman, 1913. pp. 115-142.