Edme Bouchardon Reappraised

Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment
Anne-Lise Desmas, Édouard Kopp, Guilhem Scherf, Juliette Trey (authors)
Hardback, ISBN 978 1 60606 506 8 (RRP £50)
Publication date: 6 January 2017
Publisher: Getty Publications. Imprint: J. Paul Getty Museum in Association with Musée du Louvre Editions and Somogny Art Publishers (distr. Yale University Press), 448pp., 308 col., 172 b&w.

The Learned Draftsman: Edme Bouchardon,
Édouard Kopp (author) 
Hardback, ISBN 978 1 60606 504 4 (R.R.P. £42.50)
Publication date: 6 January 2017
Publisher: Getty Publications. J. Paul Getty Museum (distr. Yale University Press), 336pp, 105 col., 46 b&w

Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762) was a leading figure from the Generation of 1700 who was greatly admired by contemporaries and for some decades later, but his name gradually slipped from public recognition. Chardin is famed, while Bouchardon is obscure to even the most informed layperson. This neglect should be partly redressed by an exhibition catalogue, available in both an English and a French version, and a monograph on the artist’s drawings that have been published to mark the exhibition of Bouchardon held at the Louvre, Paris (closed December 2016) and at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (closes 2 April 2017). 

Edme Bouchardon trained in Paris at his father’s workshop and, upon winning the Prix de Rome, moved to Rome to take up residency at the Académie Française, remaining there from 1723 to 1732. He initially attracted interest due to his marble and terracotta portrait busts, which follow the Roman tradition yet manage to be lively and (apparently) good likenesses and became influential in France. In 1732 Bouchardon returned to Paris, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Working for Louis XV, he received numerous commissions for religious and mythological sculptures and designed medals for the government His crowning achievement, the equestrian monument of Louis XV (1748-62), was destroyed in the French Revolution. In addition to sculpture, Bouchardon was noted for his drawings, many of which were disseminated as prints. 

Royal Artist of the Enlightenment is an exhibition catalogue covering Bouchardon’s sculptures, drawings and works related to the artist. Introductory essays by Bouchardon experts discuss the artist’s output, his drawing practice, his patrons and his life in Rome. There are hints of the artist’s relations with sculptor Lambert Sigisbert Adam and patron and antiquarian the comte de Caylus, who wrote the first biography of Bouchardon. In this title, the art works are grouped by theme. Drawings and maquettes, including details, figures, overviews and architectural plans, for the Grenelle Fountain in Paris, which was completed in 1745, have been assembled. Scherf writes extensively about the monument’s blend of sculpture and architecture, which was uncommon and controversial for the period in France. It was criticised as disproportionate and akin to an altarpiece, with the sculptures being striking, but out of character with the architecture.

The plate section reproduces works at a very high quality, with commentary explaining subjects. Many of Bouchardon’s drawings were copies of works by other artists, so the authors give the background of each source and his relationship to it. Some drawings by pupils or followers of Bouchardon are included. The catalogue is extensive and includes a long bibliography and index. The decision to place notes at the outside edges of pages means that at times the main text is printed uncomfortably close to the page gutter, but that is a problem that applies to a minority of pages. However, in every other respect the design and production of this catalogue, and the monograph discussed below, are excellent.

Bouchardon’s red-chalk drawings are superb examples of a sculptor’s drawings: clear, bold and accurate, with volume carefully modelled through the use of hatching. The economically direct and systematic manner of his drawings resembles the work of graphic artists such as printmakers and commercial illustrators. Artists and commentators of his time considered Bouchardon’s drawings equal to his sculpture. Although some were preparatory sketches or technical plans – and others were made specifically as guides for printmakers – some drawings were very highly finished and made to be collected and studied at length. Bouchardon’s drawings were prized by antiquarians as accurate depictions of ancient art. (His facility in depicting sculpture was no doubt aided by his understanding as a sculptor.) Bouchardon was unusual in that he exhibited drawings and sculptures at the annual Salon, though the drawings were always independent of sculpture. The subjects were mythological scenes, comparable in complexity to Poussin’s paintings. 

In The Learned Draftsman, Édouard Kopp appraises factors which ‘may be invoked to explain Bouchardon’s intense graphic involvement: his artistic and intellectual ambitions, his social aspirations, his perfectionism, and, not least, his talent and his passion for drawing, as well as his learned, almost scholarly approach to the medium, which led his curious mind to pursue wide-ranging interests.’ Kopp makes much of the intellectual significance of the artist’s drawings for medals and jetons (tokens), which have previously been partly overlooked by art-historians. He summarises ‘[Bouchardon] wanted to prove himself worthy of scholars, and so he did – by being officially recognised as one. While he shows deferential gratitude toward the institution, he asserted that he deserved his position, thanks to the earnestness and learning he brought to his work, the knowledgeable care with which he composed and executed the drawings throughout his tenure.’ 

Some of the medals and jetons (executed by specialists) are reproduced alongside Bouchardon’s drawings to allow comparison. Kopp’s comments on the subject make that chapter a useful corrective to the commonly accepted division between art-history and numismatics.

Among other subjects of Bouchardon are académies (highly finished drawings of nudes, made from life). Most of the subjects are male, as was common for the period. The most fascinating life drawings are studies for a caryatid, in which a female model posed in multiple positions, which is all the more touching for being unidealised. To modern eyes, the loveliest of Bouchardon’s drawings are portraits and those of animals, especially the many equine studies. The portraits are sensitive and accurate. There are a number of profiles of elderly men with flowing beards. The most beautiful is of a young woman in a headscarf. The drawing is so delicate that we can see the light glowing through the scarf across her cheek. The drawings of infants, made in preparation for sculpted relief panels (main image), are also attractive and characterful. 

An important work is the suite Études prises dans le bas Peuple ou les Cris de Paris (Studies drawn from the Lower Classes or the Cries of Paris) (1737), which is a series of 60 chalk drawings of lower-class tradesmen and domestic servants common to Paris, reproduced as line etchings. The drawings (the originals are now housed in the British Museum) bear witness to Bouchardon’s desire to accurately and clearly depict, albeit in tidied apparel, the clothing, wares, tools and comportment of the workers, which makes them valuable social documentation. ‘In representing artisans, the draftsman made the lower classes look more worthy of respect in the eyes of eighteenth-century French society, which valued skills. […] Bouchardon included servants, another social group that did not fall into the category of street criers. Servants, like artisans, generally had a higher status and a less precarious financial situation than peddlers.’ The lower classes had, of course, long been a subject for Dutch genre painters. Royal Artist of the Enlightenmentreproduces all of these drawings and some of the prints.

Reading these books, one is impressed by the diligence and skill of an artist, who influenced following generations of sculptors. These two excellent titles will do much to enhance Bouchardon’s reputation in the Anglophone art world.

Main image: Edme Bouchardon, Autumn, mid-18th century, marble 51.4× 85.7cm., 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer (photo: www.metmuseum.org)

Aurora Corio