121 x 81 cm
Oil on canvas
This picture necessitated an in-depth examination in order to understand the way it had been originally conceived, as recent interventions had modified its format and appearance. It turns out to be the second version of a signed Flora belonging to a group of five pictures, certain of which are dated 1745, all of which were painted for Madame de Pompadour, were at Bellevue, and today are scattered. The five pictures are The Love Letter which is a large over door, and four smaller pendants all the same size entitled Flora, Bacchantes, Pomona, and Nymph Huntresses which fit into fretted wood paneling. Flora, the first version preceding the one studied here and reproduced in Ananoff and Wildenstein, 1975, I, no. 287, is conserved in a private collection, as are two other compositions from this group. The other two are in the De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. For some of these pictures, and especially the Nymph Huntresses, several versions exist.
Comparison of the first Flora (hereinafter for clarity called “Pompadour Flora”) with the second version which just reappeared, is instructive. On the canvas acquired by Madame de Pompadour, the group is larger in size than the one studied here, because in its narrower frame, it already measured 116 x 96 cm. (3 ft. 9 11/16 in. x 3 ft. 1 13/16 in.). The first example is almost square in its fretted wainscoting; the second today is presented in a rectangular format. This rectangular shape is recent: until the 19th century, the work had been inscribed in an oval, whose point marks can still be perceived in places. To go from this oval to a rectangular form, the edges of the picture were unfolded and the released corners repainted in monochrome shades in the 20th century. The picture also was relined, maybe at the same time as its shape was changed. More recently, apparently in 2006, varnish was removed from the picture, and this process caused – as is often the case with Boucher – the relative loss of transparent glazes nourished by brown and red pigments which the artist always used by drowning them in varnish so as to give depth and flesh tones. Under these recent varnishes, the restorer-conservator Catherine Polnec confirms having found the whole to be in a good state of conservation and a beautiful overall technical quality in keeping with what is known of the artist’s excellent craftsmanship.
Once this issue of modern varnish has been removed, she confirmed that, aside from the four modified corners, the whole picture is by the same hand and, judging from its original canvas and the pigments used, from the 18th century. Aside
from the quality of the hand, various elements stand out in the comparison between the two versions which confirm that the second version could be an autograph work. Thus the fretwork of the paneling for the first version of Flora for Madame de Pompadour hides various motifs which are masterfully placed here: the lengthening of the legs of Flora’s follower in conformity with Boucher’s drawings of the same subject; the equilibrium of the yellow drapery on which Flora is seated despite her larger size; the crown of flowers together with its underlying placement still visible under the floral decoration; freedom in the decor of clouds and trees – one sees above Flora’s head, for example, leaves hiding part of a light white cloud; and especially the importance given in the foreground to the bouquet of very well executed large acanthus leaves, [something] very frequent in Boucher since the years around 1735 but [which] does not exist at all in the other painting.
Along with this liberty in relation to the first painting, a very precise knowledge of the Pompadour Flora can be noticed, for example, in the mention of a light ribbon forming a crown between Flora’s fingers although the ribbon is difficult to see, a fact which makes it possible to affirm that the second version was made with full knowledge of the first. Aside from the existing additions in the second picture, several differences can be seen in the handling [of the brush] in the parts directly taken from one to the other, for example, in the detail of the flowers or the leaf décor on the left, or the follower’s left breast. This ease in brushing the same motifs a little differently expresses the painter’s freedom in relation to his model, a fact which definitively orients [us] to an original version and not a copy. The rapidity of the brushstroke which is visible everywhere (blouse sleeve, yellow drapery, blue on the knee), the density of the brush and the underlying placement still visible in places (Flora’s leg) also tend in the sense of a second original.
The pigments utilized are those of Boucher’s ordinary palette: if the reds added around the fingers to mark flesh tones are slightly weakened by the devarnishing in the 2000s, Boucher’s whole palette can be found in the rest of the painting, especially these blacks which the artist mastered perfectly, as opposed to his contemporaries, as well as these very efficient whites, falling from above first on Flora’s shoulders, and then on the follower’s breast and the legs of the two women. Concerning the detail of placing whites, the contour of the leaves evokes the artist’s vegetal drawings in which the edge of leaves in light is solely handled in whites. In general, the finesse in handling details, as well as the differentiation of the medium, have a remarkable expressivity: for example, one notes the lightness of Flora’s hair curled over her forehead; the elegance of the bouquet barely posed in her hand, except for a red flower which echoes the other reds in the picture (flowers, lips and cheeks of the two women, hair ribbon, nipples), the rapidity of brushstroke expressing the follower’s blond hair by drawing a thick brush the full length to differentiate Flora’s much finer black hair from the blondes; the touch of white in the eye; the suppleness of Flora’s shoulder in which her contour oscillates gently under the brush; the lightness and frothiness of this same brush in the draperies of the lower part…
Despite enlargement, recent relining and devarnishing, the whole merits being re-established as an autograph work. The harmonious presence of elements which are absent from the other picture, the many variations between the two, the detail of effects, the particular use of certain pigments, the placement of shadows, the real freedom of execution all lead to seeing a second original version. François Boucher realized many second versions at the request of collectors, shortly after producing the first picture;1 these first and second versions are not necessarily signed;
1 F. Joulie, “Motiv, Kopie und Replik in Werk von Boucher,” Francois Boucher, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, 2020, pp. 324 - 329.
the second generally has neither under-drawing nor pentimenti, because done entirely by memory, a fact which explains certain slight variations which a servile copyist would have obviously avoided.
It is difficult to say where the 18th century picture was located, especially as its dimensions and format have changed. It was probably a picture inserted into fretted wooden paneling or wainscoting.