Boucher, one of the most imaginative and fluent decorators of his time, was ideally suited to meet the constraints imposed by architects and interior designers in their decorative schemes. Early in his career he had engraved Watteau’s arabesques; later, he designed sets for the Opera and cartoons for the Beauvais tapestry manufactory; and by the mid-1730s he had worked beside Carle Vanloo and Charles Natoire in overdoor decorations for the Hotel de Soubise. By the time he came to paint overdoors for the Hotel de Mazarin in 1738 (two of the series are today in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), his patron, Francoise de Mailly, duchesse de Mazarin, would have seen enough important examples of Boucher’s decorative paintings to be certain that his ideal of elegant stylishness was in sympathy with her own.
The present painting depicting Venus, goddess of Love, reclining in a cloud with her son Cupid nestling beside her, he turning from his quiver of arrows to gaze mischievously at the observer, was no doubt created as an overdoor decoration around 1738 to 1740, the same moment as the Mazarin decorations, as Alastair Laing has observed (written correspondence, 2014). In confirming the attribution to Boucher, Laing notes that the painting has been clearly reduced on all four sides, as was common practice when overdoor paintings – which were usually painted on irregularly shaped canvases, often curvilinear, oval or kidney shaped – were removed from their original boiserie paneling and repurposed as standard, rectangular-format easel paintings. This transformation probably occurred in the nineteenth century when they likely were removed from their original setting.
The painting is a new discovery, recognised as a work by Boucher just in the last year, although it is entirely characteristic of his highly distinctive style in the late 1730s, and indeed is directly comparable in its handling and execution to the two Mazarin paintings in LACMA. No copies of the present painting are known and no preparatory drawings for it have yet come to light. Indeed, nothing is known of the painting’s early history, and Laing has not found any old record of it – not surprising, as he noted, for as an overdoor, it would not have appeared on the market until its original location was demolished or modernised. Almost certainly, it would have been
intended as one of a suite of overdoors for an important room decor, designed in a set of two, four or even more gallant mythological subjects.
The cool blue, pink and cream tones of the palette, the thickly impasted folds of silk and velvet drapery, the striated strokes of paint that give volume and softness to Venus’s voluptuous and compliant flesh could have been painted by no one other than Boucher, as no artist of his era was able to imbue such a scene with both pagan sensuality and deep maternal affection in equal measure and with total conviction. The painting embodies the observation of the art critic Baillet de Saint-Julien, who wrote in the 1740s that Boucher was ‘the most agreeable artist there ever was, the only one worthy to paint Venus, Love and the Graces.’