This splendid mythological composition, painted the year before Boucher's death and apparently unrecorded and unknown before its appearance on the art market in the early 1990s, is a valuable addition to the corpus of the artist's final works. It depicts the ancient tale of Danaë, a princess who was shut away from the world in a bronze tower by her father Acrisius, king of Argos, when it was foretold that he would be slain by his daughter's son. The ever-amorous Jupiter famously circumvented Acrisius's precautions by visiting Danaë in the form of a shower of gold. As predicted, the offspring of their union, Perseus, would eventually kill his grandfather accidentally with a discus. Boucher's Danaë - who is notable for her cheerful langourousness - reclines in the heavens on an opulent swathe of blue velvet drapery, while Cupid (shown carrying an arrow and a flaming torch, his traditional emblems) and an amoretto look on with amazement at the divine manifestation of Jupiter, who appears in the young woman's bedchamber as a shower of golden coins.
The format of the canvas and broad handling of the paint surface suggest that the painting was intended as an overdoor decoration, though nothing of its original history is known. A careful examination of the surface also indicates that the canvas was originally scalloped in shape, a further indication that it was probably intended to fit into carved boiserie paneling. The shape of the painting was regularized with canvas additions, presumably after it was removed from its original decorative setting. It was first transformed into an oval, then into its present rectangular format in order to make it salable as an independent work of art. However, the painting is fully signed and dated '1769' on the original part of the canvas, not on the later additions.
Even had it been undated, the vigorous, broad paint handling of the Danaë makes evident that it is a work from the very end of Boucher's life, comparable in style, if not ambition, to the great suite of six mythological canvases made in 1769 for the Paris hôtel of Bergeret de Frouville (today divided between the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Likewise, a beautiful black and white chalk study for the figure of Danäe - also unrecorded and newly discovered - can be dated on the basis of its style to the final years of Boucher's life (sold, Sotheby's New York, 26 January 2005, lot 147). Alastair Laing, who confirmed the autograph status of the drawing of Danäe, is less confident about the painting, which he feels may have been executed largely by Boucher's workshop assistants, and then signed and dated by the artist. While it is indisputably true that Boucher had for many years employed an active team of assistants, and probably relied on them increasingly as age and failing eyesight diminished his strength, the fact that Danäe is a unique composition, based on a fully autograph study, and proudly signed and dated by the master strongly indicates that Boucher regarded it as his own, original work.
We are grateful to Alastair Laing for his help in preparing this entry.