Perhaps no other artist is so closely associated with French rococo art as François Boucher. A pupil of François Lemoyne, Boucher was to be, like him, a First Painter to the King, a title Boucher received in 1765 during the last decade of his life. Boucher excelled at landscapes, portraits, genre scenes, religious painting, and hunting scenes which he executed with rapidity and great spontaneity. However, it was for his mythologies that he was most prized and is now best remembered. This allowed him and his patrons to indulge their taste in the delectation of the naked female form and erotic scenes and it was Boucher's fluid handling of paint which allowed him to capture the softness and transluscence of young flesh with unrivalled voluptuousness. His patrons were the leading members at the court of Louis XV and included Randon de Boisset, for whom he painted the highly charged Hercules and Omphale (Pushkin Museum, Moscow) in 1734, Madame de Pompadour and the King himself.
The range of Boucher's mythological paintings included single figures of Venus and bathing nymphs, clearly intended to cater to connoisseurs of the female nude, to more complex subject pictures, often executed on a large scale, such as the Rape of Europa painted in 1747 and acquired by the Crown that year (Musée du Louvre). This Judgment of Paris is a mythology whose large scale and complex multi-figural composition puts it amongst Boucher's more ambitious mythologies. The subject was treated on at least three occasions by Boucher: once in a small oval (now lost) painted in 1744 for the Prince de Conti, a second painted in 1754, apparently for Madame de Pompadour (Wallace Collection, London) and this version, dated by Alastair Laing, who has seen it in the original, to the late 1750s. The second-mentioned painting formed part of a suite of four and were painted to decorate Madame de Pompadour's boudoir at the Hôtel de l'Arsenal. They were subsequently removed by Louis XVI who found them indecent.
This painting is closely related to the small oval made for the Prince de Conti (fig. 1). The central figural grouping of Paris kneeling at the feet of Venus offering her the golden apple is almost identical in both compositions. Even the attendants and the doves occupy the same places. However, in this grisaille the composition is far more fully elaborated. Foliage in the background, a river god, a sleeping dog and shepherd's staff to the left and a flock of sheep to the right identifies the scene as Mount Ida. The mischief-making Mercury, organizer of the contest, sits upon a cloud on the left, while the rejected goddesses Juno and Athena are visible to the right. The fall of light, which bathes the figure of Venus, the pyramidal group which leads up to her and the eyes of the protagonists who gaze upon her all proclaim the triumph of love a constant in Boucher's mythological program, no more so than during the 1750s when his influence with Madame de Pompadour was at its zenith. However, even in Venus' moment of glory one senses trouble. Her own expression as she receives her gift is ambivalent. Behind her, dark clouds swirl and the twisting figures, the javelin-bearing putto, foreshadow the conflict - the epic siege of Troy - which follows from this scene.
This beautifully preserved canvas is unusual for its type and scale. Executed almost as a massive drawing in paint, it is brushed in subtle tones of grey, black, white and pink. Such sketches, or grisailles, are not unusual in Boucher's oeuvre, but the scale of this one is unique. Perhaps this was painted as a preparatory design for a tapestry. Boucher had worked as a designer of tapestries as early as 1736 when he was invited to produce designs for the Beauvais factory. He produced in 1737 a series of designs for the Story of Psyche, executed like this in grisaille. In 1755 Boucher was appointed Inspecteur sur les Ouvrages at the Gobelins tapestry factory, replacing Oudry who had recently died. He had already produced unique weavings for Gobelins tapestries for Madame de Pompadour. It is tempting to see this then - what subject could be more appropriate for a regal mistress? - as a full-scale model for a tapestry, perhaps never executed, for Madame de Pompadour, Boucher's most important patron.