Reclining Girl by François Boucher

Reclining Girl by François Boucher (1751)

There is always some debate with regards paintings and nudity and what is appropriate and what is inappropriate and whether the depiction is merely erotic or crosses the line and becomes pornographic.  There has been much discussion about today’s painting in My Daily Art Display as to whether the female body is being treated as a person or as an object.

My featured artist today is François Boucher a French Rococo painter who was well known for his paintings of voluptuous females which also incorporated classical themes.  Some of his works of art were portraits of the famous Madame Pompadour but what made today’s work somewhat controversial was that his nude painting featured a fourteen year old girl.  Today’s oil on canvas picture entitled Reclining Girl was painted in 1751 and can be seen in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.  There is also a very similar painting featuring this girl, by the same artist, in a similar pose in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  So who is the girl and how did she come to pose naked for the artist?

The girl is Mary-Louise O’Murphy de Boisfaily who was born in Rouen in 1737.  She was the fifth daughter of an Irish army officer who, after her father’s retirement from military service, had taken up shoemaking to bring money into the household.  After her father died her mother took the family to live in Paris where she tried to find work for her daughters and made ends meet by trading second hand clothes.  Mary-Louise finally got work as a dancer at L’Opera and earned some money as a model.    It was around this time that she came into contact with Casanova the famous Venetian adventurer and womaniser and was he, according to his memoirs, who takes the credit for introducing the young girl to both Louis XV of France and the artist Boucher.  Art historians have said that the painting was simply a way of offering herself up to Louis XV as a prospective mistress.  It was almost an advert for her services and this is why, in some quarters, the painting was looked upon as being somewhat degrading and vulgar.   However whatever the intentions of Marie-Louise and Boucher were, it proved successful for she became one of Louis’s courtesans, albeit to start with, not one of his principal courtesans but one of his lower-echelon “companions”.  However through her guile and beauty she soon rose through the “ranks” and became one of the ruler’s favourites.  In 1754 she gave birth to Louis’s illegitimate daughter Agathe Louise de Saint-Antoine.  Marie-Louise remained a favourite of Louis and all would have remained well but she made the fatal error of attempting to oust Madame Pompadour as Louis’s favourite mistress and for that she paid the penalty – banishment from the royal court and at the tender age of 17 was married off to Comte de Beaufranchet.  The marriage did not last very long as her husband was killed in battle.   Marie-Louise married twice more, her last being at the age of sixty-one, to a man some thirty years older her junior but this partnership ended in divorce.  She died in 1814 at the age of 77.  If you want to read more about her life you can as her story was dramatised in the 1997 novel by Duncan Sprott entitled Our Lady of the Potatoes.

The painting is without doubt sexually provocative.   The girl, and we should remember she was barely fourteen years of age, is seen face down, lying naked, splayed on a chaise-longue.   I wonder whether the artist decided that because of her age he should not show her frontally naked.  Her face-down pose however does not detract from the sensuality of the painting and in some way may add to it.  We concentrate our view on the girl’s buttocks and her thighs which are wide apart.   This pose shows the willingness of the model to entertain any sexual overtures from a lover.  This was exactly the message she wanted to give Louis.   One notes the similarity between the curves of her body and the curves and creases of the pillow on which her right leg rests and which pushes upwards separating her thighs.   It is a sumptuous setting with the heavy velvet drapes and the silk bedding.

It is a painting you will either like and find it beautifully erotic or you will hate it and condemn it as just another form of pornography wrapped in the guise of a work of art.  It is simpy up to you as it is all in the eye of the beholder.