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Boucher, Madame de Pompadour

François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, oil on canvas, 1750 (extention of canvas and additional painting likely added by Boucher later, Fogg Museum. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're looking at Francois Boucher's The Marquise de Pompadour. SPEAKER 2: So and I have to, before we go into this, just say that I don't really like rococo paintings, but I really like this one. There's something really beautiful about it. SPEAKER 1: So what is it? SPEAKER 2: I'm taken in by the pink ruffles, and the lace, and the cameo on her wrist, and the pouf that she's using to powder herself, and the flowers on the bottom, and the pink of her cheeks, and the blue bow in her hair, and the little pink at the end of the brush that she's using to put on her blush. I mean, it's just really yummy. SPEAKER 1: OK, so let's talk about those things for just a moment, because they really do catch the eye. The lace and the pink ribbons have a kind of almost architectural quality to them that's really extraordinary. SPEAKER 2: Yeah, they have a kind of real volume to them. SPEAKER 1: They have volume and structure. And you can feel the weight and the stiffness of the fabric. And the pouf is the opposite of that. And there's tremendous focus, of course, on the cameo on her wrist, because it's a portrait of her lover. SPEAKER 2: King Louis the XV. SPEAKER 1: That's right, of France. But then contrast that with the rendering of her face, of her head, which is sort of impossibly soft and sort of re-formed. Look at the size of the eyes in comparison to the size of the mouth. She's become a child. SPEAKER 2: That's true. I hadn't thought of that. SPEAKER 1: It's almost as if we're looking at Japanese cartoons. What are those called? SPEAKER 2: Anime. I mean, it's certainly not about her personality, and who she was, and her humanity in any real way. SPEAKER 1: No, it's her persona, right? SPEAKER 2: Yes, it's her persona. And that's, to me, that's what the whole painting is about. It's just about artifice. It's like the artifice of the French court in the 18th Century, in the rococo period. It's about the artifice of the clothing, of the makeup. It's just about surface. SPEAKER 1: It's true. But this is a very intimate kind of surface, isn't it? And so-- SPEAKER 2: Well, that it's the king's lover-- in that way? SPEAKER 1: Yeah, and also just the sense of proximity. We feel-- SPEAKER 2: That's true. We're very close to her. SPEAKER 1: Yeah, we feel as if we can reach out. SPEAKER 2: We're her best friend, and she's about to share an intimate secret. SPEAKER 1: That's exactly right. But then her eye rises up across her wrist, over the portrait of her lover, across her breast, up to her neck. And then finally we get to her face, which seems sort of almost remote. SPEAKER 2: The first thing that I noticed was all of those accessories of artifice. And then I looked at her face. I read the label. OK, this is the mistress to Louis XV. And then I thought, who is this woman? I looked at her face for clues. And I didn't get anything. SPEAKER 1: Yeah, the sense of clarity with which the artifice, as you put it, is painted against the softness and the indeterminacy of her individuality is, I think, clearest in the collar. Look how incredibly crisp, almost frozen, that collar is, and then look at the softness. But there is this wild sense of indeterminacy and mystery, I think.