EROTIC or PORNOGRAPHIC?
The TLS n.º 5324, April 15, 2005
Flesh from the Butcher
How to distinguish eroticism from pornography
François Boucher could load any wall, ceiling, door-surround, or casement with as much human flesh as it could accommodate, while never producing an effect of grossness or obscenity. Female busts swim freely in his blue-green ethers, and female bottoms swing into view from his flowing fronds of drapery, their dimples caressed into life by adoring brush-strokes — yet almost never does any of this transgress the limits of decency. Boucher is one of the few painters who were able to display women as a physical type, without also displaying them as sexual objects. This was both his strength and his weakness, and it is worth remarking on the weakness first, since it will help us to understand the nature and scope of his real achievement.
Human beings are alone among the animals in revealing their individuality in their faces. The mouth that speaks, the eyes that gaze, the skin that blushes, all are signs of freedom, character and judgement, and all give concrete expression to the uniqueness of the self within. The great portrait will ensure that these high points of bodily expression reveal not just the momentary thoughts but the long-term intentions, the moral stance and the self-conception of the individual that shines in them. And when a great painter addresses the reclining female nude that most challenging of all artistic enterprises, in which the painter must show the body in all its allure while ensuring that you are nor allured by it - he must use the face to control our emotions towards the body.
As Kenneth Clark pointed out, in his celebrated study of the nude, the reclining Venus marks a break with antiquity, when the goddess was never shown in a horizontal position. The reclining nude shows the body not as a statue to be worshipped but as a woman to be loved. Even in the “Venus of Urbino” — the most provocative of Titian’s female nudes — the lady draws our eyes to her face, which tells us that this body is on offer only in the way that the woman herself is on offer, to the lover who can honestly meet her gaze. To all others the body is out of bounds, being the intimate property of the gaze that looks out from it. The face individualizes the body, possesses it in the name of freedom, and condemns all covetous glances as a violation. The Titian nude neither provokes nor excites, but retains a detached serenity — the serenity of a person, whose thoughts and desires are not ours but hers.
Boucher’ s nudes are not individualized by their faces. As a matter of fact, they all have the same face, which is not a face at all, but an assemblage of facial parts. The lips just slightly apart as though in anticipation of a kiss; the clear eyes under lowered lashes; the oval contours filled with flushing cheeks — all such features, brilliantly displayed from every angle and in every light, carry a single meaning, which is that of sexual desire. The eyes look at things -— but only inconsequential things in the picture. No soul shoots out from them, no gaze questions or troubles or enraptures: all is fixed in its stillness — time stillness of creatures too abstract to take ownership of life. The nereids in “The Birth of Venus”, for example, are not distinct from the goddess; all are one woman, and also infinitely many -separate instances of a universal, whose utter vacuousness of expression derives from the fact that universals, unlike individuals, have nothing in particular to express. The same goes for Boucher’s men, who were of less interest to him as forms, since his art was an art of caresses, but which nevertheless were needed to substantiate the joy and frivolity of the females as they gambol in places that are overlooked and protected as though by some firm masculine presence.
Now there are many painters whose repertoire of faces is reducible to one or at most a handful: Pontormo, for example, maybe Perugino, Puvis de Chavannes; even Renoir. But none of them encounters the problem that effectively ruins Boucher’s claims to be a great painter, which is that of presenting the erotic as a moral force. “The Birth of Venus” is derivative, and owes everything to Raphael’s great “Triumph of Galatea” in the Farnesina. Everyone will agree, however, that it is a stunning composition, and most people will recognize the naturalness of the poses and the case with which the lines both shimmer with movement and remain serenely at rest. Boucher’s painting is a picture of repose, and an adoration of the female body — at least as this body was esteemed in eighteen-century France, translucent skin, firm girlish breasts, and a ripple of fat around the thighs. Yet there is no one there! These bodies are unowned, dis-souled, not even the bodies of animals, since they contain the universal template of a human face, voided of time self that animates and redeems it.
It is tempting to compare the painting with its famous predecessor. Botticelli’s “Venus” is, from the anatomical point of view, a misshapen caricature, held together by no skeletal structure or muscular tension, a helpless appendage to the face that looks out so wistfully, not at the viewer but past him — and yet who cares? This is a face dreamed of, longed for, unforgettable, the face of an idealized woman — and therefore not the face of any mortal, but a face all the same, and one that both individualizes and mystifies. Not that we should think of Botticelli’s Venus as erotic: this is an early Renaissance Venus, who moves in heavenly spheres, and is outside the reach of mortal longings. And that is why the painting is so haunting: this woman for whom we can feel only desire, lies beyond the reach of desire as we have known it.
A yet more telling contrast is to be found in the reclining Venuses of Titian to which I referred earlier. Here we are no longer in the heavenly realm, but very much on earth, although an earth of domestic safety and conjugal passion. The face of a Titian nude is that of an individual woman, who has taken possession of her surroundings, and is decidedly at home in them. She reclines among her drapes in full confidence of her personal right to them, immersed in a life that is larger, deeper, more inscrutable than the moment alone. Her body is revealed to us, but she does not show it to us —- she is not as a rule conscious of being watched, save perhaps by a dog or a cupid whose calm unembarrassability merely emphasizes the fact that voyeurs cannot trouble her peace of mind, which is also a peace of body. Even when a voyeur of sorts is present — as in the famous “Reclining Venus with Organist”, in which the organist seems to focus his gaze on the woman’s sex — the woman herself remains serene and indifferent. The Venus is not in a state of excitement, nor does she have cause for shame. She is at one with her body, and this at-oneness is portrayed in her face. Sexual shame changes the contours of the female body and is revealed in both face and limb, as Rembrandt shows so brilliantly in his depiction of “Susannah and the Elders”. Set this beside the Titian and you will quickly see that the body in Titian’s picture is neither on offer nor withdrawn, but simply at case in its freedom, a person revealed in her flesh.
It is hard to describe the effect of a Titian Venus in words. Although the body is beautiful and desirable, its pose is not sexual but on the contrary restrained and at peace with itself. Anne Hollander has written in Seeing Through Clothes of the extent to which the nude, in our tradition, is not naked but unclothed: it is a body marked by the shapes and materials of its normal covering. In Titian the body is at rest just as it would be if it were protected from our gaze by a veil of clothing: it is a body under invisible clothes. We no more detach it from the face or the personality than we would detach the body of a woman fully dressed. And by painting the body in this way Titian overcomes its nature as forbidden fruit. This effect would vanish were time face to be replaced by an off-the-shelf stereotype of the kind used by Boucher. In Boucher the face is a pointer to the body, which is its raison d’être. In Titian it is not exactly the other way round: for certainly the emotion of the painting resides in the flesh tints, the light, softness and promise of the full female form. But in Titian the face keeps vigil over this form, quietly asserting ownership and removing it from our reach. This is erotic art, but in no way concupiscent art: Venus is not being shown to us as a possible object of our own desire. She is being withheld from us, integrated into the personality that quietly looks from those eyes amid which is busy with thoughts and desires of its own.
When Manet famously painted the boulevardienne of nineteenth-century Paris in the pose of a Titian Venus (‘Olympia”), his intention was not to present her body as a sexual object, but to reveal another and more hardened kind of subjectivity. The hand on time thigh here is not the hand that Titian paints, schooled in innocent caresses and resting with a fairy touch: this is a raw, tough hand that deals in money, that grips far more readily than it strokes, and which is used to fending off cheats, nerds and perverts. The knowing expression neither offers the body nor withholds it, but nevertheless has its own way of saying that this body is wholly mine. Olympia addresses time viewer with a shrewd appraising look that is anything but erotic, and the great bouquet deferentially presented by the servant shows how futile is to approach such a woman with romantic gestures. Manet has captured an intense moment of individualization which is related, albeit ironically, to the moment of individualization in the Titian Venus. We are presented with this woman’s body through the lens of her own awareness.
Consider, by way of contrast, the “Blonde Odalisque” by Boucher (see the cover of this issue) — a painting in which all his very great skill is once again displayed, but which has neither the reticence that I have attributed to the Titian nor the blatant challenge of the Manet. It is not merely that the face is the normal factory product, or even that it is turned from us and staring vacantly away. It is that the interest of the figure lies entirely in the pose, which is not that of a woman wearing invisible clothes, but of a woman consciously exposing her body. No woman would ever lie like this under clothes: this is the pose of someone who is both naked and conscious of her nakedness and of what is revealed by it. This body does not speak to us, as Titian’s does, of mature adult love, of conjugal emotion and the safety of home. Nor does it speak of the tough bargains struck in the boulevard, and the shrewd hardened soul that they generate. It speaks of sex, with no before or after, no anxiety, no fear for the morrow. And we see this in the very flesh tints, which are all surface and youth and without the premonition of ageing that you see in Titian’s creamy textures or in Manet’s strong firm hand.
Such a painting raises interesting questions about the nature of erotic art, and about the erotic itself, as a moral and aesthetic category. Boucher’s skill was not as an artist, but as a decorator, someone who could close off socially significant spaces with equally significant walls. His images perfectly lend themselves to their social purpose, which is to neutralize all troubling thoughts, to turn us back to our pleasures, and to remind us that peace, abundance and sensual comfort are legitimate objects of pursuit and there for the taking. He achieves this effect not in spite of his failure to individualize his figures but because of it. Each painting tells a story that is consciously presented as the story of everyone and therefore the story of no one. This is what the human condition looks like, when all traces of the individual destiny have been boiled away. The viewer who looks deeply into a painting like the “Mars and Venus”, with Vulcan discovering his wife in flagrante delicto, would see nothing there, save the plain facts of the case. No new insight into war or weaponry or passion; no troubling awareness of the infidelity that lies dormant in the purest desire; no recognition of the masculine will that cannot be resisted, or the feminine wiles that contrive to give it room — none of the moral ideas that have been displayed through this scene make the slightest impression on Boucher. These figures are merely the universal human types, from whom all doubt and deliberation have been vaporized away. Encountering such a panel at the end of an avenue of rooms, the viewer is neither arrested in his thought nor prompted to some gust of sympathy. He finds in the painting only the genial recognition of his own indistinguished enjoyments, heightened by the gorgeous setting, twirled into a rococo cream cake, but containing neither judgement nor invitation beyond the mild and generalized endorsement of things as they are.
This is a social art par excellence, art that does nothing to beckon to the individual in a crowded room and to call him to look deep into himself. It is the painterly equivalent of Tafelmusik, the perfect background to the work of high society, offering the images and scenes that will shape time words and gestures of the people who congregate in its aura. The wit, elegance and decorative refinement of the court of Versailles and of the rising Parisian bourgeoisie were great achievements, jeopardized by the ideas gaining currency among the philosophes, but high points of civilization which have left a permanent mark on the art, literature and philosophy of modern times. This supremely crafted society was greatly in need of a Boucher, whose role was to end all vistas with a comforting endorsement of its games. And Boucher’s mastery of composition and form had the effect of securing the fluttering tracery of smiles and caresses, like an anchor cast from a balloon. His was not a vaporous art, but a robust addition to the human comedy, a strong tie to earthly realities, which was conveyed in the perfect balance of forms and harmony of colours.
But Boucher’s art raises, in a visual context, the troubling question of the erotic. It is a seductive art, and its theme is seduction. Yet seduction is also a transgression, a use of the other which also discards the other once used. The question raised by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedo remains as pertinent today as it was in ancient Greece: what place is there, in sexual desire, for the individual object? Seen as a merely physical urge, desire can be equally satisfied by any member of the relevant sex. In which case the individual cannot be its true object, since he or she is merely an instance of the universal man or woman. Seen as a spiritual force, however, desire is equally indifferent to the individual. If the individual is targeted, it is on account of his beauty: and beauty is a universal, which can be neither consumed nor possessed but only contemplated. Either way the individual drops out of consideration as irrelevant – physical desire doesn’t reach him, and erotic love transcends him.
Plato made a distinction (drawing on ancient myth) between Aphrodite Urania and Aphrodite Pandemos – the exalted Venus of the heavens, whose gift is love, and the vulgar Venus of our earthly appetites, whose gift is desire. Medieval poets and philosophers, who saw sexual desire as a fundamental challenge to the Christian or Islamic world-view, were tempted by a version of the Platonic idea, that in erotic love we are invited to transcend the material realm. For such thinkers, the beauty of the beloved points beyond the body to a union of souls; and this union of individuals is also a dissolution of individuality in the universal love of God. In both Plato’s version and that of the medievals the incarnate individual vanishes as the object of love, etherealized into a discarnate smile like Beatrice in the Paradiso.
Gradually, in the aftermath of the Renaissance, the Platonic view of our condition lost its appeal, and erotic feelings began to be represented in art, music and poetry for what they are. In Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis the goddess of love has definitely fallen to earth, becoming not merely a symbol of physical passion, but also a victim of it. Milton takes up the story in his portrait of Adam and Eve: a representation of “the rites mysterious of connubial love”, in which the body is all-important, not as an instrument, but as the physical presence of the rational soul. The body is not etherealized in the smile; rather the smile is realized in the body, though “smiles from Reason flow, and are of love the food”, as Milton puts it. So are Adam and Eve fully carnal beings, “emparadised in one another’s arms”. Milton’s aim was not to divide the goddess of love as Plato had divided her, but to show sexual desire and erotic love as intricately connected, each made whole and legitimate by the other. Dryden in England, and Racine in France, likewise portrayed erotic love as it is, a predicament of individuals, for whom will, desire and freedom are all made of flesh. Such writers recognized the erotic as a kind of crux in the human condition, a mystery with which our earthly destiny is entwined, and from which we cannot escape without sacrificing some part of our nature and our happiness. The early Florentine Renaissance, however, remained true to the medieval and Platonist conception of the erotic. In this respect, the distance between Dante and Milton parallels the distance between Botticelli and Titian. While the Platonist mind of the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance conceives the object of desire as a premonition of the eternal, the modern mind sees the object of desire as both rational and mortal, with all the poignant and grief-implying helplessness that stems from this.
The ascent of the soul through love, which Plato describes in the Phaedo, is symbolized in the figure of Aphrodite Urania, and this was the Venus painted by Botticelli, who was incidentally an ardent Platonist and member of the Platonist circle around Pico della Mirandola. Botticelli’s Venus is not erotic: she is a vision of heavenly beauty, a visitation from other and higher spheres, and a call to transcendence. The post-Renaissance rehabilitation of sexual desire laid the foundations for a genuinely erotic art, an art that would display the human being as both subject and object of desire, but also as a free individual whose desire is a favour consciously bestowed. This you find in Boucher’s early work, and in particular in the famous, indeed notorious “Hercules and Omphale”, a vision – to the Platonist – of Aphrodite Pandemos (Venus Naturalis) at work, but to the natural philosopher of the Enlightenment a vision of men and women as they are.
Such a work of art might lead us to raise what has become, to my mind, one of the most important questions confronting art and the criticism of art in our time: that of the difference, if there is one, between erotic art and pornography. In distinguishing the erotic and the pornographic, it seems to me, we are really distinguishing two kinds of interest: interest in the sexual subject and interest in the sexual object. Normal desire is an interpersonal emotion. Its aim is a free and mutual surrender, which is also a uniting of two individuals, of you and me – through our bodies, certainly, but not merely as our bodies. We desire each other not as objects but as subjects. Normal desire is a person-to-person response, one that seeks the self-hood that it gives. That is why decency and decorum are so important –they offer at every stage a guarantee that it is the person and not just the body that is desired. Obscenity intrudes when the person is, so to speak, eclipsed by the body. The obscene thought is the one that makes the person vanish behind the body, so that the body becomes an instrument, replaceable by any other that would do the job. That is a familiar experience and also a temptation lurking in the wings of desire. Objects can be substituted for each other, subjects not. Subjects are free individuals and ends in themselves; and the art of seduction is to target the subject, even while outlining the body in a physical caress.
That is what Boucher is trying to display in the “Hercules and Omphale”. The kiss symbolizes the mutual surrender of subjects. Kisses are offered from face to face, from mouth to mouth, from an active, will-governed, speech-filled organ through which the soul reveals itself, to another such. Of course there are lascivious kisses, even obscene kisses, in which the interest in flesh takes over. But that is not what Boucher seeks to portray. These two are lost in each other, and only the hand that grasps Omphale’s breast offends against decency.
Decency protests against the other kind of sexual interest – the interest in the sexual object. This interest is always incipiently present when we are in the position of the spectator – even if the people we observe are merely imagined, as in a painting. Hercules’ hand clutches greedily, but hides the breast and deflects our gaze from it. We waver between the perception of this as a woman giving herself to her lover’s embrace, and the perception of it as a breast, anyone’s breast, an object to be fondled.
Interest in the sexual object is both curious and literal-minded. It is not content with metaphors and allusions, but hungers for the thing itself. This is because the sexual object, unlike the sexual subject, is transferable. I too can possess it, if only in fantasy; and while the subjective desire of Jill for Jack means nothing to me, I can fantasize about Jill’s body, release it, in my thinking, from Jill’s subjectivity, and refashion it as the object of my own desire. Fantasy therefore insists on the explicit picture, the meticulous outline of body parts, the objectification of all that can be gaped at and groped for. For fantasy is at war with the sexual subject, and seeks to put the object in its place.
Coleridge made a famous distinction between fancy and imagination, the first being a kind of errant abstraction from realities, the second a way of perceiving and understanding them. We might make a similar distinction in the context of the artistic representation of sex. Fantasy seeks to refashion the world as the compliant object of my desires – a world in which there is no Other, but only me and my greed, and in which other human forms are objects obedient to my will. Imagination, by contrast, is alert to the world, and in particular to the subjects who inhabit it and who lay absolute limits to my own demands. My imaginative understanding of Jill refuses to envision her body as an object, still less as an object available to me; I understand her as a creature with desires of her own, freely bestowed on others.
Here we begin to understand the difference between pornography and erotic art. The first addresses a fantasy interest, the second addresses an interest of the imagination; hence the first is explicit and depersonalized, while the second invites us into the subjectivity of another person and relies on suggestion and allusion rather than explicit display. For this reason the interest in pornography is more easily aroused and satisfied by photographs, and especially by films of real-life performances, than by paintings. And decency, needless to say, is no part of the drama. Close-ups of sexual organs, without any attempt to attach them to a subject or to elicit sympathy for a human predicament, are the preferred idiom, since these accomplish the complete eclipse of the subject by the object, and the complete realization of the fantasy emotion, which is not the emotion of those displayed in the picture, but the emotion (if emotion it can be called) of the observer. In a real sense, therefore, pornography is, or intends to be, arousing.
Nothing like that is true of erotic art. Its intention is not to arouse the viewer, but at most to portray the sexual desire of the people pictured in it. Hence erotic art veils its subject matter, in order that desire should not be traduced and expropriated by the observer. This explains the sheet in Boucher’s “Hercules and Omphale” – not much of a veil, certainly, but better than nothing. And the supreme achievement of erotic art is to cause the body to veil itself, so to speak – to make the flesh itself into an expression of the decency that forbids the voyeur, so that the subjectivity of the nude is revealed even in those parts of the body that are outside the province of the will. This is what Titian achieves, and the result is an erotic art that is both serene and nuptial, an art that removes the body completely from the sullying interest of the voyeur. The Titian nude is always a sexual subject, never a sexual object.
Here we return to Boucher’s “Blonde Odalisque”. It is quite clear that this painting has transgressed the bounds of decency as Titian would have perceived them. This for several reasons. First, the rather obvious one of the pose. Other painters before Boucher had made the buttocks of the female nude into the centre of significance in a painting: Velázquez’s famous “Rokeby Venus” in the National Gallery is one particularly striking example, which compounds its offence by obscuring the face of Venus, and showing her looking at her own reflection in a mirror. A suffragette found this painting so offensive that she stabbed the bum repeatedly with an umbrella – “because it is so stupid”, she said, when questioned. An inappropriate response, we might think, but an understandable one too. For, without the face, the gaze and the self-conscious perspective, human flesh is as stupid as a sack of flour.
Velázquez’s painting is in fact a subtle and evocative composition that entirely captures the eye. The flesh tints are Titianesque, and the pose of the nude is relaxed and domestic. Like Titian’s Venuses she is lying as she might when dressed, and her clothes lie invisibly over her. Only the standpoint from which she is viewed can be called provocative; but provocation is no part of her aim. She is not showing herself to you, but looking at her own face in a mirror. Turn now to Boucher’s Odalisque, and you will see how very different is the artistic intention. This woman has adopted a pose that she could never adopt when dressed. It is a pose which has little or no place in ordinary life outside the sexual act, and it draws attention to itself, since the woman is looking vacantly away and seems to have no other interest. (Even when she turns her face half towards us, as in the “Brunette Odalisque” in the Louvre, the effect is the same, of a vacant sense of her body’s exposure.)
But there is another way in which Boucher’s painting touches, however gently, against the bounds of decency, and this is in the complete absence of any reason for the Odalisque’s pose within the picture. Omphale’s desire for Hercules is real and vivid in the canvas; but so too is its object. This desire is their affair, not ours, and the artist is not in the business of arousing us, even if arousal is what he shows. The Odalisque is, however, alone in the picture, looking at nothing in particular, engaged in no other act than the one we see. The place of the lover is absent and waiting to be filled: and you are invited to fill it.
Of course there are differences between the Odalisque and the tits and bums on page three. One is the general difference between painting and photography – the first being a representation of fictions, the second a presentation of realities. A lot hangs on that direction, as I have tried to show elsewhere. The least that can be said is that the bum on page three is as real as they come and interesting for that very reason. The second difference is connected, namely, that we need know nothing of the Odalisque in order to appreciate Boucher’s intended effect, save what the picture tells us. There was a model who posed for this canvas; but we understand the canvas neither as a portrait of her nor as a painting about her. The bum on page three has a name and address. Very often the accompanying text tells you something about the girl herself, helps you forward with the fantasy of making love to her. For many people, with reason I think, this makes a decisive moral difference between the page-three image and a painting like Boucher’s. The woman on page three is being packaged in her sexual attributes, and placed in the fantasies of a thousand lubricious strangers. She may not mind this – presumably she doesn’t. But in not minding she shows how much she has already lost. No one is degraded by Boucher’s painting, since no one real occurs in it. This woman doesn’t have a name and address, nor is there anything else to be known of her: she is a figment, constructed with the help of a model, but in no sense identical with any real human being.
Having said that, I should add a qualification. For, in fact, Boucher’s painting used to go under the title of “Miss L. O’ Murphy”, and the ardent connoisseur would have had no difficulty in finding Miss O’Murphy’s address, since she was a favourite of the French King, kept for his pleasure in the Parc aux Cerfs: sure, such a one would not be interested in the picture and its meaning, so much as in the woman who modelled for it. The picture for him would be not an end in itself or an aesthetic object, but a means to fantasize about Miss O’Murphy. The possibility is therefore always there, that someone might once have taken a page three interest in these erotic canvases of Boucher. And clearly they did, or the apocryphal but salacious stories about this picture and Miss O’Murphy – indeed the two Misses O’Murphy, since it seems that Louise had a sister called Victorine – would not have come down to us.
It is difficult to find your way through the moral mass of soft pornography. In a time like ours, when explicit images of the most blatant kind are available at the touch of a keyboard, when hard-core pornography is protected by the United States Supreme Court as “free speech”, and when human sexuality is discussed as though modesty, decency and shame were nothing more than harmful illusions, it is hard to be disapproving towards page three. What harm does it do? Such is the natural response, and when provoked by the censorious jawings of feminists such as Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon it is a response with which you can sympathize. Nevertheless we should not deceive ourselves, as some commentators do, into thinking that the interest directed towards page three is an interest in beauty, in an ideal of womanhood, or in some higher value. On the contrary, the all-important feature of the girl on page three is that she is real, luscious and on display as a sexual object. Even if the attitude towards her is muted, and even if she fills some compensating function in a life deprived of real sexual enjoyment, we should not believe that she competes in the realm of aesthetic interest – not even for the interest directed towards Boucher’s “Blonde Odalisque”. Boucher’s canvas lies on the dividing line between the aesthetic and the sexual, allowing our thoughts to stray into forbidden territory but not provoking them with the knowledge that causes the jump from imagination to fantasy, and from the aesthetic appreciation of female beauty to the desire to embrace the particular instance of it.
Modern moralizers, looking back on the France of Louis XV, are apt to denigrate it as an era of frivolity, sensuality and sexual excess. This would be to mistake the true source of the feeling in a painting like Boucher’s, which is no different from the source of feeling in his charming – if somewhat vapid – pastorals, in which shepherds and shepherdesses carry on their wooing as though they were as free to fulfil their desires, and as little bound by material needs, as the aristocracy for whose benefit they were put on display. Such paintings are not designed to tell us that all is permitted, or to advertise desire as a source of merely physical pleasure. They are there to remind us of the place of the erotic in human life, its nature as a human universal, and the joys that it may bring when rightly used. These shepherds and shepherdesses are certainly not sexual objects in the manner of the girls on page three, and not only because they are imaginary beings. The libertinage of early eighteenth-century France was elegant and stylized, and had little or nothing in common with the pornographic culture of our times.
It is true that there was, prior to the French Revolution, a reaction among the literary and fashionable classes against the libertine culture of the age of Louis XV – the reaction typified by Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse and, in another sense, by Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses. But this was not a reaction in favour of puritan mores, nor did it accuse the age of Louis XV of the kind of degradation of human sexuality of which we might legitimately accuse Western societies today. It was a reaction against the légèreté and insouciance of a society that was reluctant in its assessment of love to subtract the costs of sexual pleasure from the benefits. Yet we should remember that the society that produced Boucher also produced the Abbé Prévost and Manon Lescaut – a novel which displays the reality of sexual desire, both as a source of supreme pleasure, and as a trapdoor through which the unsuspecting fall to their ruin. What Boucher shows us, in his pastorals, is a society in which seduction rather than marriage is the turning point in sexual relations, the moment of supreme delight. But he also shows that seduction is possible only where there is also modesty, decency, hesitation and the assiduous cultivation of the charms that overcome those obstacles.
Boucher’s shepherds and shepherdesses are likewise in the business of charming each other – an enterprise advanced by the unreal cleanliness and absurd overdress of their bodies, and even by the shampooed sheep against which Théophile Gautier protested. And the painter shows that seduction, between shepherds in the fields as much as between aristocrats in palaces, depends on a context of decency and restraint, in which desire does not immediately rush to its conclusion by sweeping aside the sexual subject and putting the sexual object in its place. To express the point in another way, Boucher lived in a society insulated by its own graces from the pornographic view of human sex. This is what enabled him, indeed, to treat sex so lightly – and I mean the term “lightly” as a term both of condemnation and of praise.
None of that is to suggest that we should take Boucher seriously as a painter of the human condition, even if we do not go as far as Diderot in dismissing him as a vapid libertine. For all the reasons that I have adumbrated, Boucher was unable to show the human soul as it is, or to convey the depth and the consequence of our social emotions. He was a wonderfully accomplished embellisher of a society he preferred not to examine. We know that he thought seriously about painting, and studied hard. He belonged to the circle of thinkers around the Comte de Caylus, who is notable for his writings on art – and on the art of painting in particular. It was Caylus’s views about how to paint scenes from Homer and Virgil that got Lessing sufficiently worked up to write the great Laocoön – the first serious treatise of aesthetics in the German Romantic tradition. But this eager involvement in the thought and culture of his time did not, in Boucher’s case, lead to any desire to stand back from it, or to wonder where it all might lead. Instead, he painted it into the background, sprayed it onto the walls and ceilings of every salon, so as to endow with an air of permanence what was by its very nature the most temporary form of human life.
This is a slightly edited version of a lecture given at the Wallace Collection last month, concluding the series of TLS lectures on Boucher and his background. The Boucher exhibition at the Wallace Collection, London, continues until Sunday, April 17.