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Venus et Amours

CAT 161 Pequegnot after Boucher Venus and Cupids EBC.jpg

CAT 161. Auguste Péquégnot after François Boucher. Venus et Amours. No. 540 in vol. 11 of Péquégnot’s Ornements, Vases et Décorations d’après les Maîtres. Paris: Pierron, 1867. Printed in “sanguine” in Péquégnot’s Twenty engravings in “manière de crayon,” a bound volume at the New York Public Library (n. d.). E. Barton Chapin Jr. Family Collection.

François Boucher (1703-1770) was extremely prolific as a painter, draftsman, engraver, and designer of tapestries. He became director of the Académie Royale in 1765 and was Premier Painter to the King under Louis XV and Madame Pompadour. “More than any other artist,” he “set his stamp on both the fine and the decorative arts of the 18th century” (Laing 511).

The one engraving after Boucher in Melville’s collection had its roots in the apprentice years of the 1720s in which Boucher made more than 100 etchings after crayon drawings by Watteau for the Recueil Jullienne (Wintermute 40). Watteau had made his drawings primarily as studies for paintings in oil, but Boucher realized that such drawings could be created as free-standing works of art, in which he came to specialize. In the engraving that Melville acquired, Auguste Péquégnot (1819-1878) reproduced a chalk drawing by Boucher with the kind of skill and facility that Boucher had shown in his etchings after Watteau. 

Péquégnot excelled in replicating both the color and texture of the crayon technique that Boucher had assimilated from the drawings of Watteau. In the copy of The Wonders of Engraving that Melville acquired in 1875, Georges Duplessis celebrates the finesse of “The French School” in making “fac-simile reproductions of drawings” by Boucher and other followers of Watteau in what came to be known as “the Chalk Style” (“the imitation in engraving of the effect of chalk on the grain of the paper”). This is achieved with “a revolving wheel or roulette,” whose “sharp teeth” are designed to “bite the varnished copper in several places at once” prior to the acting of the “aquafortis.” The engraving is then printed “in red or brown” to “give the appearance of drawings in red or bistre” (285-86, 323). The red, or “sanguine,” in which Melville’s print is printed replicates the color, as well as the texture, of the original chalk drawing.

In 1862 the Goncourt brothers published an essay which helped to rehabilitate the reputation of Boucher (which had been almost totally eclipsed during the Revolutionary period and its immediate aftermath). Although the Goncourts expressed admiration for the entire gamut of the artist’s oeuvre, they declared that “voluptuousness is the essence of Boucher’s ideal” and saw his chalk drawings as equal in importance to his paintings. They saw his most characteristic subjects as those Venuses whose “lovely bodies” he arranges “upon clouds rounded like the necks of swans,” displaying in their “undulating curves, forms that might have been modelled by a caress!” For the viewer, “how completely Desire and Pleasure are incarnate in this light, volatile, perpetually renascent figure!” Surrounding her, “the painter has flung a cloud of cupids . . . naked and mischievous, into the heavens,” the “spoilt children of Boucher’s brush.” In such images of “a goddess flung upon a couch of clouds . . . the real mission, the real achievement of this fluid, liquid art declares itself, an art whose colours the painter’s friends compared to rose petals floating in milk” (Goncourt 65-66, 78).

Melville’s engraving reproduces exactly the kind of imagery of which the Goncourts wrote. Péquégnot had published the image, in black and white, as no. 540 in volume 11 of his Ornements, vases et décorations d’après les maitres in 1867. The contents list for that volume identifies the untitled print as “Panneaux [Figures] d’après Boucher. époque Louis XV.” The copy acquired by Melville was printed in red ink (“sanguine”). So is a copy of the same print at the New York Public Library, no. 14 in its bound volume of Péquégnot’s Twenty engravings in “manière de crayon . . . printed in ‘sanguine,’ for the most part.” Nine of the twenty engravings are after drawings by Boucher, and most of those are of female nudes much less circumspect than the Venus acquired by Melville. The “sanguine” coloring of Melville’s print helps us to see why the Goncourts celebrated the “felicitous accentuations of red chalk” in Boucher’s drawings of the female figure, a “rich facile draftsmanship seeming to tease the flesh” (72). Péquégnot’s “sanguine” reproduction of Boucher’s Venus et Amours gave Melville a splendid companion to his three engravings after Watteau, taking their sublimated earthbound pleasures up into the heavens. If Watteau’s female figures relate to Urania’s unrequited yearning in “After the Pleasure Party,” Boucher’s Venus evokes the amours she has missed.

Urania’s stinging realization of the sensory life she has missed is most keenly expressed in the confession to herself that she will never “forget the glade / Wherein Fate sprung Love’s ambuscade / To flout pale years of cloistral life /And flush me in this sensuous strife” (NN PP 260). The “glade” of “Love’s ambuscade” evokes the setting of Watteau’s painted pleasure parties; the “flush” of “sensuous strife” suggests the voluptuousness of Boucher’s sensuous drawings.

In Clarel, the closest equivalent to the unabashed sensuality of Boucher’s Venus is seen in the Lyonese, the Prodigal who is characterized by his “voluptuous air.” As we have seen, this character draws upon Melville’s own memories of Titian’s paintings (and Venetian women) when he alludes to “Urbino’s ducal mistress fair / Ay, Titian’s Venus, golden warm.” To Titian’s Venus in this passage we can now add Boucher’s Venus in Melville’s print collection.  Warmly roseate in color, she recalls those “damsels” with “rosy feet” who are “Unabashed in Shushan’s bowers” in the “ruddy Hours” of the Prodigal’s parting song (NN C 4.26.231-32, 290-301).