This joyful scene of countryside delights is one of the most enchanting late creations by the great master of French rococo painting, François Boucher. With a spirited brush and much wit, Boucher distills both the tender innocence and the hedonistic sensuality that came to define the eighteenth-century French pastoral ideal, a genre which Boucher formulated. In the 1740s, soon after his return from Italy and inspired by literary examples, the artist sought to visually transcribe the tales of rustic love that found such success in the poetry and theatre of the day. He took up these light-hearted pleasing subjects again towards the end of his career, in the 1760s, adding more veracity to his depictions of shepherds, now deprived of their previous operatic silk dress and extravagant ribbons unfit for their rural tasks. Yet, far from presenting a realistic vision of peasant struggles, the artist retained a high degree of idealisation: Boucher only painted ‘nature embellished by imagination’ and he wished ‘to transform the history of our countryside into an ingenious novel… it was always as a poet of taste that he painted the countryside’.
The cheerful, youthful and flirtatious rural life that Boucher stages in this picture would have echoed the arcadian fantasies of the sophisticated urban Parisian elite of the day. Overloaded with social conventions and materialistic concerns its members longed to go back to the simple, informal pleasures of the natural world. This yearning for the vie champêtre was perhaps best exemplified a few decades later by Queen Marie-Antoinette, who frequently went to play shepherdess with her close circle of friends in a fantasy farm she had set up in Versailles. These idyllic recreations also captured the imagination of another great figure of the day, the writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Georges Brunel (op. cit.) recognized an unexpected association - at least indirectly, by way of Ponce’s print - between the Cueillette des Cerises and a passage in Rousseau’s autobiography, The Confessions. Though the first volume of his book did not appear until 1782, Rousseau began writing his memoirs in 1765 and he might well have been thinking of Ponce’s popular engraving when he recounted an anecdote concerning cherry-picking in Book Four. In it, he tells of wandering along a country road when he was eighteen, and coming upon two girls who were having difficulties crossing a stream. After assisting them, he was invited by one of the girls to join them for lunch at her house. After the meal, the three decided to pick fruit from the garden. ‘I climbed the tree,’ Rousseau wrote, ‘and tossed down bunches of cherries, from which [the girls] returned pips through the branches. The sight of Mlle. Galley with her apron spread out and her head thrust back was very pleasant; I aimed perfectly so that a cluster fell on her breast; how we laughed!’
Yet Boucher’s vision of bucolic dalliance was slightly more risqué than Rousseau’s - the meaning of the gesture made by the mischievous shepherd in the tree is so obvious as to require no explanation. The erotic charge of such works, along with their idealization of country life was deemed corruptive and false by the influential art critic and enlightened encyclopedist Denis Diderot who complained in his 1761 review of the Salon: ‘That man has everything but truth!’. Yet even the righteous Diderot could not help but recognize the magnetic appeal of Boucher’s pastorals: ‘One cannot leave the picture. It fixes you. One comes back to it. It is such an agreeable vice, an extravagance so inimitable and so rare! There is so much imagination, of effect, of magic and of facility!’
Key to this enduring power of attraction, the seductive spontaneity of the young protagonists is mirrored by the daring freedom of handling adopted by the aging painter. Far from the polished aspect of his pastoral from the 1740s, Boucher carves directly into colour, using thick impasto and a calligraphic touch. Challenging the traditional categories of preparatory oil sketch and finished painting, he creates a dynamic and fresh image that would have appealed to discerning amateurs, eager to own an example of the artist’s improvisational, loosely painted works. In that sense, La Cueillette des Cerises epitomizes Boucher’s exuberant aesthetic of pleasure.