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Religious Paintings by Francois Boucher

Although better known for his sensuous paintings, François Boucher shows a more serious side of his genius, when tackling religious themes in his paintings. Among several completed canvasses and a few sketches some study the popular story of the flight into Egypt and Nativity, while others illustrate stories from both Old and New Testament.

1. Old Testament.

Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert. Boucher illustrates the ‘second’ expulsion of Hagar from the house of Abraham, when she went into the desert with Abraham’s son, Ishmael.

Genesis 21: 14-21 tells the story:

15 And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.
16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.
17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.
18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.’
19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
20 And God was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.
As it often happened in paintings since the Renaissance, Hagar has contemporary headwear, that makes her resemble a 17th c. shepherdess. A Cupid-like Ishmael is lying next to her, and in the foreground there is an empty jug and a small sac with what seem like arrows. There is another sketch on the same topic, more robust, tempestuous, and dramatic.
Joseph Presenting His Father and Brothers to Pharaoh. In this 1723 painting Boucher managed to stay away from the temptation to dress his characters in contemporary clothes, and we see the particular line being illustrated, namely the presention of Joseph’s father. Dr Shimon Kuper has an interesting analysis of this story in the paper for the Bar-Ilan University’s weekly Torah reading.

Joseph went and told Pharaoh, “My father and brothers, with their flocks and herds and everything they own, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in Goshen.” He chose five of his brothers and presented them before Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked the brothers, “What is your occupation?” “Your servants are shepherds,” they replied to Pharaoh, “just as our fathers were.”  They also said to him, “We have come to live here awhile, because the famine is severe in Canaan and your servants’ flocks have no pasture. So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen.” Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you, and the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live in Goshen. And if you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of my own livestock.Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob blessed Pharaoh,  Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?”  And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.”  Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence. (Genesis 47: 1-10).

2. New Testament
The Dream of St. Joseph. All three dreams of St. Joseph were recorded in Gospel of Matthew and refer, in one way or another, to Nativity. In this painting Boucher illustrated the first dream:
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”(Matthew 1: 20-21).

St. John the Baptist and the Easter lamb. One has to forgive Boucher a doze of mannerism in presenting the young St. John. Of course, he looks like one of those cherubic figures in Boucher’s bucolic paintings. On the other hand, one cannot help comparing – rather successfully! – this image of St. John as a child with an earlier one by Parmigianino that depicts Jesus in a very “cherubic” style. As a result, Boucher appears to be continuing with the Renaissance mannerist tradition, rather than merely repeating his own habit of painting putti.

Nativity. Boucher gets very intimate here, positioning the scene in its entirety in the foreground and drawing everyone in to the newborn Jesus. Not only the angels, but animals are watching too. The light goes from left corner (the figure of baby Jesus) to the top of the sketch. The scene transmits adoration and awe at the miracle of life. There is a completed 1758 painting of this scene, reversing Mary with the cradle, letting St. John the Baptist in, and omitting St. Joseph.

The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Adoration of the Magi. Apparently, The Adoration of the Shepherds (1750, left) is also known under the name The Light of the World, which is the phrase Jesus used to describe himself and which was most famously applied by William Holman Hunt to his painting depicting Jesus with a lantern. The Adoration of the Magi (right) came down as a pretty rough sketch; it’s hard to say who’s who about the Magi, although most likely we see Gaspar kneeling, Balthasar next to him, and Melchior is giving the gift to Jesus.
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Here Boucher illustrated the third dream of St. Joseph he received after King Herod died. Jesus and St. John the Baptist are seen playing together in the foreground, St. John wearing the animal skin, and the figure of Jesus glowing with gentle light. Mary is reading, and a small lamb is resting peacefully next to her.

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 2: 19-20).

Baby Jesus and the Infant St. John the Baptist. As above with the baby St. John, here we see both Jesus and St. John as unusually serious putti: St. John and angels attentively listen and contemplate the word of Jesus. In the foreground, half-hidden in the clouds, lies the staff with the banner with the Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei (This is the God’s Lamb).

An Apostle preaching, with figures in the background. Boucher didn’t include any detail in this sketch that could help identify the apostle by name. What is peculiar, is that the 18th c. slowly began to draw attention to the poor, and so the apostle appears barefeet, with greasy hair, in tatters, surrounded by poor folk of different ages.

Read this post on Poverty in Art.

St. Peter attempting to walk on water. The painting depicts the moment of St. Peter getting out of the boat to walk towards Jesus. Once again we see Boucher “faithfully” illustrating Matthew’s Gospel. Although the story of Jesus’s walking on water is told in Mark 6:45-52 and John 6: 16-21, neither of these mention the episode of St. Peter’s attempt to walk towards Christ. Arguably, this is one of the most “biblical” paintings by Boucher in this series of religious canvasses: the spiritual union of the figures in the foreground is palpable, and only small angelic faces remind us of the Rococo period.

Peter, sitting in the boat, shouts out into the darkness: “‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’  So, He said, ‘Come.’ And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him” (Matthew 14:28-31).

And here’s what François Boucher said once about a woman and about the Titans of Renaissance.

Images are courtesy of FrancoisBoucher.org and Olga’s Gallery.

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