The Art of Daily Life in the France of Yesteryear

Daily life is at the center of this exhibition of 18th-century French painting opening on June 14 at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
François Boucher, A Lady on Her Day Bed, 1743. © The Frick Collection

In the 18th century, France’s powerful Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture dictated a strict hierarchy of subject matter, with historical, mythological, and religious scenes at the top, followed by portraiture, landscape, genre, and still life. Today, however, the “lowlier” subjects often resonate more with viewers lacking the knowledge to identify and contextualize battle scenes or biblical references. Genre pictures have the charm of offering a window onto everyday life in a bygone era. The Sweetness of Life: Three 18th-Century French Paintings from The Frick Collection, which opens this month at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, makes that point exquisitely.

The title works represent three of the finest artists of their day: François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Boucher’s A Lady on Her Day Bed (1743) nods playfully at Renaissance depictions of the goddess of love, hence its nickname, “Untidy Venus.” Influenced by 17th-century Dutch painting, Chardin’s serene Lady with a Bird-Organ (ca. 1753) shows a woman cranking a serinette to teach a melody to a canary (serin). Finally, in Greuze’s Wool Winder (ca. 1759), a young servant looks on placidly as a playful cat disrupts the task at hand. The three canvases’ temporary home is the museum’s 18th-century Rococo gallery, in the company of other Chardins and Bouchers, as well as paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Lady with a Bird-Organ, ca. 1753. © The Frick Collection
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Wool Winder, ca. 1759. © The Frick Collection

The Sweetness of Life: Three 18th-Century French Paintings from The Frick Collection

From June 14 through September 9, 2019
Norton Simon Museum
Pasadena, California

Article published in the June 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.