A rococo masterpiece, Francois Boucher's grand mythological painting embodies a royal love affair, extravagant interior design and god-like aspirations, as Emmajane Lawrence explains
This enormous canvas depicts a watery scene, with nymphs, putti (cherubs) and tritons cavorting in the sea, while a handsome man, swathed in pink, rises up from the depths attended by maidens. To the right we see horses and above them the sky, populated by yet more putti and a female figure scattering pink roses. The glorious male in pink is Apollo, the sun god who, according to Ovid's poem "Metamorphoses", rose up from the ocean every morning, got into his chariot and drove the sun across the sky in order to bring light to the world. Then, in the evening, he would return to the ocean and into the arms of his lover Tethys.
Apart from Apollo, in the top right-hand corner of this painting we can see the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, above whose head is the morning star, and who scatters roses to signify the coming of dawn. At the top left are two putti pushing back the clouds of night to assist with the arrival of the new day. Beneath Aurora are several beautiful white horses eager to get on their journey with their gold chariot. But they are tethered by the nymph gine, who turns towards Apollo.
Other adoring nymphs attend to Apollo, one tying his shoelace, one holding his quiver of arrows and one passing him his lyre - a symbol of his role as god of music. Below are the inhabitants of the sea, some with pearls laced into their hair, riding fishes, resting on the waves or blowing into shells.
The composition as a whole gives a sense of harmony, with the action focused on the sun god. All movement within the painting emanates from Apollo in one vast centrifugal sweep that pushes all else outwards and towards the edge of the canvas. The most intense light and colour appear at the centre of the composition, with darker tonality at the edges. The work is a riot of activity, almost audible in its busy-ness.
Boucher uses his favourite rococo palette of pinks and blues and shows his virtuosity in the depiction of human flesh. Yet how the flesh of these characters is shown is revealing. Apollo's skin has an intense luminosity, while the nymphs, although they are similarly porcelain in tone, bask in his light rather than generate their own.
Meanwhile, the tritons appear tanned and rugged - they have been out in the sun all day while the god remained untouched. This difference reflects class divisions at the time, when being pale of skin showed high status and a tan indicated a life spent labouring outdoors.
This work is actually a tapestry cartoon, with a companion piece, "The Setting of the Sun" - also in the Wallace Collection - which shows Apollo returning to the ocean after his day's work. Both pieces were commissioned in 1752 by Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV of France, and both resulted in finished tapestries which adorned the king's bedchamber at Madame de Pompadour's residence, the Chateau de Bellevue, on the banks of the River Seine, near Versailles.
They hung either side of King Louis' bed; the orientation of the room was such that the morning sun shone on the image of "the rising" and the evening sun set on the tapestry of "the setting".
These paintings would have been used as models for the weavers, propped up behind the weaving frame as they worked. The tapestries took more than three years to produce and were described as the most expensive ever woven by the manufactory. However, these paintings were no ordinary tapestry designs. They were shown in their own right at the Parisian Salon and immediately claimed by Madame de Pompadour once the tapestries were finished.
Apollo was thought fitting to adorn the bedchamber of the king of France since Louis XV, and Louis XIV before him, identified with the god Apollo - Louis XIV styling himself as the "Sun King". We are not just looking at the sun god getting ready to bring light to the world, but also facing King Louis XV getting ready to face the day and run France - the pre-eminent country in the world at that time. And who better to see him on his way and receive him back in the evening, but Queen Tethys or, by extension, Madame de Pompadour. As such, this monumental work is not only a stunning painting, but also an example of interior decoration, an act of storytelling, a piece of propaganda and a very personal work of art.
* Boucher: Seductive Visions runs at the Wallace Collection until April 17.
Entry is free for students and under-18s. The education department runs key stage 5 study days on life drawing and KS2 artist-led sessions on myths and legends, both using Boucher. For bookings and further information: Tel: 020 7563 9551
* Rococo art
The word "rococo" describes an exuberant style of art which flourished under the auspices of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV. It is characterised by asymmetrical patterning and organic forms. The word is thought to derive from the French rocaille, which describes loose, stony ground.
Emmajane Lawrence is head of education at the Wallace Collection
One of the dominant figures of the 18th-century art world and a master of the rococo style, Boucher was painter, draughtsman, set designer, tapestry designer, and inspiration for the decoration of Sevres porcelain. Rising to prominence under Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, he became the leading decorator of royal palaces and private residences. In 1765 he was made director of the Royal Academy and first painter to the king. However, in later years his subject matter was much criticised, and his lovelorn nymphs and reposing shepherds and shepherdesses were soon swept away by the French Revolution.
Art and design
Ask children to think about the sounds that the image might make if they could hear it. They could take on different roles in the painting and record the sound of the whole painting in groups.
Examine different myths and legends, and discuss why the same stories have been passed down and appear in artworks through the centuries. Lead into a discussion about modern-day heroes and whether they may stand the test of time. Students use the image for storytelling and create dialogue between the characters depicted. They could also extend their stories by predicting what might happen next to Apollo or King Louis XV.
Create a 3D room (either in actuality or using computer software), complete with windows. After deciding who would inhabit the room, students design an appropriate interior using colours, iconography and a decorative scheme, giving reasons for their choices.
Students could design small tapestries and consider the processes to be gone through, from the initial idea, to sketching the design and creating the finished work.
Consider the differences between Renaissance and rococo nudes by comparing the works of Boucher with those by some earlier master painters, such as Titian. This can be done through observation and sketches, using local galleries and museums as source material.