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Review: “The Sweetness of Life” at the Norton Simon: Sweetness With a Side of Sauciness

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

On View at the Norton Simon

June 14-September 9, 2019


Leticia Marie Sanchez

Three French Eighteenth-century ladies have arrived to the Norton Simon from the Frick. François Boucher’s A Lady On Her Day Bed, Jean-Siméon Chardin’s Lady With A Bird Organ, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s Wool Winder can now be viewed in Pasadena. At first glance, these paintings appear to be sweet Rococo confections, frothy predecessors to subsequent gritty images of French women post-Industrialization, like Degas’ portrait of women ironing that also hangs in the Norton Simon. Underneath the effervescent surface of these ladies of leisure, however, the paintings convey eroticism and melancholy, providing clues to the era from which they hail.

In a lecture at the Norton Simon, David Pullins, Assistant Curator at the Frick, described this group of paintings as Genre paintings, a category which garnered popularity in the 18th century. Unlike the more prestigious and allegorically complex religious or mythological paintings, Genre paintings required no explanation. They could be enjoyed by a wider audience, leading to a robust market for the genre. However, for viewers in our century, historical context provides a nuanced lens with which to view these sumptuously painted works.


To modern viewers, François Boucher‘s 1743 painting, A Lady On Her Day Bed appears innocuous. But to 18th-century observers, aspects of the painting proved scandalous. For instance, a sofa was considered a potentially licentious piece of furniture due to the fact that a sitter could go from the vertical to the horizontal position within seconds. The cast off slipper and mysterious letter suggest an imminent rendezvous. How do we know that this portrait contained hints of impropriety? Dr. Pullins assures us that Boucher would have never consented to having his “respectable wife” pose for such a portrait. Another intriguing aspect of this painting is its embodiment of 18th century commodity culture. The watch on the wall, the teacups, the East Asian imports, and the screen underscore that the subject constructs her identity as a consumer of fashion, not unlike the self-constructed personas on social media today. Everything here is pushed up to the picture plane and put on display, like objects in shop window, including the woman’s fetching figure. Buyer Beware.


Jean-Siméon Chardin‘s 1753 painting, Lady With A Bird-Organ is subtitled “Une Dame Variant Ses Amusements,” a woman varying her amusements. In this painting, an upper middle-class woman staves off boredom by teaching her caged bird (La Serinette) to sing.

The discreet dame in this painting conveys a sense of established wealth compared to the nouveau riche subject of Boucher’s painting with its overt consumerism. Another contrast with Boucher’s painting is the lack of erotic undertone; although Fragonard used the birdcage to connect with female sexuality, the birdcage here represents restriction. In his lecture, Dr. Pullins connected the cage to a phrase from the 1740 Manual for Artists and Amateurs: “Liberty is compromised, but wants for nothing.” Viewing the painting, one is struck by the darkness of the cage and the somber palette surrounding the sitter. A melancholy aura envelops her as she sits in her gilded cage.

Incidentally, Dr. Pullins stated that, despite speculation, the model for the subject could not be Chardin’s wife. The topic of the painting itself was not risqué, but it would have been completely inappropriate for Chardin to present his wife as a subject in a painting commissioned by Louis XV.


Jean-Baptiste Greuze‘s 1759 painting The Wool Winder looks sweet and modest, doesn’t she? Modern viewers might miss the erotic subtext that 18th century viewers would have understood. The image of the cat playing with the yarn was an allusion to female sexuality, and this metaphor situates the painting in a playful way between respectability and lack of respectability.

Greuze had painted other works about “fallen women” using visual cues. For instance, in one of his paintings that is currently at the Louvre, a young woman is depicted with a dead bird to symbolize her loss of virginity.

This antiquated notion of women’s propriety extends, in this case, to the real sitter of the painting. While Boucher and Chardin’s wives did not sit for their husbands’ portrait due to social codes defining respectability, interestingly enough, in this case, Greuze’s wife is thought to have shockingly been the model for the painting. Today, in an age when Instagram stars bare themselves for profit, it may strike us as quaintly hilarious that an 18th century married woman who sat for a portrait fully clothed and donning a bonnet would be deemed immoral. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Greuze was even categorized as an adulterous woman by her own husband. In their subsequent divorce, Greuze verbally and visually painted this seemingly lovely creature as promiscuous, angry, and mentally unhinged. Were his accusations accurate? In fact, it was convenient for him to disparage her character as his strategy helped his divorce suit. Convenient, indeed. Incidentally, the letter B on the painting’s chair provides another potential clue that the sitter could have been Greuze’s wife as her maiden name was Babuti. Perhaps the embittered Greuze would have preferred to paint the Scarlet Letter A?

The clever curation of these installations from the Frick allow one to see the portraits in a “conversation” with other masterworks that you are accustomed to seeing at the Norton Simon, for instance, the work of Jean-Honoré Fragonard which is beautifully juxtaposed with these three in the gallery.

Reflecting on these three portraits I could not help but wish for an artistic dialogue with another painter whose work has also been displayed at the Norton Simon: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. The 18th Century in France had been dubbed the “Century of Women,” and, in contrast to these three works which depict women viewed through the perspective of men and society, Ms. Le Brun proved a force both as the subject of her own works and as a painter. It would be interesting to see these three women viewed through her eyes and through her palette.

Paintings referenced above:

François Boucher (French, 1703–1770) A Lady on Her Day Bed, 1743 Oil on canvas 22 1/2 x 26 7/8 in. (57.2 x 68.3 cm) The Frick Collection, Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Jean-Siméon Chardin (French, 1699−1779) Lady with a Bird-Organ, 1753 (?) Oil on canvas (lined) 20 x 17 in. (50.8 x 43.2 cm) The Frick Collection, Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, 1725−1805) The Wool Winder, ca. 1759 Oil on canvas 29 3/8 x 24 1/8 in. (74.6 x 61.3 cm) The Frick Collection, Photo: Michael Bodycomb

The video link to Dr. Pullins lecture at the Norton Simon can be accessed here:



Posted by on June 26th, 2019

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