François Boucher was an incredibly successful and prolific painter in eighteenth-century France. Recipient of such honors as the Prix de Rome (a prize sponsored by the French Academy of fine arts which sent promising young artists to Rome) and favorite painter of the Marquise de Pompadour (prominent art patron and mistress of the king), Boucher was named first painter to King Louis XV in 1765. Though it is a grisaille sketch, painted only in shades of black and white, with its quick brushstrokes and imaginative composition Boucher’s work exemplifies the lighthearted Rococo style popular during the first half of the eighteenth century.
The painting depicts the sea-nymph Thetis presenting her son Achilles to his tutor, the centaur Chiron, as the goddess of wisdom Athena and a female personification of Fame hover in the background. A chorus of putti and garlands surround two circular empty white spaces towards the top of the canvas. This mythological scene symbolizes the removal of the young king from the care of his female governess and his subsequent education by his new male tutors. Due to its loose brushstrokes and monochrome color scheme, the Allegory of the Education of King Louis XV may appear to have somewhat of an unfinished quality. This work was actually painted as a sketch for a 1757 engraving by Laurent Cars (1699–1771). In the print, the empty roundels are filled in with both faces of a medal featuring the king’s portrait on one side and on the other an episode from the Aeneid, showing Aeneas being educated by a sibyl.
Medals of this nature were popular collectible items among wealthy patrons of the time. The Cars engraving was meant to be included in a book titled L’Histoire de Louis XV par médailles (The Story of Louis XV through Medals), a series of prints illustrating events from the life of Louis XV using medals. Inspired by a similar volume commemorating the life of Louis XIV, this project was under the direction of Charles-Nicolas Cochin I (1688–1754), who recruited many prominent artists to help him. Unfortunately, due to the magnitude of the project, the book was never finished.
Audio: Laura Sico, Oberlin College