by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth. Princeton University Press, January 2018. 336 p. Ill. ISBN 9780691170121 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed July 2018
A combination of historical and theoretical analysis, The Painter’s Touch: Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard examines the individuality of three eighteenth-century French artists through the lens of their technical skills. Written by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Boardman Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University, this publication stands out from similar texts by taking a philosophical approach to a practical subject. Lajer-Burcharth argues that viewers may respond emotionally to these artists’ paintings based on how they were painted and the influence of composition, brushstrokes, and other physical characteristics. In other words, as she puts it, the painting “as an object... is capable of producing the effect of a subject.”
The author also proposes that each painter developed his own technique to create these evocative qualities on purpose. There are three chapters, each devoted to the different painters’ unique sense of touch. While it is impossible to give a comprehensive summary of their content, the chapter “Boucher’s Tact” describes how his surface work is a result of his awareness and sensitivity to the growing culture of consumerism in the 1700s. The chapter about Chardin focuses on his practice of imitating tactility, and how it endowed the objects he painted with presence and meaning. The last chapter demonstrates how Fragonard’s dynamic compositions captured the tension between the energy of human desire and the restraining force of social conventions. These theories are supported by extensive historical research and thorough critiques of works that are of personal or professional significance to their respective artists. Subsections within the chapters are devoted to prominent themes in that artist’s oeuvre, typically divided into categories such as landscape or portrait. These themes are also viewed in the context of the Enlightenment, focusing on responses of eighteenth century philosophers or critics to each artist. Fragonard’s chapter, for example, opens by recounting the downfall of his reputation amongst critics, when he went from promising young painter of historical scenes to repudiated maker of “frivolous” erotic paintings.
The Painter’s Touch seeks to understand the individual nature of the artist through his personal history and cultural environment, and also offer new and effective critiques of the physical aspects of painting. The chapters are mostly separate entities and it is not necessary to read them in order. The book contains top-grade illustrations, mainly of paintings, but also featuring engravings, drawings, radiographs, floor plans, and other relevant materials. Notes, a bibliography, and an index are also included. Highly specialized writing makes this title appropriate for art research libraries, curatorial staff, and academic libraries for the arts serving graduate-level students or higher.