It is a small picture, full of small incidents: fragrant of pastel and powder; a vessel of delicacy and uselessness. Chaotic yet elegant, secretive yet coyly voyeuristic it is a view into a lady’s room as she prepares to spend her day as decoration and distraction. Part salon, part dressing room, part breakfast room, part bedroom, it is where she concocts her toilette: and indeed, that is the name of the painting, ‘La Toilette’.
Painted by Francois Boucher – no stranger to illustrating the foibles of pretty ladies – in 1742, it is a reflection of French society within the warmth of a lady’s aristocratic home. It was a time of Louis XV and Pompadour, Lyons silk and red heels, Voltaire and Versailles: a time of languid enlightenment and sleepy elegance. Clocks, fountains and fireplaces were carved into masses of baroque coils that seemed to writhe and curl despite their foundations of wood and stone. And the dainty chaos of a lady’s dressing room was a fit subject for an artist’s roving eye.
‘La Toilette’ lets us view this aristocratic anarchy. Everything here is of the finest quality: pink silk ribbons, china tea settings, velvet chairs, a carved and gilded fireplace, a painted screen. But all is in disarray: the ribbons are tangled, tea is ignored, chairs are covered by fur-lined cloaks, the fire is smoking and the painted eyes of a saucy youth peer over the screen.
There is a charming disorder to the lady herself: she has not yet finished tying the garter around her knee; her skirts surround her in a blue labyrinth, her bodice is unlaced – referencing perhaps to the unused ribbon tantalizingly draped across the fireplace. Her flawlessly painted face, accented by the patch tickling the corner of her eye (in the language of 18th century fashion, a patch placed thus indicates the wearer’s status as ‘mistress’), turns to her maid to inspect a cap she has brought her.
Yet amidst the indolence and confusion, there is a still center within this feminine storm. And to discover it we too look to the maidservant, but it is not to pass judgement on a scrap of linen and its garland of silk. She provides us with the painting’s saving grace: its lonely composure. Like any condemned prisoner, she gives us her neck.
From her slender shoulders, it rises like an ivory column in a slow, gentle curve. Poised and serene, its motion is quieter by far than the maniacal rococo decorations that fill the room. It is a stance out of ballet – echoed by the placement of her dainty feet, making her mistress look almost slovenly.
Her lightly powdered hair is pulled up; extending the delicate sweep that began with the tiny, fluttering muscles of shoulders and neck. Curls that have escaped the comb lie along the neck’s subtle twist, further highlighting its sculptural movement.
We don’t see her face – only a tantalizing glimpse of a rouged cheek, the drapery of her Robe à la française and the curved neck that brings the dizzying room to a standstill. As dainty as a minuet, it is the oblique step between the straight line of the shoulders and the coy tilt of the head. With the serene bend of her neck, it is the lady’s maid who brings refinement to the noise and lavish temptation of La Toilette: its quiet, silken focus – its genteel heart.