Arion on the Dolphin, 1748
Handbook EntryThis painting was commissioned as one of a series of four panels representing the Elements, which were to crown the doors in Château de La Muette, the hunting lodge and retreat of Louis XV. Boucher executed only Water (Arion) and Earth (Vertumnus and Pomona, Columbus Museum of Art); no evidence of designs for Air and Fire exists. He took the subjects from the opera-ballet Les Élémens (The Elements), in which the king had performed as a child. The libretto adapts an episode from Herodotus’s Histories: while at sea, the lyrist Arion arouses the greed of his fellow voyagers, who plot to rob and kill him. Arion convinces them to allow him a last hymn to Apollo, after which he jumps into the sea and is saved by a dolphin. In the opera, a storm destroys the plotters and their ship as the dolphin conveys Arion to the siren Leucosie, with whom he falls in love. French audiences would have understood Arion as Louis XV, who had survived the epidemic that killed his father and older brother to become the heir apparent to the throne, or dauphin — a word meaning also "dolphin." As royal mistress, the charming and musical Mme de Pompadour reenacted selections from the opera for the entertainment of the king and his friends. When La Muette was renovated in 1746–47 and Boucher was commissioned to paint the overdoors, the affair was in full swing; by 1750 it had ended, which may explain the premature termination of the series and eventual return of Water and Earth to Boucher’s inventory. In Arion on the Dolphin, the lone dolphin has become a fantastic sea-monster with a cortege of nereids and tritons, which Boucher depicts with naturalistic accuracy from the waist up (particularly the central triton’s face) and with fanciful flourish to the tip of each curling fishtail. The movement of Arion astride the triton and dolphin opposes the languor of the reclining, floating figures. This tension between motion and stasis is visible also in the water, which so foams with turbulence that the waves seem thick and solid. Still, the overall effect is light and airy: even the yellows of the lightning and flaming shipwreck are soft against the blues of sky and sea. This palette also reveals the influence of Watteau, whose drawings the young Boucher spent several years converting into prints.
Signed and dated lower left: F. Boucher / 1748
The French Rococo master Boucher produced only a few royal commissions, including this exemplary work. It was intended as one of four paintings to be installed over the doors of the gaming room at La Muette—King Louis XV’s hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris—illustrating the elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Only two were executed: Arion on the Dolphin, representing Water, and Vertumnus and Pomona (Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio), representing Earth. The notion for the commission stemmed from the opera-ballet Les Élémens (The Elements, 1721). Madame de Pompadour, Louis’s mistress, appeared in amateur performances of this work for the king in 1748.
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