THE 18th-century French painter Francois Boucher has, over the years, achieved such a reputation for frivolity that the quality of his art has often been overlooked or at least underestimated. In fact, he epitomized a paradox that was characteristic of his period. Kenneth Clark, in his book ``Civilization,'' pinpointed it when he observed that ``the remarkable thing about the frivolous 18th century was its seriousness.'' The recent major exhibition of Boucher - traveling from Detroit to New York and then Paris - aimed to redress the tendency toward imbalance in assessing this artist's place in art history. It certainly emerges that Boucher, decorative and lighthearted though his art was, was nevertheless an immensely serious artist. In his catalog essay, Pierre Rosenberg argues that Boucher's ``extraordinary capacity for work'' should ``scotch the still prevalent image of a frivolous and sybaritic man.'' And a contemporary wrote that he worked more than 12 hours a day from his childhood to the end of his life, without causing ``his imagination to run dry.''
Rosenberg cites Diderot as one of the mature Boucher's ``fiercest critics,'' upbraiding him for excessive facility and scolding him for his artificiality and lack of naturalness. But, Rosenberg concludes, Diderot criticized ``what constitutes the very essence of [Boucher's] genius - his inventiveness, his verve, and his endlessly fertile imagination.''
One basic confusion about Boucher seems to be the assumption that his habitual subject matter of exuberant allegories, myths, and pastorals inhabited by amorous shepherdesses and goddesses, swains and cupids, and his special delight in the female nude necessarily indicate a licentious character. He was no stranger to pleasure, certainly, but it is interesting to note that he had one lasting marriage. The exhibition also shows that his subject matter was wide, at least in his earlier years, including religious history, genre (with a fascination for still-life detail), and landscape.
His approach to landscape is particularly revealing. Clearly the exhilaration of the great outdoors did not leave him cold. He was even one of a group of Parisian artists who sketched in the open air. But at the same time art was to him nothing if it was not artifice - the outcome, finally, of fantasy: the evidence of the artist's capacity to conjure up a convincing, unreal world by means of paint, whether a cloudscape of buoyant, flying pink deities or a more down-to-earth scene of hills or the forest. Observation of nature was only one stage in the preparation of such worlds. Observation of art - the works of other artists - was another. But a belief in artistic ``genius,'' in the power of his own evocative vision, was by no means the least of his supports.
A small work in the current exhibition depicts a young artist (too young for it to have been himself at the date it was painted) painting a landscape in a garret. His dress, attitude, and surroundings symbolize Boucher's view of the artist at work: Only the splendid landscape on the easel suggests an ideal world. The rest is a kind of claustrophobic disorder, brushes and bottles and candles and a plaster bust - studio apparatus - all over the place.
The young artist is rather disheveled and probably poor. He gazes with rapt attention at a sketchbook, the immediate source-material for his painting. Alistair Laing observes in the catalog note: `` ... the message ... is ... surely ... implicit: that it is from his imagination that the painter creates - or re-creates - his subject.''
A feeling was voiced in the early part of the 18th century in France that the painters of the day were neglecting the art of landscape painting, that they were not following in the footsteps of such 17th-century figures as Poussin and Claude Lorraine. But this was not altogether fair to Boucher.
``View of a Mill with Distant Temple'' is a particularly happy example of his idea of landscape painting. It has an Italianate grandeur and a Rubensian relish of the riches to be encountered in the intricate passage from immediate foreground to distant background. It is like an invitation to journey, in the imagination at least, over hill and valley.
It is an extraordinary mixture of observation - the mill in the foreground appears in another painting based on an actual view Boucher studied near home, at Beauvais - while the magical temple perched in the distance suggests the Temple of the Sybil at Tivoli, a popular Italian motif, either a reminiscence of his time in Italy or lifted from another artist's work. Perhaps he conceived this scene as a passage from the near-familiar to the distant-ideal, though the point is hardly labored. It is painted with ebullient vigor - the bravura confidence of an artist described by one biographer as a ``born painter.''
The natural details - rotting tree stumps, burgeoning willows, reeds and grasses and foliage - are all represented with delight, and a strong sense of their characteristic differences. The same is true of the variety of trees throughout the landscape. Yet they probably come originally from other paintings quite as much as they do from nature itself.
The picture demands enjoyment on its own terms and not in comparison with nature. Ultimately it is an artificial concoction - albeit of stunning energy, conviction, and interest - and belongs to the world Boucher loved, the theater. He certainly designed backdrops for the Opera, and this fine picture could have acted that part very suitably.
It isn't hard to see why such a work offended the later scientific naturalist-painter John Constable. To him - writing somewhat caustically in 1836 - the works of Boucher represented ``the climax of absurdity to which art may be carried when led away from nature by fashion.... His landscape, of which he evidently was fond, is pastoral; and such pastorality! the pastoral of the opera-house....''
Theophile Gautier, however, much later in the 19th century, was beginning to sense the quality of Boucher's ``idyllic world'' if only one could suspend disbelief sufficiently to relish it. He wrote; ``The sheep are shampooed, the shep-herdesses are tight-laced with rows of ribbons, and their complexions quite without that weather-beaten country look, while the shepherds look like ballet dancers.'' But, he added, ``It is all irresistibly seductive, and the lie is much more agreeable than the truth.'' In other words, you might say that Boucher's art is a glorious triumph of fiction.