Together with Fragonard, Boucher can be considered the quintessential artist of the French Rococo. This French style spread throughout Europe during the 18th century, achieving great splendour outside of France in Austria and Germany. A sense of grace, happiness, lightness, intimacy, piquancy and sexuality are among the features of this style, which expressed itself through scenes of a generally lighthearted, frivolous nature and which extended its influence to a wide range of objects and decoration.
Boucher executed the present canvas during his most fruitful and accomplished period in the decade of the 1740s. Among other masterpieces of that period are The Triumph of Venus (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) of 1740; Diana at the Bath (Musée du Louvre) of 1742; Leda and the Swan (private collection) of 1742; and The Milliner (Nationalmuseum Stockholm) of 1746. La toilette was commissioned from Boucher by Count Karl Gustan Tessin, the Swedish ambassador in Paris to the court of Louis XV between 1736 and 1742. The Count was one of Boucher’s patrons and also owned The Triumph of Venus by the artist as well as works by Chardin, Lancret and Lemoyne. In 1745 he commissioned a series of the Hours of the Day from Boucher, depicted in scenes in which the female figure is the principal motif. The only work now known from that series is The Milliner, dated 1746 (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm).
La toilette was acquired directly from the artist and Tessin paid 648 livres for it. It arrived in Stockholm in June 1742. Following the death of the Count it was auctioned in 1771 along with other works from his collection and entered the Masreliez collection, also in Stockholm. From there it was acquired by Baron E. Cederström in Löfsta. In the early 20th century it was to be found in Vienna in the collection of Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild and later in that of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild. It was on the New York art market in 1967 and from there entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection.
The canvas depicts a rather untidy domestic interior in which a lady ties her garter while choosing her cap, shown to her by a maid seen from behind. The setting of this charming, frivolous scene provides an invaluable document with regard to the appearance of 18th-century French interiors. The walls and chairs are covered in a bright yellow fabric, against which the gold of the Chinese screen with birds stands out. The screen conceals the far end of the room and part of a framed pastel of a woman’s head hanging from a blue bow on the end wall. The chairs and dressing table are piled with heavy, rumpled fabrics, while the floor in front of the fire is also crowded with objects such as the bellows, brush, and a fan that echo the similarly disorganised group of objects on the mantelpiece above the fire. Adding to the mood of the interior is the playful little cat that has appropriated a ball of wool or twine from the sewing bag hanging from the fire-screen and is playing with the unravelled thread.
It has been suggested that the model for the principal figure is the artist’s wife Marie-Jeanne Buzot, who posed for some of his paintings. However, portraits of her by the artist, such as the one in the Frick Collection, New York, do not reveal any similarity with the face of the present figure. This, and the fact that the woman is depicted in a rather suggestive form of deshabillé (which would be a somewhat indecorous way for the artist to depict his wife) led Ekserdjian and other authors to reject the idea. Boucher’s scene is a typically voyeuristic one in line with the taste of the time in which the girl reveals her leg in a carefree manner within the context of a normal domestic activity such as getting dressed.
In this composition, in which every object that makes up the scene exudes enormous charm, Boucher used a highly distinctive chromatic range with an emphasis on yellows and large areas of white, red and saturated blues. Two drawings for the principal figures are known: one in the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Orléans and the other in the Institut Néerlandais in Paris.