How would you hear Boucher’s painting?
By Steve Goldbach
Art historians agree that François Boucher’s most significant contribution to Rococo painting was his reinvigoration of the pastoral. Viewers of A Peasant Boy Fishing (1732) might be drawn to the softly blended colors which come across as inviting and nurturing, the round shapes that suggest lushness and fertility, and the bright, contrasting clothing of the boy and girl draw our attention to their human experience in the midst of this wondrous scene. A Peasant Boy Fishing depicts a natural landscape, largely unaffected by human development. As you look at the painting details, you’ll notice the peasant boy’s foot dipped into the water and buildings off in the distance. The artistic, visual elements are immersive, but what if you could go deeper and listen to this painting instead of only viewing it?
Sound clip created by Steve Goldbach
In the clip, you hear the gentle, steady flow of the creek in the foreground. The sounds of insects and birds are present but rather unnoticeable, forming a steady drone in the background. Further in the distance, church bells can be heard ringing on occasion from the nearby village. Can you hear whether or not the “peasant boy fishing” was lucky enough to land a fish?
The elements of this sound clip were inspired by the visual elements in the picture, but how historically accurate would this soundscape be in the 1730s? In the 1730’s, only early industrial instruments, like the sewing machine and the typewriter, existed in Europe. These mechanical sounds were novel and largely not a part of the 1732 soundscape. The pictured couple would be unaware of the industrial sounds that would eventually affect their setting, such as trains, steam-powered factories, and the cacophony of modernity. According to sound scientist Murray R. Schafer, church bells would have been the loudest sound in most 18th-century European villages. They functioned as an acoustic calendar, announcing festivals, births, deaths, marriages, fires and revolts. Most notably, church bells served as a clock.
Although I inserted a church bell into the soundscape for A Peasant Boy Fishing, this pastoral scene seems to be frozen in time. Notice that it is difficult to pinpoint the actual time of day that Boucher depicts. The warm, glowing colors, and the contrasts between light and dark could suggest morning or afternoon. As such, determining the hour boils down to individual interpretation.