On Saturday I stopped by the current exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, La volupté du goût: French Painting in the Age of Madame de Pompadour, which opened February 7. It turns out the art museum is a hot ticket on Valentine's Day; the place was packed with all kinds of couples gazing at the fleshy paintings on display. This exhibition is a collection of paintings collected by Madame de Pompadour, a married woman who became the "official" mistress of King Louis XV. As a lover of art and performance—she was a singer and an actress—Pompadour became a patron of the arts; many of the paintings were commissioned specially by her, and her likeness appears superimposed in several. Her slight resemblance to Mr. Bean is only a mild distraction.
By and large, the paintings—many of them of the rococo school—are sumptuous to the point of decadence. Gods and heroes of mythology are depicted in baroquely ornate settings. But as you walk through the exhibition, you can see the artistic mood shift. The mythological creatures slowly make way for more mundane images of washerwomen, or a poor woman missing a shoe. The divine (and earthly) pleasures of the preceding paintings give way to a relatively hardscrabble reality, making it easy to remember that it wasn't long after Pompadour's death that the French started guillotining their royalty.
La volupté du goût continues through May 17. An audio tour, conveyed by a little phone-type gadget that you hold up to your ear, is included in the ticket price of $15.