More than any other artist, François Boucher defined the graceful sensuality and lighthearted enchantment of the Rococo. A prolific painter and draftsman, the ever-industrious Boucher created works on an astonishing variety of subjects but he is best known for his depictions of the female nude. Born in Paris, Boucher left the city for an extended period only once, when he studied in Rome from 1727 to 1731. A prodigy who achieved success early, Boucher rose to the position of "premier peintre" (first painter) to Louis XV and was a favorite of Louis’s mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour.
The sketchiness and spontaneity of "Mercury Entrusting the Infant Bacchus to the Nymphs of Nysa" reveal it as a modello, or preparatory oil study, for a larger finished work, which is now in the Wallace Collection (London). Boucher’s sheer enjoyment in and mastery of pushing paint is evident in his sharp, rapid, expressive strokes.
Boucher took the story of Mercury and Bacchus from the "Metamorphoses," a series of poems by the Roman poet Ovid. Jupiter, the ruler of the gods, had ordered Mercury to hide his infant son Bacchus, the result of a tryst with the mortal woman Semele, from the eyes of Juno, his jealous wife. Boucher depicted Mercury, wearing his winged hat and carrying the caduceus, bringing Bacchus, who grew up to become the god of wine, to the nymphs on the remote Mount Nysa.