Yellow and Purple, or A Plate of Figs

Links are a lazy way of making a point; finding degrees of affinity or underlying meaning in coincidences are a substitute for profound originality.

This shamelessly shallow post presents a colour-coded association between the excessive frivolity of the ancien regime and the socialist conscience of modern feminism, between Marie Antoinette’s favourite dress shop and the intellectual salon of Simone de Beauvoir, both in Paris, two centuries apart.

In the 1770s and 1780s, Rose Bertin’s shop on the rue Saint-Honoré was decorated in yellow and purple, including the painted imitation marble at the front entrance.

From the late 1950s to 1980s, Simone de Beauvoir furnished her Paris studio with yellow sofas and chairs on a purple carpet.

This leap-frogging post might be silly, but it is not ironic. By serendipity, after lunch on a hot June day, it has landed on a revelation of women’s history through two colours.

yellow and purpleContemporary purple cardigan and yellow dress c. 2014. Private collection.
Image © MHP

Complementing yellow and purple had been fashionable many times before, of course, in horticulture, interior decoration and fashion design, and continues to be; there’s a striking use of the combination in the bed hangings of the Yellow or Velory Room at Ham House, home of the Duchess of Lauderdale, one of the most powerful operators at the heart of government and politics during the English Restoration.

The colours glowed in dark old rooms like dappled sunlight and shade; our ancestors brightened their interiors with hues that in electric light we recoil from as garish.

In any era, any tone, yellow and purple are an imperial choice. A hundred years later, Bertin’s Rococo yellow and lavender (not girlish pale pink or virginal white or fresh pea green or sky blue but majestic purple) declared her right to dictate fashion to rich customers, terrified of being out of date whenever they passed her yellow and purple shop front: I’m new, I’m self-made, I don’t care if you think I’m vulgar, I’m as good as you, you need me to tell you what to wear, I’m more powerful than any of you duchesses and princesses, I’m modern luxury consumerism, based on wealth and success, not birth and education, I’m the future.

Rose Bertin was the first succesful female haute couturier, despised at the time as a pushy business-woman, a jumped-up milliner challenging the social superiority of her clientele. Marie-Antoinette herself, the despised foreign queen hovering in the background, panniered and pomaded, a fashion victim in fantastically huge skirts overladen with lace and flowers, whose dignified death is regarded as the redeeming achievement of a wasted life; the Austrian bitch, the bored, stupid, rich wife, with her ridiculous hair-dos, seems to ask for re-evaluation.

She was politically inept, the wrong person in the deluge, she was not remotely intellectual and had been badly educated (as the fifteenth child of distracted parents, nobody seems to have noticed until it was too late) but her cultural influence was more benign than her contemporaries and viciously victorious enemies allowed. At her court, female artists and entrepreneurs were actively selected over their male counterparts. The list includes Vigée Le Brun, Labille-Guiard and Madame Tussaud as well as the infamous dressmaker, Bertin, all self-made professional women.

labille selfportraitSelf- realization by Adélaide Labille-Guiard (1749 – 1803), in Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, oil, 1785.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The pupils are: Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761-1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788).
Image source: WGA

Marie-Antoinette’s own mother was one of history’s most capable rulers, male or female, the Empress Maria Theresa, who after fighting half Europe to win her hereditary throne, tactfully shared power with her husband and after his death, her eldest son. She was a pragmatic conservative, a reluctant reformer, uninterested in defending women’s rights for which the world was not ready.

It would be absurd to exaggerate Marie-Antoinette’s feminist sympathies, but it is significant that, in 1791, Olympe de Gouges addressed her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen to the queen, not the leaders of the National Assembly, inviting her to show solidarity with nascent female emancipation, to recognize that she, too, was a fellow victim of male repression, made equal with her subjects by the French Revolution’s betrayal of women’s rights.

Both women re-invented themselves, the brilliantly clever and articulate revolutionary writer, the self-taught daughter of a butcher, who changed her name from petit bourgeois Marie Gouze to aristocratically neo-classical Olympe de Gouges, and the last queen of France, a subject to events, a mediocrity who happened to be born to an empress, and married off to a king, who turned herself into the fashion leader of her time. They were equal in death, both guillotined, due as much to misogyny as political expediency. “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform”, remarked Olympe de Gouges.

We only have to consider the resistance to having a woman president in the United States, over two centuries later, and the vitriol thrown at Hillary Clinton, purely for being ambitious and powerful, to appreciate the predicament of these 18th century women.

Rose Bertin’s business, along with hundreds of other fashion workers’, was destroyed by the Revolution; though she continued to supply her clients in exile, and returned to Paris in 1795, fashion had overtaken her. She did not live to see the simplified elegance of cotton and muslin high-waisted gowns of the Empire gradually give way in the 1820s to a fuller silhouette and stiffer skirts, to ever more elaborate and artificial decoration, until, around 1860, the hooped skirt came back bigger than ever, as a cage with the new name of crinoline. At the height of her power, the minister of fashion told Marie-Antoinette, not the last princess to be enslaved to fashion: ” New things are only those which have been forgotten.”

MarieAntoinette_by_VigeeLeBrunVictim, wearing Bertin: Marie-Antoinette, oil by Vigée Le Brun c. 1779.
Image source: Wikipedia

Marie-Antoinette’s intimate friendships with women, imbued with the kind of heightened romantic sensibility verging on the erotic fashionable in late 18th century, even the playing at Enlightened shepherdess in le petit Trianon, dressed by Bertin in simple white accessorized with enormous straw hats, indicate an apprehension, dim or not, of female independence, a longing for a different way of life in which feminine desires and pursuits would be liberated.

Her enemies made salacious sport with her supposed lesbianism, just as they enjoyed defiling her reputation as a mother, humiliating her as a woman, dehumanising her through psychological torture and physical privation; while it is unlikely that Marie-Antoinette physically consummated her affectionate relationships with women, whether she was gay or straight, or bisexual like Simone de Beauvoir, does not impinge on her urge to assert an autonomous identity.

Bertin and Le Brun were crucial to Marie-Antoinette’s public image, then and now: they transformed a plain woman into a fairy-tale princess. Bertin was the fairy godmother, producing breathtaking frockage to die for. Here comes a costume to cut off your head.

The extravagance of the dresses largely contributed to Marie-Antoinette’s extraordinary personal unpopularity; now we love her for it. Public opinion, contemporary and posthumous, is capricious, fixing on some historical figures, ignoring others. You don’t have to be gifted by intelligence or beauty, you can be as plain and stupid as you like, so long as you are royal, because royalty, like other forms of celebrity, confers an often unmerited charisma. Failing lifetime achievements, awards are given for a violent death, a good execution, or an accident or suicide. You are damned if you survive.

Marie-Antoinette’s daughter is as unfortunate a person as could be imagined, traumatized by imprisonment, the horrifying fate of her parents and the miserable short existence of her brother, and surviving it all to be an embarrassing relic of the Bourbon monarchy until the middle of the 19th century, a red-faced, rather butch, charmless woman that people would have been more comfortable forgetting than feeling sorry for. The heart, as Stefan Zweig memorably described, gets impatient with other people’s suffering.

Usually she’s left on history’s cutting-room floor. Unlike her mother, she is barred from tragedy. She didn’t have a great dressmaker. Marie-Thérèse – named after her grandmother – had courage: “C’est le seul homme de la famille”, acknowledged the notoriously sexist Napoleon, who enjoyed firing at his male enemies by implying that their wives had more balls than them, and insulting his many distinguished female adversaries with the same bullet.

Yellow and purple, potency and ambivalence, commerce and revolution, frivolity and suffering, capitalism and sensibility, subversion and defiance, sexuality and art, victimhood and self-realization, – on a hot summer’s day after drinking a glass of wine, you can build a flimsy new world out of links.

plate of figsGiovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) the first woman painter to be acknowledged with a portrait sculpted on her tomb: Plate of Figs 1661-62.
Bodycolour on vellum, laid on board, 240 x 350 mm
Private collection. Image source: WGA

4 comments on “Yellow and Purple, or A Plate of Figs

  1. erickeyswriter says:

    “Her enemies made salacious sport with her supposed lesbianism, just as they enjoyed defiling her reputation as a mother, humiliating her as a woman, dehumanising her through psychological torture and physical privation; while it is unlikely that Marie-Antoinette physically consummated her affectionate relationships with women, whether she was gay or straight, or bisexual like Simone de Beauvoir, does not impinge on her urge to assert an autonomous identity.”

    Another Clinton reference might be made here! You should hear the things people at my church say about her. Ten times worse than what makes it into the press… It makes me sick. Yet, I smile and nod, afraid that any resistance will be met with accusation and attack.

    “on a hot summer’s day after drinking a glass of wine, you can build a flimsy new world out of links.”

    You have raised this pastime to an art.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beetleypete says:

    That really is a marvellous picture of a plate of figs. Rarely has a still life captivated me to such a degree.
    Thanks for this post, Pete.


  3. Fascinating and far from shallow.


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