Gilded Dramas

Functional objects, vessels for light and fragrance, tables, clocks and other household accessories for the rich and powerful, gilt bronze status symbols that are also neoclassical sculptures of the finest art, piercing the soft darkness with their golden fluidity, making your jaded heart sing – I never understood ormolu before I saw The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt bronze.

Video Gilded Interiors © The Wallace Collection 2017

And, in The Wallace Collection’s tradition for 117 years, entry to temporary exhibitions as well as to the permanent galleries is and always will be free. Liberty, Egality, Fraternity still exist in an Anglo-French union in Manchester Square,  London W1.

It is a small exhibition, the pieces liberated by the curator from glass cases and cluttered rooms, out of the crude glare of museum electric lighting into simulated candlelight. The atmosphere is seductive. It is a tiny piece of gilded theatre. Continue reading

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Epistolary, Too

Fragonardbolt

Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: WGA

Clarissa’s tribulations – she is treated abominably by her lover and the author – were too much for the gravity of some of Richardson’s worldly-wise contemporaries. Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is unapologetic fun-loving, lusty fiction; Clarissa is a beguiling mix of comedy of manners, social criticism and erotic tragedy disguised as moral improvement.

Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff's Office exhibited 1833 Charles Landseer 1799-1879 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00408Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff’s Office by Landseer, exhibited 1833 © Tate Gallery London

The anti-hero, Robert Lovelace, is handsome, sardonic and self-loathing in the great libertine and vampire tradition. We know the type, the complete shit, wearing Whiff of Sulphur Aftershave, whom we secretly fancy more than the nice man next door. Lovelace belongs, or rather wants to belong, to Dark Erotica. “While I, a poor, single, harmless, prowler; at least comparatively harmless; in order to satisfy my hunger, steal but one poor lamb….” (Letter 515)

He is also a rapist who uses an 18th century variant of Rohypnol. Clarissa is as susceptible to his sex-appeal as the reader; she fights her desire with moral intelligence and instinct for self-preservation, but we know, reading between the lines of her letters, how much she is attracted to her abuser.

Our young female reader will need all the heroine’s strength of character to stop herself being seduced by Lovelace, particularly when he reveals, too late, that he really does love and esteem her. There’s no doubt he’s an epistolary bastard; having his cake, eating it, and throwing it up.

Listen to: extracts from Lovelace’s letter to his friend Belford, Letter 497, Clarissa

Continue reading

A Post of Their Own

The more I see of Mankind, the more I prefer my dog.” Pascal

Portraits of Three of Madame de Pompadour’s Dogs

pompadourspaniel1

detail from Boucher’s 1756 portrait of la Marquise de Pompadour

pompadour3(Alte Pinakothek, Munich; image source: Wikipedia)

pompadourspaniel2

detail from Boucher’s 1759 portrait

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(François Boucher Madame de Pompadour 1759 oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection)

dog.
Detail of Drouais’ 1763-64 portrait, the last one made of her, completed after her death from cancer, and heartbreaking because the most famous mistress of 18th century taste is so prematurely aged and dumpy. She is determined to smile and say “I’m still here”, and welcome the visitor into her private apartment. The fabric of the dress she wears, and the surrounding furnishings, are stupendous. This isn’t vanity, it’s public relations, and apologia. This is what I believe in, she says. This is what I leave you. I am childless, people are faithless, but the beauty of artifacts, and the love of dogs, are joys for ever.

library3(National Gallery, image source: WGA)

The more I see of Mankind, the more I prefer my dog.” Pascal

Foreshades of Grey (12)

or, The Power of Pink: She’s a Girl, get over it

 

Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection, London

So here, at last, it couldn’t be resisted, the most familiar and most delectable of all the images of Madame de Pompadour that enchanted my childhood is posted here for DvP, like everything else that matters in life.

It is not just the story of a dress, though what a dress, which can transform a woman into a rose, it is the story of the balance of feminine power between personal ambition and love for another person. She sacrificed peace of mind for ambition, and then fell in love, first with a king, then a man, then a country, and finally a civilization which she made universal.

Notorious as the quintessential courtesan, sneered at by the court for being bourgeois, called “putain” by the king’s sour doughball of a son, reviled by the public, viewed ambivalently today as a well-dressed figurehead of a rotting totalitarian system, there was nothing vulgar, tarty or heartless about her. The illegitimate daughter of a financier showed the world how a cultural leader and benevolent queen should behave.

She was not a parasite; she graced the ancien regime, she gave it lustre and refinement, and it is to Louis XV’s credit that he recognized her contribution to French culture, beyond her private services to him. She transcended the official position of royal mistress through her own accomplishments and charm, of which sex was the smallest part.

If you examine her portrait closely, with the same forensic intensity we study photo-shopped celebrities for flaws today, you might be thinking, by this time, 1758, she was in her late thirties, her looks deteriorated prematurely by anxiety, poor health and rich food, she wanted to hide her ageing neck and chin with that chic ruffle round her neck, then, yes, you are right, of course she did, and let her alone, for heavens’ sake; she lived to please; one person’s vanity is beauty’s gift of happiness to everyone with eyes to see, and shame to you who evil thinks.

She lived beautifully, and showed the rest of us how to do it, too. She united femininity with power, without concessions to coarseness or snobbery. She was a talented actress who knew how to put on a good show with complete sincerity. That is not a contradiction; good acting is about unpeeling layers to the truth underneath, however you are feeling. No-one has ever achieved and exercised power in quite the way she did, in such elegant style, on such a grand scale, and being nice to everyone along the way.

She is leaning on Pigalle’s statue of ‘L’Amour embrassant l’Amitié’, Love embracing Friendship, which she had commissioned in 1754 to aggrandize her new relationship with the king. They agreed they would not sleep with each other more, but that she would keep her job, because Versailles and French civilization were better with her, and he needed her, he couldn’t rule or live without her, and promiscuous lover though he was, he would be the most faithful of friends.

A lot of us can’t live without her, either. She’s one of the most enduring and likeable of icons, a woman for all seasons. We love her for the beautiful display, and the vulnerability. Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (11)

 or, Behind the Rococo Clock Face

detaildetail of Boucher’s 1756 portrait of Madame de Pompadour

Among the learned books in Madame de Pompadour’s library, there was a unique volume about the rivers of France which had been written, and some of it printed, many years before by a diligent and inquisitive eight year old boy, based on his lessons in geography and typography.

Louis XV’s Cours des principaux fleuves et rivières de l’Europe (Courses of the Principal Rivers and Streams of Europe), written in 1718, which the adult man gave to his mistress as a token of the conscientious king that the playboy of Versailles had once wanted to be, survives in the Bibliothèque nationale.

The little print shop, which was built for Louis XV in the Tuileries nearly sixty-five years before Marie Antoinette’s fantasy-farm was installed at Le Petit Trianon, had a serious educative purpose to instill appreciation of crafts and machinery in a cultured king whose interests and personal accomplishments should reflect the nation’s glorious achievements.

Louis ‘the well-beloved’ grew up to enjoy his cultural responsibilities as king and patron of the arts and sciences. He enjoyed music, ballet and theatre; he supported scientific and botanical expeditions. He was fascinated by scientific invention and experiments, including some of the earliest in electricity. He collected timepieces, filling Versailles with all sorts of clocks and astronomical and navigational precision instruments.

Fashionable society followed his lead and the manufacture of technically advanced and high end luxury products in France boomed as a result. They included an exquisite and ingenious wind-up ring-watch, with a white face against a blue and gold background, set in diamonds, made in 1755 by Caron for Madame de Pompadour, which nowadays might operate as a cellphone and computer as well as tell the time, a smart-ring for people who have everything.

Stop the clock. The pendulum has swung so far to the right, that if one’s not careful, one might be seduced. This was the same middle-aged roué who neglected to reform the government and economy, whose foreign policy brought shameful defeat on the European battlefield, lost France her colonial empire, and nearly bankrupted the State, who died hated by the impoverished people for betraying them to famine and aristocratic oppression.

He died in agony, his once handsome face covered in black smallpox scabs, from a virulent strain of the disease which made his corpse decompose so quickly that it could not be embalmed, and its stench came through the coffin. This is the horror that always lay behind the pink and gold, the scalloped ormolu and arch pastoral, the self-mocking prettiness and smiling insouciance, the high comedy of Rococo.

It was the ancien régime’s stage-set breakwater against the tidal wave, which the king and Madame de Pompadour and anybody of sense knew was coming, at a time which no-one could rewind or stop.

PenduleastronomiquedePassemantAstronomical clock designed by the engineer Passemant in Louis XV’s clock room at Versailles, presented to the king in 1750. Image: Wikipedia.
A king’s obsession with devices measuring time and space compensates for inability to rule his country; the ornate gilded decoration successfully disguises serious technological invention and precision.

His grandson, Louis XVI, had ten scientific laboratories at Versailles as well as his locksmith’s forge and carpentry workshop. He was like any other man in his home, doing DIY, relaxing by mending things, solving practical problems with his tools as therapy for being unable to control the vast, insoluble world outside his cave.

If Louis XVI had been politically adept, and time hadn’t run out for the Bourbon brand of absolutism founded by the terrifying despot Louis XIV, his wholesome hobbies would have endeared him to the people, instead of demonstrating how unfit he was to be king during economic austerity and social revolution.

Louis XVI had a library of 8000 books, so wins the Versailles bibliophiles’ contest for sheer quantity.

Madame de Pompadour enjoyed reading comedies and novels. She died in 1764, so the popular plays and the novel that define sex and power in 18th century French society most vividly for posterity were not in her collection. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was published in 1782; Beaumarchais’ satirical comedy Le Barbier de Séville was first performed in 1775; the first public reading at Versailles of Le Mariage de Figaro was in 1781.

Her library included historical romances written by women. Much as she enjoyed a laugh, there is no record that she read vapid fantasies of sexual obsession and female degradation. She had quite enough trouble avoiding that at home with Louis XV.

clock

Foreshades of Grey (10)

or, Fashioning a Library of One’s Own

pompadourreading

Boucher, Marquise de Pompadour 1758, Oil on canvas Victoria and Albert Museum. Image source: WGA
Is this escapism or fashionable accountability? Is she trivial, or transcendental?

In this charmingly informal publicity portrait, the most powerful woman in France during the reign of her lover and friend Louis XV is momentarily distracted from the pages of an edifying book by the beauties of nature.

It is the characteristic pose of 18th century sensibility and reason, but the gentle, almost elegiac, romanticism of the painting is unusual for Boucher, who peddled decorative erotica to the French court. He wasn’t interested in real trees, but in the silky texture of cloth and flesh, the translucence of pearls, rose petals and female skin. Here, he restrains pinkiness, he creates a contemplative mood, of private communion, of an innocent wistfulness foreign to Versailles.

The relative unfussiness, and high necked modesty, of her dress is significant, too; Madame de Pompadour understood fashion language, and not a nuance or ruffle is without profound meaning.

Within the confines of etiquette and politesse, she is ahead of the Romantic trend, anticipating the graceful simplicity of dress of pre-Revolutionary Europe adopted in the 178os. Rather as Napoleon admitted that he could not have conquered Prussia if Frederick the Great had been alive, it is impossible that the gross excesses of the high hairstyles and enormous paniered skirts of the CoiffureBellePoule1770s would ever have taken hold if Madame de Pompadour had still been around.

They are fun for us, as fantastical art exhibits, fashion for fairy tales, powdered beehives carrying ships and mice, but in the real wearing they mocked good taste, hygiene and the deprivation of the rest of humanity.

Madame de Pompadour was an actress who knew the difference between escapism and accountability; she could tell a metaphor from haute couture.

As is evident from the detail of the book and the woodland setting – well, Boucher’s idea of a woodland setting – she was a patroness of Rousseau and embraced the new sensibility to feelings and humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

She read his books attentively, as well as the works of Voltaire and other philosophes, and kept in touch with their progressive thinking even after twenty years of living at Versailles. She lived in the moment, but she was not in denial of national crises, or of the disastrous consequences of royal policy. The king’s problems became her problems.

Towards the end of her life, she was heard quoting from Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762): “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man who thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are”.  In her compassion for Louis the man, she was trying to give the king a moral get-out clause, an excuse for his lethargy towards reforming the French State. Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (9)

or, The Lover of Apollo

revealing himselfBoucher, Apollo Revealing his Divinity before the Shepherdess Isse, 1750, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours. Image source: WGA
Under cover of mythology, like in an Annie Leibovitz celebrity portrait, the love affair between Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour reaches apotheosis.

When the twenty-three year old Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Madame d’Étioles, achieved her ambition of gaining entry to Versailles, she was dressed as a shepherdess seeking shelter under a yew tree, which was revealed to be the king in disguise. The Rococo had a camp sense of humour.

She was the not quite fairytale intruder into the palace, a clever middle-class girl trained in acting, music, singing and dancing who would shine today in her chosen profession and go on to become a leader of the arts, or a minister for culture more gracious than any queen.

There are other sides to Madame de Pompadour than the carefully doctored portraits of her reveal. Her education, supervised by her mother, had included political studies, most unusually for a girl of that time. She was sent to listen to the debates at the Club d’Entresol, an academy of political and economic freethinkers, considered such a threat to the Establishment that it was closed down by the government.

The object was not to train her for a political career, which was unthinkable for a woman, but to groom her for a public one as the cultured companion and personal assistant of a powerful man, irrespective of the wishes of any bourgeois financier she might have married in the meantime.

As it turned out, Monsieur d’Étioles was not complaisant, and turned down generous offers of compensation from Louis XV who arranged a legal separation for the couple. He never forgave his wife for accepting the king’s indecent proposal. Society would have to be completely revolutionized before husbands would understand their contractual obligation to support their wives’ careers. Continue reading