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

Pretty and Powerful in Pink

Philippe de Champaigne, 1602 - 1674 Cardinal de Richelieu 1633-40 Oil on canvas, 259.5 x 178.5 cm Presented by Charles Butler, 1895 NG1449 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1449

ABSOLUTE POWER: Cardinal de Richelieu, oil on canvas, 1633-40 by Philippe de Champaigne.
Image: © Copyright The National Gallery, London 2015
“I have the consolation of leaving your kingdom in the highest degree of glory and of reputation”, the dying Richelieu wrote to Louis XVIII, father of Louis XIV. The foundations of French gloire in the reign of the Sun King were laid by Richelieu. He wears Cardinal’s Robes of pink, the liturgical colour of rejoicing in God.

gainsboroughcountesshoweREAL ESTATE, SEX AND FASHION POWER in one woman: Mary, Countess Howe by Gainsborough, oil on canvas, 1764.
Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London. Image: WGA
This exquisite incarnation of 18th century elegance and aristocracy was the wife of a gouty admiral. She had been born into a wealthy, landowning family and was co-heiress with her sister of their father’s substantial property; her marriage brought her into the aristocracy when her husband inherited the title of Viscount.
She is pretty and formidable, sensually alluring and untouchable. The love with which Gainsborough imbues her portrait and the poetically moody sky is thought by art historians to not be an entire illusion, as he was known to become sexually attracted to his good-looking female sitters, a professional hazard for many portraitists of all epochs.

In the same year Gainsborough painted Mary Howe, on the other side of the Channel, the woman who had redefined, owned and commercialized pink, the king’s mistress and unofficial cultural minister of France, Madame de Pompadour, died.

pompadourboucher

Madame de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Wallace Collection, London. Image: WGA
SELF-MADE POWER: elegant, gentle, carnal yet intangible, suggestible but not forceful – this is the quintessentially feminine power of influence crafted by the woman herself.

Such a soft, shell-like pink reminiscent of idealized human flesh tones, is flattering next to a middle-aged woman’s skin, but it is also suggestive of the colour of the sky when the sun rises and sets, and, in the iconography of her relationship with Louis XV, the sun god was the symbol of her lover and master, the king. Her favourite portraitist Boucher, was the genius and pander of pink.

MarilynpinkCELEBRATION OF PINK POWER: Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the pink satin dress designed by Travilla, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Image: Wikipedia
Blatant materialism and feminine predatory sexuality find absolution in pure, sweet, shocking pink celebration of being alive.
Marilyn is the girl whose faults we all forgive.

Pink is the colour of joy.

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

pompadourboucher

(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 (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

Foreshades of Grey (8)

or, Perversion of Innocence

toilet of venus

Boucher, The Toilet of Venus 1751 Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
“commissioned by Madame de Pompadour as part of the decoration for her cabinet de toilette at the Château de Bellevue, one of the residences she shared with Louis XV”. Text and image source: Web Gallery of Art

Whipping up salacious fantasies of royal sexual perversion became a key part of revolutionary propaganda, but the worst accusations of depravity were always reserved for women.

Even the rumour that Louis XV had fathered a child on one of his own daughters, Marie-Adelaide, seems to have been aimed more at crushing her limited influence at court than attacking the king’s depravity.

The chief victim of misogyny was the king’s granddaughter-in-law, Marie Antoinette, who was accused at her trial of sexually abusing her own son.

AdolfUlrikWertmüllerAdolf Ulrik Wertmüller, Marie Antoinette and her two eldest children walking in the park of Trianon (1785) oil on canvas, Nationalmuseum Sweden. Image source: Wikipedia.
Like any conscientious mother trapped in a rigid class system, the queen was doing her best to bring up her children with enlightened modern values, in this case the Rousseauian ideals of lots of fresh air and simple clothes.

The new ideas about upper-class women being allowed free expression of maternal emotion were extolled in fashionable portraiture, and were then perverted by Marie Antoinette’s political opponents in the most inhumane way conceivable to discredit her, the mother turned into whore, the ultimate degradation of the “Austrian bitch”.

vigee lebrun daughterVigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait with her daughter Julie, c. 1789 oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA.
Marie Antoinette promoted the careers of many women artists through her patronage. She used Vigée-Lebrun frequently to try and improve her public image as an enlightened, not spoilt and despotic, queen, whose sensibility was the same as any other devoted mother’s of her time.

For years before the Revolution, Marie Antoinette had featured in pornographic prints of lesbianism, a subject of fascination and confusion to 18th century erotic sub-culture for men and Romantic idealism of both sexes. The Ladies of Llangollen were admired for living virtuously together in rural retreat because of their refusal to submit to marriages of convenience; Queen Charlotte’s intercession to get them a pension wasn’t based on the possibility that women might be happier having physical relationships with one another rather than with men.

diana resting after her bath

Boucher, Diana Resting after her Bath 1742 Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA
Here, in the most intimate picture of a podiatrist and her client ever presented, Boucher celebrates feminine sensuality with more subtlety than in the flagrant eroticism of his odalisques.

The playful sensuality of Rococo imagery, of Venus tenderly embracing her son Eros, of happy cherubs dive-bombing naked nymphs, the suggestiveness of Boucher’s pastoral idylls, of nymphs and goddesses delighting in their own and each other’s nakedness, his version of the Rousseauian ideal of female sensibility which had inspired so many fashionable women to be candid about their feelings for one another, all this varnished innocence was inverted and made dirty.

georgianadevonshireandelizabethfosterGuérin Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster c. 1791
Miniature on ivory, Wallace Collection, London. Image source: WGA.
Female friendship and the benign influence of feminine sensitivity and refinement on culture and society as a whole was valued and celebrated.