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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Foreshades of Grey (10)

or, Fashioning a Library of One’s Own

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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 (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.

the cutting edge of fashion

MarieAntoinetteBM

Jean-Francois Janinet, Marie Antoinette, a print after Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty France, 1777 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nothing becomes a rich person so ill as telling a poor one that money can’t buy happiness, but I sympathize with them that it doesn’t always buy beauty or good taste.  Looking at the clothes in Harvey Nichols the other day, for the first time in seven years, I have never seen so much I didn’t want.* It is consoling to know that you can dress just as sluttily or frumpily from the local mall as you can from Knightsbridge.

But where is exquisite wearable art to be found in London today if it’s not in “premier luxury retail”? It doesn’t matter that the prices are out of my reach – the famous department stores have the power to inspire us all by showcasing the best, not dumb fashion down. Capitalism is failing in its moral justification to broker beauty. Producing and buying expensive stuff for the sake of its cost alone is not enough; wealth is not its own reward.

Good taste and beauty are not always the same thing, of course. One implies reason, order, restraint – the other can be terrifying Continue reading

End of the Fairy Tale

There was a torture chamber hidden under the fairytale palaces, those vanishing flower-garlanded places where laughing, well-fed putti carry on playing long after the people, surfeited on Rococo, have died or fled.

Apollo with the Graces and Muses painted for the ceiling of the Théâtre de la reine, at Trianon, Versailles, by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée, 1779. Image source: Wikipedia

The restrained imagery of the later Stuart monarchy reflected the bloodless 1688 revolution in political realities. Baroque was sobered down, mannered. Its architecture was perceived as heavy and florid, and was already going out of fashion by the time its last great palace, Blenheim, was finished in 1716, to complaints from the owner, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, about the impracticalities of the design. The architect, John Vanbrugh, whose other most famous building is the fairy tale Castle Howard, a fantastical stage set on the Yorkshire moors, was also a dramatist, author of two of the greatest English comedies of manners.

William and Mary Presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe, sketch by James Thornhill for his design of the painted ceiling of the Great Hall, Greenwich Hospital, 1708-1712, the last great public illusionist interior of English Baroque.
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The idea of putting William and Mary’s apotheosis on a painted ceiling never occurred in their lifetime; after the queen died to almost universal lamentation in England and the Netherlands, the completion of the project for a Hospital for wounded and disabled seamen was chosen as the most fitting memorial to her charitable character, a sign of a new, recognizably modern, kind of monarchy.

Thornhill’s grandiose commission for the interior of the Great Hall of Greenwich Hospital celebrating the Protestant Succession was issued in the next reign, under Queen Anne, and completed under George I, in justification of the Hanoverian right to rule.

By 1690, even the fashion in clothes had become architectural, the cut Continue reading