To many, the history of eighteenth-century France has been reduced to the fantasy of Versailles and the French court. one is reminded of the glorious sun king Louis XIV, of plush pastel hues, and of Marie Antoinette’s famous quote, “Let them eat cake!”
When looking at art produced in the period, canvases and material goods reveal a world of ostentation, licentious bodies, and conspicuous consumption. Yet this section of history is more complex. It is a period rocked with moral and ethical discourse. It gave birth to the modern conceptions of human rights, enlightenment ideals of reason and scientific inquiry, and national identity. Its history seems at odds with itself: immoral and moral, ethical and unethical, rational and irrational. For the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility Fellowship, it has been my project this summer to explore these contradictions represented in eighteenth-century French art.
In response to the abundance of Rococo-style art made in the first half of the eighteenth century, French philosopher Denis Diderot posed the questions in his Salons of 1765 and 1767, “if morals are corrupted, do you think that taste can remain pure?” No, no, that is impossible, and if you believe it, you ignore the effect of virtue on the fine arts… Oh deadly luxury child of riches! You destroy everything…”
Diderot argues that virtue is necessary for the purity of taste, or rather, the purity of “good”, academic art. Diderot was not alone with this sentiment. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, critics and writers such as Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau made public their distaste for the immoral nature of the Rococo style. Before beginning my fellowship this summer, these anti-Rococo sentiments inspired my early inquiry for (the lack of) morality in Rococo art. I posed my own questions: Was morality absent in the age of the Rococo? What did the eighteenth-century understand to be morally good art?
To answer these questions, I traveled to France for the first half of the summer, where I visited archives and art collections all over Paris and the Provençal region. Unlike other fellows in the program, my project is not tied to an institution, but rather advised by Dr. Amy Freund, a professor of eighteenth-century European art at SMU. Since my project is independent, I organize each day depending on the information I need, or collection I want to see. While this may seem daunting considering France’s vast art collections, narrowing my research to the eighteenth century has guided me in a direction that is manageable for a summer project.
In Paris, I visited the Petit Palais, Musée du Louvre, Musée des arts décoratifs, Musée Jacquemart-André, and the Musée Cognacq-Jay. Just outside of Paris, at the Château de Versailles, I saw the public collections, and was lucky enough to partake in a private tour of the king’s apartments. In the Provençal region, I visited the Musée Calvet, in Avignon, and the Musée des Beaux Arts, in Lyon.
It is important to see smaller collections in addition to famous museums, because often the smaller collections contain artworks less publicized. Though the Musée du Louvre definitely provides a wow factor, it is always that one painting I have never seen before, hung on a wall of an old eighteenth-century hôtel that truly reaffirms my love for art history. For example, in a smaller chamber, in the former Hôtel Donon located in the third arrondissement in Paris, I took the photo below, which is a collection of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s portraits. These portraits are vital for my research project, because they exemplify the newly humanist sensibilities of the Enlightenment, which brought a new attitude towards teaching children moral instruction. These paintings were produced at the same time when social attitudes turned against the frivolity of the Rococo style. Yet Grueze’s oeuvre is complicated, because while he painted “moral lessons”, he also painted immoral subject matter such as La cruche cassée, 1771, which depicts a young woman with a broken pitcher symbolizing the loss of virginity. As one can see, defining ethics and morality in this period is problematic. While being ethical was a humanist ideal important to Enlightenment thinkers, scenes of lust, wealth, and slavery persisted in artworks throughout the century.