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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Paris: Life & Luxury

Fig. 1: Nicolas Lancret (French, 1690­-1743),
The Four Times of Day: Morning, 1739.
Oil on copper, 11-1/4 x 14-3/8 inches.
National Gallery, London bequeathed by Sir Bernard Eckstein (1948, 5867). Image © The National Gallery, London.

by Charissa Bremer-David

Fig. 2: Maurice-Quentin de La Tour
(French, 1704-1788),
Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux, 1739-1741.
Pastel and gouache on paper
mounted on canvas; gilt-wood frame,
H. 125, W. 88, D, 11-1/2 in. (with frame)
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (94.PC.39).

The complex and nuanced lifestyle of the elite in Paris during the fifty-year reign of King Louis XV (reigned 1723-1774) is re-imagined through art and material culture in Paris: Life & Luxury, organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Paintings, sculpture, applied arts, drawings, metalwork, furniture, architectural fittings, lighting and hearth fixtures, scientific and musical instruments, clocks and watches, textiles and dress, books, and maps embody the visual aesthetics of the era while also revealing the social values of the enormously influential sector of society responsible for making Paris the fashion and cultural epicenter of Europe.

A group of allegorical paintings, The Four Times of Day, by Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), lays out the organizing principle of the exhibition, in which objects are grouped together according to a sequence of daily activities. The subjects of Lancret's scenes are rising and dressing in Morning (Fig. 1), setting pocket watches in Midday, playing a game of trictrac in Afternoon, and bathing in Evening. The images provide a plethora of details about the everyday elite life in mid-eighteenth-century France, a lifestyle now difficult to grasp because the extant objects are dispersed physically, across museum collections, and intellectually, across academic disciplines.

Rising and Dressing
In an elite mid-eighteenth century Parisian household, the act of rising and dressing was a process that could require several hours. The highly ritualized activity, which took place in stages, was called in French la toilette (from the toile, or cloth, that covered the dressing table). Though men and women alike participated, the female toilette became a semipublic performance of taste and consumption that proclaimed her identity and position within society. Following an initial private grooming, the woman continued to dress in the presence of her daughters, other family members, and close friends while being attended by servants, hairdressers, and tradesmen. The activity revolved around the dressing table, which prominently displayed the toilette service, comprising a mirror glass, a basin and ewer, and an assortment of jewelry caskets, cosmetic pots, powder boxes, and brushes. Usually made of precious metal or beautifully lacquered wood (like the box depicted on the dressing table in Lancret's Morning (see figure 1), the various vessels and implements represented the family's wealth and prestige.

The Worldling at Home
The head of the household conducted the business of the day at home, within a well-appointed bureau (the forerunner of the modern “home office”). Seated at a desk, as portrayed in the Portrait of Gabriel Bernard de Rieux by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788) (Fig. 2), the head of the family engaged in correspondence, record keeping, and study. The ticking of a nearby clock encouraged productivity and served as a reminder to use time wisely. These pursuits were aided by a broad writing desk, tall book cases, large storage cupboards, comfortably upholstered chairs, and folding screens for privacy and protection from drafts. Terrestrial globes, inkstands and paper weights, reference books like the almanac and the recently invented dictionary, filing boxes, and ledgers facilitated this work.

Fig. 3: Woman's dress and petticoat, French or English about 1760-1765, and stomacher, French about 1750. Dress and petticoat: brocaded silk faille and metallic bobbin lace, 62-1/2 inches (dress, center back length); stomacher: silk satin with metallic-thread embroidery and passementerie. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, gift of Mrs. Aldrich Peck M.56.6a-b (dress and petticoat); purchased with funds provided by Suzanne A. Saperstein, Michael and Ellen Michelson, the Costume Council, the Edgerton Foundation, Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer, Maureen H. Shapiro, Grace Tsao, Lenore and Richard Wayne (M.2007.211.129; stomacher). Digital image © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA, Licensed by Art Resource, NY.

Fashionable Pursuits of the Day
Attired à la mode (fashionably) (Fig. 3), young and old alike engaged in suitable daytime pursuits in comfortable interior spaces well suited for such endeavors. Women filled their hours with needlework and embroidery, pastimes that were considered to be a productive use of time. A passion for books was instilled at an early age, and like men, women of the period read voraciously, both for intellectual stimulation and for pleasure. Whether reciting a lesson to a child, listening to a friend read aloud in good company, or privately delighting in a scandalous plot twist, such activity was central to daily life.

Fig. 4: Jean-François de Troy (French, 1679-1752),
Pan and Syrinx, 1722-1724.
Oil on canvas, 29-1/4 x 36-1/8 inches
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (84.PA.45).

Collecting Art, Displaying Knowledge
Paris under Louis XV witnessed the expansion of private collecting and the flourishing of a new commerce in contemporary French art. Collectors, connoisseurs, and amateurs (or lovers) of art increasingly attended the biennial exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, commissioned paintings to decorate their townhouses, and frequented dealers and auction houses in search of pictures. The Parisian elite often preferred depictions of favorite mythological stories like those found in Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses, which were familiar from illustrated bilingual editions featuring the Latin text and a French translation on facing pages. The display of well-known episodes from these canonical narratives (Fig. 4) in the galerie of the house expressed the owner's good taste and also his literary erudition.

Fig. 5: “La machine d'argent,” centerpiece for a table, by François-Thomas Germain (French, 1726-1791), 1754. Silver, H. 8-1/4, W. 14-1/2, D. 9-1/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2005.43).

Fig. 6: Planisphere clock, about 1745-1749. Movement: Alexandre Fortier (French, about 1700-1770). Case: attributed to Jean-Pierre Latz (French, about 1691-1754). Oak veneered with kingwood; silvered brass; gilt-bronze mounts; glass; and gilt paper, H. 111, W. 37, D. 15 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (74.DB.2).

The Art of a Good Table
The dignity of the host or hostess was expressed at the dining table, earticlely during the main meal, consumed around midday. The success of a dinner party depended not only on the ingredients for the dishes and their skillful preparation but also on the service provided to the guests, the conviviality of the conversation, and the visual interest of the table and its surroundings. In a clever play on the nature of artifice, serving vessels and the décor of the dining room often depicted the ingredients of the meal and the methods by which they were procured and consumed. Prominent artists and craftsmen, such the silversmith François-Thomas Germain (1726-1791), competing pictorially and sculpturally with nature, created still lifes and scenes of hunting and picnicking to enliven the dining experience (Fig. 5).

Scientific Pursuits at Home
The collection, classification, and dispersal of information, earticlely scientific knowledge, were interests that actively engaged Parisian intellectual elites in the eighteenth century. Members of scientific associations and highly educated amateurs of science assembled collections, engineered new mechanisms (Fig. 6), and conducted experiments. Advocates of empirical observation, they championed reason over superstition by supporting or contributing to encyclopedic compendiums that had the dual purposes of advancing and compiling knowledge, on one hand, and of describing and teaching, on the other. In addition to official organizations such as the Royal Academy of Science and the Royal Observatory, there were some 235 significant private scientific collections and laboratories in Paris around 1740, many of which were open for public visits.

The Sound of Music
While opera was the most prestigious among the musical genres, the flourishing music-making scene in Paris also included church music, concerts, small ensembles performing in private homes, and vocalists who accompanied themselves on the harpsichord (Fig. 7). The lines between patrons and performers were often blurred. Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), the period's most important French composer, lived in the house of a wealthy financier, where he gave harpsichord lessons to his patron's talented wife and conducted a private orchestra for twenty-two years.

Fig. 7: Harpsichord (later converted into a piano) by Joannes [Jean] Goermans I (French, born in the Netherlands, 1703-1777), 1754. Wood, painted and lacquered, ivory, metal, H. 36-7/8, L. 95-3/16, W. 36-3/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Susan Dwight Bliss (1944, 44.157.8a-e). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

Fig. 8: Pair of fire dogs attributed to Charles Cressent (French, 1685-1768), about 1735. Gilt bronze, H. 15-1/4, W. 14-3/8, D. 8-1/8 in. (each). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (73.DF.63.1-2).

Fig. 9: Bodice ornament and earrings, French, ca. 1760. Topazes, backed with foil, and sapphires set in gold, H. 3-3/4, W. 3-1/4, D. 5/8 in. (bodice ornament). The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, given by Dame Joan Evans (M.163-1975, M.163.C-1975 and M.163.D-1975). © V & A Images

Life After Sunset
The scents of powder and perfume filled the air when fashionable Parisians gathered for evening activities. In rooms lit with glittering candles and firelight, their dancing flames reflected off gilt bronze, enamel, porcelain, gold, and glass (Figs. 8, 9). In these intimate settings, men and women interacted with one another through a sophisticated language of expression, gesture, and posture that displayed their eloquent comportment, conversational wit, and gracious politesse.

Leisure Entertainment: Game Playing
Parisian society enjoyed playing games, earticlely those that challenged memory and mental agility. Common board games included chess, backgammon, and trictrac (similar to backgammon). Card games also proliferated; the decks often illustrated with portraits of French kings or scenes from Greco-Roman mythology that presented, in turn, visual quizzes of identification (Figs. 10, 11). Games of chance and luck, like cavagnole (the precursor to modern-day bingo), were usually played for stakes. Moralizing social commentators warned against the ills of uncontrolled gambling and bemoaned the debt incurred by avid gamesters.

Fig. 10: Box set of gaming pieces, Du Paquier Porcelain Manufactory, Austria, about 1735-1740. Hard-paste porcelain, polychrome enamel decoration, gilding, gold mounts, diamonds, H. 2-3/4, W. 6-5/8, D. 5-15⁄16 in. The Art Institute of Chicago, Eloise W. Martin fund, Richard T. Crane and Mrs. J. Ward Thorne endowments, through prior gift of the Antiquarian Society, 1993.349, gift of the Antiquarian Society (1995.95.1-4). Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.

Fig. 11: Card and writing table, French about 1725, with a pair of candlesticks, French about 1680-1690. Card and writing table: oak and fir veneered with amaranth, bloodwood, kingwood, wamara; silver-bronze fittings; modern silk velvet, H. 29-1/8, W. 39-7/8, D. 40 in. (open). Pair of candlesticks: gilt bronze, 10 x 5-3/4 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (75.DA.2 and 72.DF.56.1-2).

Fig. 12: Jean Pierre Rousselet (French, active about 1720-1730), The Raising of the Cross from Prières de la Messe, 1720-1730. Tempera and gold leaf on paper, 4-11⁄16 x 2-13⁄16 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig v 8, fol. 19 v, 83.MG.83.

Piety and Prayer at Bedtime
Often portrayed as a fully secularized period, the eighteenth century was a time of flourishing religious practice among the vast majority of French society. Before retiring to bed, members of a household would pray to God for his protection and mercy. Ranging in size from an alcove in the bedroom to a private chapel, the space in the house devoted to prayer was furnished with works of Christian art that encouraged meditation and self-reflection (Fig. 12).

Paris: Life & Luxury is on view until August 7, 2011 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from September 18 to December 10, 2011. The Los Angeles presentation is sponsored by Breguet. The exhibition is accompanied by the publication Paris: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century. For more information on both, visit or call 310.440.7300.

Charissa Bremer-David is curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. She curated Paris: Life & Luxury with assistance from Peter Björn Kerber, assistant curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.