10 August 2016

The Art of the Decadents and the Bourgeois

By Laura Rahme

Francois Boucher’s The Chinese Garden

The downfall of the French monarchy during the Revolution of 1789 brought with it a new social order where art modes that were considered decadent and aristocratic were shunned.

Through Revolution, power and wealth flowed increasingly into the hands of the emerging bourgeoisie, a socio-economic group that had long aspired to the manner and graces of aristocrats, but who now sought to forge themselves a new identity, along with their own artistic sensibilities.

New styles emerged in dress, hairstyles, furniture, theatre and art.

Prior to the French Revolution, and ever since the reign of Louis XV, Rococo artists were the masters of the French art scene. This was to change.

Marie-Antoinette’s Art World

At the time of Queen Marie-Antoinette, before the French Revolution, paintings were lavish depictions of luxury, pleasure and the insouciance of a privileged class which did not reflect the majority of the population. Ordinary working class people were rarely subjects of these paintings.

Instead, aristocratic subjects are seen idling about in elaborate clothing without a care in the world. This was the time of Rococo art.

The Swing
Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) denotes the carelessness and childishness of a young girl at play. Here, the aristocrats seem oblivious to the reality that the ordinary French person lives daily. This brand of art would have been odious to French revolutionaries given that as early as the 1780s, the price of bread was starting to rise due to poor crop yields, and the country’s debt was climbing.

The Lock
In The Lock (1777), Fragonard depicts a debauched noble class with perhaps a male making ready to corrupt his female companion despite her protests. The disordered bedroom and sheets allude to furious abandon, or even struggle, giving the onlooker a sense of forbidden erotic pleasures. This artistic style is in line with the libertine literature of the times, evoking themes from Le Marquis de Sade texts and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the latter being hugely popular despite it being banned.

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour
In Francois Boucher’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1756), Louis XV’s chief mistress reclines on a sofa, dressed in a rich silk gown embroidered with flowers. Elaborate pink bows cascade down her corset, mirroring the perfect bow around her white neck. The great patroness of Rococo art appears regal and her encumbering court attire hints to her idleness and ease.

In the Rococo period, we also see decadence and immorality illustrated through Francois Boucher’ portraits. For example in his Brown Odalisque (1745), Boucher’s model is nude and tempts the onlooker with her exposed bottom.

Brown Odalisque
Boucher’s Léda et le Cygne (c.1740) dives with abandon into erotic perversion.  According to Greek mythology, Zeus transformed himself into a Swan to rape Leda. Yet the painting’s soft pastels and the lack of aggression implies yielding. Instead, the mood is languorous and Leda’s pose - lifting her dress - alludes to permissiveness.  

Leda and the Swan
Prior to the Revolution, almost all was permitted to aristocrats and they held rights over lower classes. In retrospect, the painting hints at the swan’s aristocratic embodiment with the rape of Leda recalling the suppression and abuse of the working classes who have no other choice. No wonder Boucher was in poor taste by the time the revolution began. Alas, despite his enormous talent, he remained unpopular for almost a century.

With these Rococo samples, it comes as no surprise that aristocrats were often seen as debauched and immoral. On several occasions, even Marie-Antoinette’s supposed sexual life and sensual pleasures were the subject of pamphlets and public scorn.

At the dawn of the French Republic, morality and discipline would need to be the focus of the new age if one were to distance oneself from aristocratic mores.  If a bourgeois wished to acquire symbols of stature, and ornaments for their home, they could not be seen as coveting the same frivolous art and perpetuating the same ideologies as aristocrats.

What style could a bourgeois possibly turn to?

Republican Scorn

With Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the French mentality impassioned itself with noble ideals and moral rectitude. People became ‘enlightened’ and suddenly the excesses of the old regime with its implied hierarchies and light-heartedness were frowned upon.

According to Gamboni1, what irked revolutionaries was not so much the content of Ancient Regime paintings and images, but rather their symbolic representation.  While portraits of monarchs, members of the nobility and the Church were more directly attacked, any other work that these parties may have commissioned, possessed or displayed, were seen as symbolic of old power hierarchies and came under the revolution’s scorn.  Also to be wiped out or strictly discouraged were symbols of feudalism, superstition, toys and the ‘spoils of prejudice and arrogance’.

The terms pronounced when the city of Lyon’s buildings and monuments were destroyed leave no doubt as to the revolutionaries’ attitude: “In the name of the Sovereignty of the people…we strike with death this abode of crime whose royal magnificence was an insult to the poverty of the people and to the simplicity of republican morals.”

Discovery of Pompeii Ruins

In this sweeping social change, what, then, were accepted artistic symbols? What art forms were to be revered for their espousal of revolutionary values?

The answer to these questions were to be found in recent archaeological discoveries which had gradually brought upon an international change in the art scene.
That is, if a revolution had taken place in France, another revolution was burgeoning in the art world.

Earlier in the 18th century, the ancient Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii had been discovered - in 1738 and 1748. These archaeological finds revealed gorgeous villas and a range of classical art from Greek vases to exquisite Roman murals. These discoveries newly inspired artists who began to experiment using Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece as models.

Europa riding the bull –
Fresco from Pompeii, 1
st Century AD
Antique style drawings, with their clean lines contrasted with the softness and airy touch of Rococo. The antique style was seen as representative of virtue while Rococo was coded as decadent.

Neo Classicism was born.

Juliette de Récamier’s Art World

Where Marie Antoinette had reigned supreme as Rococo graced French monuments and salons, after the French Revolution, it was the wealthy bourgeois socialite, Juliette Récamier, who became her Neoclassicism equivalent. 

Bust of Juliette Récamier -
Joseph Chinard, c.1801-2
A celebrity in her time, this wealthy banker’s wife heralded advances in furniture and dress style. Marie Antoinette had once commissioned Jean-Baptiste Pillement to decorate her Petit Trianon with his famed Chinoiserie style. No more. During the Neoclassicism period, socially accepted symbols included Ancient Egyptian lions and sphynxes, like those adorning the chairs owned by Juliette Récamier. The gracious hostess also owned an antique style bed with bronze-like ornaments and an x-shaped stool evoking Ancient Rome.

Styles in sculpture also reflected classical taste. In her time, Juliette Récamier was famed for her beauty and this marble bust depicts her as no less than the most gracious antiquity goddess.

Aside from being the subject of sculpture, Juliette Récamier also featured in a couple of paintings. One of these is her portrait by Jacques-Louis David, with a similar one painted by David’s pupil, Baron Gérard. In the latter, Juliette Récamier, the very spirit of Neoclassicism, is lying barefooted on an Etruscan chaise-longue, channelling the Greco-Roman vestal virgin with her simple white dress and up-styled hair.

Portrait of Juliette Récamier
by Baron Gérard (1802)
At the time, a journalist wrote, “Truth could go no further than this, she is so seductive to the eye and the imagination, that she gives off an impression of the ideal.”2 [translated from French]

Years before, Jacques-Louis David had produced equally ‘classical’ portraits, including this one of Madame Henriette de Verninac (1799), daughter of a minister and wife of a diplomat.

Madame de Verninac
The pose is almost identical to the one adopted by Juliette Récamier. Individuality seemed less important with this art form which was synonymous with patriotism, self-sacrifice and nationalism.

Jacques-Louis David - Art Dictator

Ironically, before the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David had once been taught by sensualist Francois Boucher, and upon leaving Paris to study in Rome, had once declared, "The art of antiquity will not seduce me, for it lacks liveliness.” But times being what they were, even artists did well to reinvent themselves, if only for survival. Or was it only survival?  

During the French Revolution, David had joined the extremist Jacobins.  He not only voted for the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette but he lent his support to Robespierre during the Terror…as France’s art dictator. His subsequent abolition of France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was often interpreted as a reprisal for slights suffered in his youth.

Years later, under Napoleon, he would continue to direct his Neoclassicism talent into much propaganda.

Neoclassicism under Napoleon

Neoclassicism swelled to propagandist proportions during the First Empire, with Jacques-Louis David producing this well-known portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. The painting is marked by austerity and discipline, both hallmarks of Neoclassicism, while still associating grandeur and fearlessness with Napoleon.

Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800)
In a similar vein, David’s Napoleon in his Salon (1812) confers authority and power to Napoleon. The winged head of mercury is a Greek symbol of wealth, while the lion is an Egyptian symbol of a king’s power. Both further illustrate the furniture style of that period.  Meanwhile Napoleon’s poised stance, his uniform and sword combine to portray a man in control.

Napoleon in his Salon 1812
The Decadents and the Bourgeois

As seen, the French Revolution saw dramatic socio-political changes which precipitated drastic transformations in the art world and in the consumption of art. While the ‘decadent’ aristocrat favoured Rococo, at the end of the Ancient Regime, Neoclassicism had risen in importance. Neoclassicism was seen as aligning with the ideologies of the French Republic and for this reason was embraced and even championed by the bourgeoisie. Far from being a passive decorative art form, Neoclassicism served as a tool for advancing the interests of the French Republic and later of Napoleon.

  1. The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, Dario Gamboni, Reaktion Books, 1997.
  2. Portrait de Juliette Recamier, Carnavalet Museum, http://www.carnavalet.paris.fr/en/collections/portrait-de-juliette-recamier-1777-1849, Accessed on 28 Jul 2016.
  3. Neo-classicism & The French Revolution, Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/public/page/themes/neoclassicismandthefrenchrevolution, Accessed on 28 Jul 2016.
  4. 18th- and 19th-Century France - Neoclassicism, National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/features/slideshows/18th-and-19th-century-france-neoclassicism.html, Accessed on 28 Jul 2016.
  5. Rococo - Wikipedia
  6. Jacques Louis David - Wikipedia

All images from Wiki commons.