Paris: Life & Luxury Back

Upon entering the first room of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s new exhibition Paris: Life and Luxury, visitors will be struck by the height of eighteenth-century luxury in the form of a duchess bed. Its intricately embroidered silk canopy reaches over four meters high. This is the first of a series of objects breathtaking for their beauty, the quality and detail of the handcraft that produced them, and the preserved state in which we, nearly three centuries later, can admire them. These works, which illuminate eighteenth-century interior style, are owned by the museum and on-loan from major collections. But this exhibition does more than just fetishize its objects, placing them in display cases or recreated period rooms.

Museographically “groundbreaking,” as its catalogue affirms, Paris: Life and Luxury contextualizes them within their eighteenth-century uses and functions in the aristocratic home. Curators Charissa Bremer-David (sculpture and decorative arts) and Peter Björn Kerber (paintings) have borrowed from the methods and questions of cultural history, the history of material culture, and the “rich description” of anthropology. In a move more familiar to city history museums than to art museums, they have placed these objects’ users, not their makers, at the heart of Paris: Life and Luxury.

Traditional visual allegories of the Four Times of Day provide a framing device for the exhibition. They bookend its seven rooms, appearing in the first in four paintings (1739-41) by Nicolas Lancret and in its last as reproductions of engravings (ca. 1738) by Jean Mondon le fils and François-Antoine Aveline. The rooms move chronologically through the social rituals and pleasures of a typical eighteenth-century aristocrat’s day. Beginning with the formal duchess bed (used to receive visitors), small multi-purpose tables, and toiletry sets, the exhibit explains the role such objects played in women’s morning rituals. Men’s morning activities are showcased in the second room. Wearing silk morning robes they sat at ornate desks to read or to answer letters, dipping their pens in inkwells fashioned from Chinese porcelain. Women read too, although they wore more restrictive dresses with wide false hips. They instructed children and did needlework, making use of lushly illustrated books and the gilded spinning wheel displayed in the third room.

The aristocracy’s aesthetic and epicurean pleasures take shape in the exhibition’s middle rooms. One mimics an eighteenth-century gallery showing how elites collected paintings and sculptures of the Greek and Roman myths they loved. They also displayed art in dining rooms, and the fifth room’s walls are lined with such still-life paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. Elites decorated their tables, eating off of silver and gold. These objects, such as cast-silver serving pieces, which depict the fresh produce, seafood, and game commonly served, and a pair of silver sugar castors, or “shakers,” also reflect the expense and richness of the food they consumed. Evening recreation and pleasures are showcased in the exhibition’s last two rooms. With the gallery lights dimmed low, visitors learn that aristocrats studied music and philosophy and experimented with science. They owned objects such as a harpsichord covered with chinoiserie lacquer designs, Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and a stunning microscope and its green-velvet lined leather case. In the seventh room, an ornate gaming table, playing cards, and porcelain betting chips display the elite’s fondness for games and gambling. Jewellery, a fan, and a porcelain cane-head continue the motif of personal decoration begun with makeup rituals and clothes in the morning hours. Two paintings of scenes before and after a ball provide the only indication that Parisians ever left their luxurious homes. And finally, before they lay down in their decorative beds, a small corner altar indicates that these aristocrats (understandably) might have ended the day by praying for their souls.

Throughout these rooms, Bremer-David and Kerber have used paintings as illustrations of everyday life. Canvases by François Boucher, Jean-Marc Nattier, Jean Valade, Jean-François de Troy, and Pierre-Louis Dumesnil show morning toilette scenes, leisure activities, and daily work. These paintings hang alongside objects similar to those they depict. Jean-Marc Nattier’s 1749 Portrait of Madame Marsollier and Her Daughter, for example,shows the child holding a small casket filled with feathers and flowers. Nearby, a similar veneered casket, decorated with fanciful chinoiserie scenes, sits on display. This arrangement and the accompanying wall texts encourage visitors to appraise the aesthetic value of these paintings while also reading them as transparent historical documents. This reliance on portraits, commissioned by their sitters, suggests that the exhibit embodies the prescriptive ideals, not the reality, of eighteenth-century elites. These ideals dictated not only the use of objects but also the symbolic meanings attributed to them.

By illuminating the meaning of these luxury objects, the exhibition historicizes luxury itself. Instead of a descriptive term, luxury becomes a way of life in which objects reflected and constructed elite values and identity. Visitors learn, for example, that the abundant presence of clocks, mimicked in its rooms, did not just serve to tell time or decorate a mantelpiece. Clocks of all shapes and sizes were thought to remind their owners of the passage of time and the importance of industry. As one clock attributed to André-Charles Boulle (case) and Paul Gudin (movement) and decorated with the figure of Father Time and a playful Cupid illustrates, time pieces also betrayed their owners’ belief that love – and perhaps love of luxury – might conquer time. Similarly, objects fashioned with Chinese porcelain as well as the pair of sugar shakers reflect the eighteenth-century elite’s pride in the global reach of their trade and influence.

The exhibition catalogue’s excellent essays continue the work of explaining how luxury defined a way of living and a larger world-view. With the catalogue’s introduction, entitled “In Defense of Luxury,” Bremer-David seeks to debunk the picture of a decadent French aristocracy whose material and social excesses brought upon its own demise during the French Revolution. At times, Paris: Life and Luxury presents a picture of the French aristocracy that shares more with the nineteenth-century English bourgeoisie, who educated their children, read moral tales, and played discrete parlor games, than stereotypes of a decadent class that deserved its fate in 1789. In fact, the only direct reference to French libertinage and debauchery comes in the museum’s gift shop, where visitors can purchase Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.

While Paris: Life and Luxury uses everyday life and opulence as lenses through which to understand the eighteenth-century elite, it does not bring the same critical attention to its third term: Paris. Why did Paris, as the show claims, become the heart of interior decorative arts in the eighteenth century? Why did so many talented craftsmen make their homes there? What factors spurred the court’s return to Paris after decades spent at Versailles under Louis XIV? This lack of attention to the city is part of a greater lack of attention to space. While the show presents the objects these elites used, it only gestures towards the rooms and homes in which they arranged them. The construction of new homes shaped Paris’s expansion, as a copy of the (ca.1740) Turgot plan, which situates the residence of Baron Joseph Bonnier de la Mosson in the new suburb of Saint-Germain, suggests. Literary scholar Joan DeJean’s catalogue essay answers many of these questions, contextualizing luxury lifestyles within eighteenth-century changes in the city and domestic architecture. In general, however, the exhibition misses the opportunity to reflect upon the development of idealized interior luxury as part of the eighteenth-century urban context. The interior also had a remarkable impact on exterior spaces, seen in the style of public urban entertainments as they developed at the Palais-Royal and covered arcades in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The sumptuous combination of gilding, inlay, carving, lacquer, silver, marble, silk embroidery, and delicate mechanics at the J. Paul Getty Museum is sure to delight visitors. Many will recognize something of the opulent restaurants, palaces, and hotels of today’s Paris in its rooms. Others will thrill to this voyeuristic “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” transplanted to the eighteenth century; although they may come away disappointed that the display includes only the elites’ objects and not their scandals. Scholars will want to complement their visit with the catalogue’s essays, which delve into questions of time, architecture, lighting, dress, manner, education, and sociability in the eighteenth-century interior. Upon leaving, we should ask: what is the value of displaying luxury within the art museum? Does this exhibition simply validate and create a desire for luxury, ignoring a moral obligation to teach visitors that such luxury was the product of real and troubling social inequity?After all, scholars will leave the exhibition understanding how the ideas that would spawn a revolution could have taken shape at the marble mantelpieces and in the gilded chairs of eighteenth-century Parisian salons. Yet even the Revolution could not unseat the enduring legacy of eighteenth-century Parisian notions of refinement, taste, and aesthetic pleasure that today are still considered oh so French.