Laced Up

Dress and manners reached the pinnacle of restriction in the eighteenth century, but the paintings suggest a social landscape of extreme frivolity. We’ve put together a small tribute to that dynamic in a creamy yellow and pink palette.

• Jean Honoré Fragonard’s Two Sisters marks the painter’s transition from pursuing a career as an academic painter to working for private patrons. There was simply more money in catering to the tastes of the rich. And his unique brand of frivolity and luscious color was stifled in academic subjects of history and myth. The boudoirs and dressing rooms were playgrounds for his creamy brushstrokes. The sisters here are very young, and yet they share many of the same qualities as much older sitters. Fragonard was perhaps the most able to infuse his work with the Rococo’s incurable appetite for youth.

• This Corset dates back to the end of the 19th century, right before rigid undergarments gave way to less constricting silhouettes. This example is actually more forgiving than its predecessors, which forced the waist into a sharp cone shape. In Fragonard’s time, corsets were laced tight, and the skirts were flat front-to-back and wide side-to-side, making it hard to pass through doorways. Read more about the history of corsets and hoops here.

• This Bird Cage by Paper in the Pocket has to origami birds sitting in a cage made of wood and paper.

• Candace’s Necklace suspends a mother of pearl pendant, carved with a floral design, from a string of creamy pearls.

• Christine’s Necklace has a gold cage with one bar missing and a free bird at the clasp.

• Circe’s Tea Set includes a 1940s tea cup, saucer, and decorative plate with a gold floral design.

• Orsolya Springer’s Anklet is made of yellow lace flowers attached to a pink ribbon with white glass pearls.

• This Clutch by Blackbird’s Pearl is made of pale yellow silk as luscious as the dress of one of Fragonard’s dresses.

• Kalyn’s Hanging Light is an antique metal birdcage wired from a silver cord.

• Karen’s Bracelet is made of yellow and light pink Swarovski beads and pearls.

Love in Excess

I sometimes wonder if people in the eighteenth century thought Rococo style was bad taste. How many pink frills can you look at before gauging your eyes out? If you were wealthy, the extravagant decorativeness permeated your surroundings, from your clothes to your tea set. Here’s a small tribute to eighteenth century frivolity.

• This Tea Casket with Caddies comes with lock and key, like expensive jewelry, because tea was still a luxury in 1770. By that time, tea was the most popular import from China, for both legal trading and smuggling, and it was much more accessible than it had been in the beginning of the century. Still, you only used a little and added sugar, which would have been in the large canister in the middle of this box.

• Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s Portrait of Charles Claude de Flahaut depicts the gatekeeper of artistic patronage for Louis XVI. He was responsible for defining the course of Rococo, and he looked the part. His clothing is a work of art – the gilded floral vest could be a decorative wall panel, and the soft pink of his jacket reflects the blush of Rococo’s fragile, frolicking females. For a paler shade of pink, try this portrait of Madame de Saint-Maurice.

• Dan Lee’s Necktie has an intricate pink and gold design on silk woven in an old English mill.

• Brigitte Wilson’s Necklace has faceted pink sapphires lined up on a gold chain.

• Norah Downey’s Necklace is a gold link chain dotted with tiny flowers, pink enamel, and crystal.

• Josette’s Earrings are ornate chandeliers made of gold and pink topaz stones.

• Sandra’s Earrings are made of bezel set pink chalcedony topped with gold vermeil flowers.

• Alisa Hopper’s Necklace gently twists together vintage pink ribbon, pearls, crystals, and a silver chain.

• Delezhen’s Necklace pairs a gold angel charm with bezel set pink quartz.

• The Azura Necklace by Ellorias Boutique creates a luscious flower from tiny  beads in all shades of pink.

Line of Beauty

Rococo might be the flashy aunt of modern minimalism, but why not go down the ornate route once in a while? We’ve picked out some contemporary work that follows in the footsteps of Rococo’s curves and curls.

• Melanie Millar’s Cocoa Rococo depicts layers of ornamental curves found in eighteenth century ironwork. She makes reference to William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty, a treatise that seeks to pinpoint the specific qualifications of beauty and good taste. The ideal form was the s-curve, which he traced from architectural details to lofty paintings. If you think this sounds ridiculous, so did Hogarth’s contemporaries, who mocked him in a number of satirical prints.  But he did inadvertently define Rococo as a kind of s-curve overload, where every inch of space was reason for ornamental excess.

• The Giambattista Valli Spring 2013 Couture Collection included cast-bronze waist-cinchers and necklaces with floral designs inspired by eighteenth century chandeliers.

• Tracey Pettingill’s Earrings are gold and silver curls accented with colorful jewels.

• Casey Corbin’s Cuff curves with intricate scrolls in sterling silver.

• April Baynes’ Ring has two tiny curls in pink gold.

• Gurmukh Khalsa’s Hoops are wrapped with gold wire, scrolls, and small rubies.

• Lisa’s Earrings are hand-cut scroll ornaments in oxidized silver.

• Ozgur Karamizrak’s Pillow Case has a subtle pattern of burnished gold ornaments.

• Lauren Alison’s Dinner Napkins are screen printed with a shimmering gold Moroccan medallion.

• Jennifer Johnson’s Ring has an intricate floral pattern and comes with two hammered gold bands.

Flying in Versailles

• A helicopter covered in pink ostrich feathers, Swarovski crystals, and gold leaf? Sitting pretty in the palace of Versailles? Marie Antoinette would be proud. After all, the sumptuous interior is embroidered with her monogram. Joana Vasconcelos’s Lilicoptère is one of several installations she created for Versailles this summer. In a way, Marie Antoinette tried to fly her own pink feather helicopter. She made Versailles the playground of her extravagant fantasies, with other French aristocrats as her fellow performers. She crashed and burned, but the remnants created our perceptions of high fashion, glamour, style, and sophistication. For the long story of how that happened, take a look at this book.

• Louis XIV set the high fashion game in motion, and it returned to its birthplace with the Chanel 2013 Resort Collection. The show took place at Versailles, closed but to the exclusive group who witnessed the punk-Rococo narrative. It’s been three hundred years and we still can’t get enough.

• Escape Versailles with Jessica and Holly’s Blush Hush, taken inside the Petit Trianon.

• Cheri’s Strawberry Marshmallows is the perfect decadent-yet-light treat.

• These Cookie-Witches by Tookies sandwich chocolate ganache between two strawberry-flavored cookies.

• Mable’s French Rose gets its creamy pink petals from the gardens of Versailles.

Let Them Paint

• Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Self-portrait in a Straw Hat was her ticket to the Royal Academy, a boy’s club of painters who had admitted only one other woman. It solidified her success as one of the most skilled and prolific artists of her day. In a career that spanned more than four decades, she painted 660 portraits of nobility and notable personalities, including Marie Antoinette and Lord Byron. After fleeing France during the Revolution, Le Brun continued to paint the aristocracy in Russia and England. Her portraits have an ease and softness that casts her lofty subjects in a human light. She gave her women a sense of dignity that no male painter could achieve. Her gaze in the Self-Portrait of 1782 is both direct and relaxed, while she holds a palette of fresh paint and a set of brushes. She wrote and published her memoirs, which you can read in their entirety here.

• Paulette’s Gift Wrap has a Rococo-inspired chandelier print on a light pink base.

• Coco’s Pink Cameo Necklace pairs a cream-and-rose cameo with dark green brass leaves.

• This Italian 1930s Straw Hat by Fanciness Vintage frames a bouquet of millinery flowers with dark navy ribbon.

• Katie’s Pink Flats are covered with ornate lace, pearl trim, and swarovski crystals.

• Mo’s French Macarons. Need I say more?

Swing With Me, Baby

Fragonard’s The Swing is perhaps a little too sugary-sweet for our taste, reminding us of the extravagance that defines the Rococo era of 18th century France. Looking beyond the layers of pink ruffle, however, reveals how this particular style fit in with social conventions characteristic of the time. Swinging was associated with play in the context of love and the elaborate game of courtship, and it gave new freedom to the meaning of flirting and frivolity within the strict social codes of conduct. The swing was a metaphor for the fickle nature of women, for example, and the shoe flying off the bare foot had obvious sexual connotations. The man looking up the woman’s skirt (getting a peek was part of the point) was none other than the patron who commissioned this painting, the Baron de Saint-Julien, or the Reciever-General of the French Clergy. The woman swinging is his mistress and the man pulling the swing is meant to be a bishop. Even though this would have hung in the Baron’s private petite-maison, or pleasure house, Fragonard toned down some of the more explicit details that the Baron had originally requested, such as the recognizability of the figures. There were, after all, limits to this French Clergyman a sense of humor.
More about The Swing

Bonnard’s France-Champagne was his first poster that kicked off his career as an artist and his involvement in the graphic arts during the 1890’s. He received 100 francs for his work, convincing him to quit his career aspirations as a lawyer and concentrate on being an artist. Japanese prints were undoubtedly an inspiration, but, more than that, he came up with a unique style that complemented the emergence of large-scale advertising and avante-garde climate of art world. He even introduced Toulouse-Lautrec to his printer, and Lautrec went on to develop a successful lithographic style that is rooted in Bonnard’s aesthetic.

Frills and Frivolity

The bows, ruffles, and roses of Boucher’s Rococo style portraits may seem frivolous from a modern perspective, but he was a master of reflecting both the theoretical ideals and social realities of the time. He painted over eighty portraits of Madame de Pompadour, who entrusted the task to him more than to any other artist. She remarkably rose from a bourgeois background to become the royal mistress of Louis XV, and exercised her influence in political matters, social trends, and artistic ventures that ranged from the construction of lavish villas to the promotion of French-style porcelain. In fact, the scope of her projects was partly funded by the royal treasury, as she replaced the then head of finances with her mother’s lover and possibly her own father. It is unfair to assume that she had a monopoly over artistic patronage, but she was certainly interested in maintaining her social standing by exemplifying the styles of the period.

Boucher’s makes subtle references to all aspects of the real and the ideal through a playful sensuality, making it all the more difficult to deconstruct his intentions and those of Madame de Pompadour. In many of these portraits, she appears much younger and more flawless than she really was, as the fully made-up and dazzlingly white complexion was perceived as the height of beauty. At the same time, love poetry and engravings of the time praised natural beauty as well, presenting a seemingly unattainable paradox. The decorative aspects are all part of the equation, as, for example, the cameo bracelet in Madame Pompadour at her Toilette is a portrait of Louis XV, suggesting obvious flattery on the part of Boucher and Madame de Pompadour. The gestures, backgrounds, and almost theatrical perfection were also references to Renaissance paintings, as Boucher’s portraits echo a Titian-type Venus.

The contemporary art of Violise Lunn reflects the same kind of materialization of the impossible and imaginative. Her fragile paper garments, like the endless satin gowns of Madame de Pompadour, seek a timelessness that is perhaps unattainable but certainly worth pursuing. In his definition of frivolity, Voltaire, who was Madame de Pompadour’s friend and advisor throughout her career, says “if you would tolerate life, mortals, forget yourselves, and enjoy it.”

See also:

“Mme. de Pompadour as a Patron of the Visual Arts” by Donald Posner

“Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette” by Elise Goodman-Soellner

Louis XV’s Chocolate Recipe

Patchworks and Brushstrokes

The Harlequin appears most famously as a character in the Commedia Dell’arte, the name for an improvised theater production that started becoming popular in fifteenth century Italy, although allusions to similar personages appeared in earlier works such as Dante’s Inferno and French Passion plays. Even though the dialogue was unscripted, there were certain recurring subjects as well as masked characters, one of whom was the Harlequin, a mischievous servant dressed in colorful patchwork squares.

Painters have found this particular character most intriguing, possibly attributing to his growing sophistication by adding layers of meaning through each brushstroke. Two early examples are Watteau’s Harlequin and Columbine and Giovanni Domenico’s Ferretti’s Arlecchino und Colombina. Watteu’s soft brushstrokes lend the painting a sense of mystery, as the black-masked Harlequin emerges to engage the apprehensive Columbina, and both are enveloped in the shadows of a smoky background. Ferretti provides greater contrast between the distinct, brightly colored costumes of both Harlequin and Columbina, who has a more pastel palette, and the sharp shadow cast by the mask he is holding, still obscuring his face. While Watteau’s scene seems more intimate, suggesting the sly qualities of Harlequin as he tries to seduce Columbina, and thoroughly a part of the artist’s romanticized world, we view Ferretti’s work from far below as if we were in the audience witnessing a production.

Arlecchino und Colombina by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti • Miu Miu Cutout Harlequin BootieHarlequin and Columbine by Jean-Antoine Watteau

These representations so far have been largely based on the Harlequin as a type with a certain exhibited personality, but later interpretations have reversed that perspective to show the Harlequin’s individual introspection. Picasso’s Harlequin and Columbine is a modern adaption of a classic character, as the thoughtfully curved hands support a pensive Harlequin and cooly disinterested, or disenchanted, Columbine. The shapes, assisted by patches of color, seem to be carved out with the utmost care for the subject and mood, and it has often been suggested that Picasso, who had seen several productions himself, not only explored the internal emptiness of the individual performer, but closely identified with the concept personally. The Harlequin, also represented in his Leaning Harlequin, was no longer an abstract idea but an artist among the rest of society who had to conceal his own self under layers of white face paint and blue checkered costumes.

Harlequin and Columbine and Leaning Harlequin by Pablo Picasso • Harlequin Mug

Other representations of Harlequin, that focused more on introverted qualities as a way to describe the individual as part of a larger, generalized phenomenon, include Andre Derain’s Arlequin et Pierrot and Cezanne’s Pierrot and Harlequin. The original comedic character has evolved into the modern Harlequin who asks us not only to face the viewpoint presented but to develop our own opinion of it. We are no longer in the audience, laughing and pitying the Harlequin. We are sitting across from him in a cafe, sipping the same coffee.

A history of the Commedia dell’arte.

Red Harlequin, Decorative ceramic plateArlequin et Pierrot by André Derain • Plate, Harlequin

Pierrot and Harlequin by Paul Cézanne • Miu Miu Lady Harlequin bubble tunic and bag