Louis-Leopold Boilly was a French painter and printmaker. Born in La Bassée, France, in 1761, he later moved to Paris in 1785, where he became successful at producing genre paintings for various Parisian patrons. Boilly’s works had an erotic undertone, and he quickly established himself as a painter of mischievous and sensual images. However in 1794, one of his erotic images elicited accusations of obscenity for which Boilly faced the threat of imprisonment. In the wake of this mishap, in addition to the emergence of a new political landscape with the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power, Boilly switched to portraiture. Boilly’s meticulous detail—both of facial expressions and costume—shed much light on the social and political life of the time.
Boilly’s depiction of costume also articulated contemporary gender constructions, even more than social class. In the later half of the eighteenth century, men began ceding the “sartorial limelight” to women in what is referred to by fashion historians as the “Great Masculine Renunciation.” A new modesty of male dress emerged, responding to the rise of the middle class, and the importance that group placed on industry. In turn aristocratic fashions were increasingly discredited by their connections with leisure and luxury. The homogeneity of modern costume in the early nineteenth century appear in the dark clothing and natural hair styles worn by this sitter, with decorations kept to a minimum.
Women, however, did the opposite. Boilly’s female sitters often sought to display the wealth of their families, adorning themselves with jewelry, lace, imported shawls, and bonnets. The construction of women-as-spectacle that took place during this period is clearly represented in Boilly’s small portraits. Women’s style varied by age. Younger women dressed in sexier, more revealing clothing, showing the breasts and shoulders. Older women were more covered. By contrast, men’s costume had few disparities according to age; they were generally covered with cravats and collars up to the chin.
Boilly’s transition from boudoir scenes to portraits was accelerated by the Revolution and the need for a more marketable medium. Boilly’s success came in part from his ability to produce images of good likeness in a matter of hours at an affordable price. By 1829, the year Boilly retired from painting, he had created over 4,500 small portraits, including this work.
Audio: Claire Stepherson, Oberlin College