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The 18th-Century Selfie

A new exhibition looks at the role of prints and drawings in pre- and post-revolutionary France
James Wehn, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Pre-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow
June 15, 2016
The Cupboard, 1778. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732–1806). 1994.196

In The Optical Viewer, an etching and engraving made by Fréderic Cazenave around 1794, Antoine Danton and his stepmother, Sébastienne-Louis Gély, look at a stack of large prints using a novelty device that reflects and magnifies the images, perhaps as a fun way to enhance their experience of depth perception. Although Sébastienne-Louis seems to pause only momentarily to turn her gaze toward us, in reality she and her stepson likely posed at length for the artist Louis Léopold Boilly, who painted the portrait before Cazenave reproduced it as a print. Today an equivalent picture might show family members looking up from a digital tablet while someone uses a smartphone to take a snapshot and post it on social media—a process that could take less than a minute from start to finish.


The Optical Viewer c. 1794. Fréderic Cazenave (French), after Louis Léopold Boilly (French, 1761–1845). Etching and engraving; 72 x 53.9 cm (sheet). John L. Severance Fund, 2001.15

Clearly, times have changed. In the 21st century we largely turn to our electronic devices to find images of the things that interest and entertain us. But in France during the 1700s, as in many early modern cultures, prints were the most efficient method of transmitting visual information. Trained printmakers capitalized on French society’s keen interest in the arts, creating an abundance of affordable works that reflected the tastes of the aristocracy while catering to an aspiring middle class. Closely related to prints, drawings were of central importance to all types of artists and craftsmen, and though fewer in number and generally more expensive than prints, drawings were also popular among art enthusiasts. Elegance and Intrigue: French Society in 18th-Century Prints and Drawings offers a glimpse of how these graphic arts decorated homes, provided entertainment, promoted the latest trends, and, at the end of the century, nurtured the revolutionary spirit that intrinsically altered the fabric of French society.

One theme that the exhibition explores is the use of prints and drawings to foster artists, styles, and products related to the decorative arts. Silver Sculptural Project for a Large Centerpiece and Two Tureens, Which Have Been Executed for His Lordship the Duke of Kingston, an etching by Gabriel Huquier, presents a selection of posh tableware designed in the rococo style by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, an official goldsmith and architect to King Louis XV. Originally commissioned by the Duke of Kingston, one of the tureens is now a celebrated treasure in the CMA’s collection. Huquier included the etching in his publication Oeuvre de Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, a compilation of prints publicizing the architect’s designs and important commissions, much as a magazine about the latest home interiors might do today. A 1734 advertisement for an earlier suite of designs by Meissonnier proposed that the prints “should pique the curiosity of the public and of the inquisitive of better taste.” The large inscription at the bottom of the print associates the centerpiece and tureens with the illustrious duke, well known in Parisian society, while the lavishly decorated rococo chamber invites viewers to imagine themselves in the duke’s position, as owners of the luxurious tableware.


Zephyre and Flore c. 1776. Jean François Janinet (French, 1752–1814), after Antoine Coypel (French, 1661–1722). Color wash-manner etching and engraving with applied gold leaf; 33.3 x 26.5 cm (sheet). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert D. Milne in memory of Leona E. Prasse, 1987.91

By the mid-18th century, masterfully finished chalk drawings and watercolors had become increasingly popular in home decor. To produce more affordable printed alternatives, printmakers devised new methods of imitating chalk and watercolor, along with a technique for layering tinted inks on paper. Zephyre and Flore, a wash-manner etching and engraving by Jean François Janinet, is a warm and colorful depiction of the classical god of the west wind in the arms of his lover, the goddess of flowers. Janinet further elevated this sensual allegory of spring with a faux frame of hand-applied gold leaf, on top of which he printed an ornamental pattern.

The fun and folly of young lovers was a popular subject, often formulated with a titillating sense of intrigue and a dose of moral judgment. Jean-Honoré Fragonard crafted his etching The Cupboard to surprise and delight his audience in a manner similar to a modern-day sitcom with familiar characters and humorous, unexpected twists. A maiden weeps as her boyfriend, caught hiding in a wardrobe, sheepishly faces the girl’s fuming parents. Rumpled bedsheets and the position of the hat—held low by the boy to conceal any indication of his sexual arousal—give away the passionate activities of the young lovers. Comically, the hat with a broad ribbon held by the boy belongs to his girlfriend, while his plain hat with a buttoned-up brim hangs in the armoire.
However, life in France at the end of the 1700s became deadly serious, as enlightened demands for equality by the lower classes evolved into a dangerous political fervor. Whereas signs of affluence were cultivated and celebrated under the ancien régime, the appearance of moderation and allegiance to egalitarian ideals became important in the early years of the republic. When Jean-Baptiste Isabey exhibited a chalk and gouache portrait of his friend and fellow artist Jacques Luc Barbier-Walbonne in the 1796 Salon, drawings had taken on significance as an especially personal and democratic form of art. Barbier’s tasseled cap and embroidered jacket recall his service as a hussar in the Revolutionary army, and the vest, cravat, and “dog-ear” hairstyle were popular among young male Parisians. Traditionally, however, a man would not be shown smoking, an activity usually associated with the lower class. Isabey’s focus on the long pipe and steady stream of smoke made the drawing especially populist at the time. François Aubertin re-created the portrait as a print for the 1804 Salon, where it was simply described as “The Little Smoker.”
How do you and your friends choose to portray yourselves today? What does your latest selfie say about you? As you visit Elegance and Intrigue, marvel at how different 18th-century French art, styles, and stories appear, but also consider how the underlying interests and concerns of that society endure in the 21st century, manifested in our own trendy forms of social media.   



Jacques Luc Barbier-Walbonne 1796. Jean-Baptiste Isabey (French, 1767–1855). Black chalk with stumping, heightened with white gouache; 26.2 x 20.7 cm (sheet). Gift of Harry D. Kendrick, 1950.496

Cleveland Art, July/August 2016