Vertiginous

Nicholas Penny

  • Grands Décors français 1650-1800 by Bruno Pons
    Faton, 439 pp, £130.00, June 1995, ISBN 2 87844 023 4
  • The Rococo Interior by Katie Scott
    Yale, 342 pp, £39.95, November 1995, ISBN 0 300 04582 4
  • Chardin by Marianne Roland Michel, translated by Eithne McCarthy
    Thames and Hudson, 293 pp, £60.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 500 09259 1

The rococo style transformed the character of the domestic interior. First in France, where the style originated in the late 17th century, and then in the rest of Europe, rooms were created which were lighter and more elegant and charming than those of any previous period. They were also audacious, often astonishingly so, in their treatment of space and their denial of solidity or stability. It is easy to forget this because these rooms are more easily reconciled with modern ideas of luxury and comfort than those decorated in any other historical style. De Troy’s famous painting, The Reading from Molière illustrated on the dust-jacket of Katie Scott’s study of the rococo interior, seems to epitomise an ideal of polite but informal and mixed society which is still current. However, those who feel at ease with rococo furniture today do so because it is old and familiar. Originally it seemed novel and fantastic.

French rococo interiors, together with those created in the tidier, more architectural style associated with Louis XVI, have not only been much imitated, they have also been transplanted. The walls were often made up of carved wooden panelling, or boiseries, which could easily be moved to the new homes of the Verdurins and the Vanderbilts (or to the Musée Carnavalet and the Metropolitan Museum). In the first part of Grands Décors français 1650-1800 the late Bruno Pons traces the history of the reuse of French panelling and of the fashion, in both private homes and museums, for the ‘period room’. He surveys with sharp but uncensorious intelligence the interventions of both collectors and conservationists and the part played by nostalgia and archaeology in the consequent reconstructions.

The case-studies which follow expose what is false in rooms that museum visitors are usually encouraged to accept as wholly authentic. Sometimes these rooms include only a few genuine fragments incorporated into a pastiche which is, as Pons observes, no closer to 18th-century France than rococo chinoiserie was to China, but which now has its own ‘period charm’. Elsewhere, the absence of a cornice or the presence of a carpet, the solecism of a writing table in a reception room or of gilded furniture in a room with plain panelling, is drawn to our attention. Much use is made of unpublished 18th-century inventories and 19th-century photographs to trace the long lives of the noble characters (of carved oak) so many of whom now live in air-conditioned retirement abroad. We normally expect the longevity of works of art to be celebrated; here there is a salutary emphasis on the loss of friends and family and on the secret surgery which was the price of survival. Furniture is of course more easily moved than panelling, but it comes as a shock all the same to discover that so little of the finest French furniture remains in the setting for which it was made.

In the creation of the rococo interior numerous arts and crafts were involved in more subtle and intricate harmonies than had ever before been attempted. Inevitably, the finer effects were ephemeral: silk hangings and tapestries fade, oil paintings and mirrors darken, and only the polished marble of the chimneypiece remains more or less unchanged. Re-upholster the furniture and the gilding will look worn; renew the gilding and all that it borders will seem tawdry. Indeed, it is hard to find a rococo interior of the highest quality in which all the surfaces appear to have aged in unison, as they do in some of the rooms in the palatial hunting lodge of the Dukes of Savoy at Stupinigi, a short drive from Turin. These rooms (little visited even in summer) enjoy the additional advantage of being visible only by daylight. Electric light kills all subtleties of gilding, while assaulting the wandering eye and disrupting the balance of the room.

Harmony and balance may suggest tranquillity, yet the spatial character of the rococo interior is often vertiginously exciting, the ornament enticing as well as diverting. In one of the smaller rooms at Stupinigi is the soffitto a ghiacci e finte porcellane, a ceiling covered with an intricate network of scrolling stucco ornament – some of it in relief, some – of it painted to resemble relief – with mirrors set in the petal or shell-shaped interstices. The pattern of the stucco seems almost kinetic and even the colours – pale greens and yellows and pinks – seem to fade as forms dissolve, or to flush as they expand. Repetitions mingle with reflections: strewn over the ceiling are painted flowers, which also appear in the overdoors and dados and on the silk hangings.

This is an example, dating from the 1760s, of an extreme development of the rococo style outside France. There is no such flirtation with illusion or confusion in the oval Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise designed by Germain Boffrand thirty years earlier – one of the most famous rococo rooms to survive in Paris (today part of the Archives Nationales) – and yet a denial of stability is also essential to the appeal of this room. The ceiling appears to float above the walls, from which it is separated by paintings set in frames of undulating outline. The walls consist of arches which frame windows or mirrors (the latter reflecting the former), and between each arch the wall is enlivened by panels bordered with gilded scrolls and tendrils that break into the frames of the paintings above.

The same playful spirit, the same determination to tease the mind as well as delight the eye, shaped the character of rococo furniture. The polished marble top of the typical rococo console table echoes the curves of the mirror frame on the wall from which it projects. The legs take up the rhythm of the frame and the panel mouldings. Such tables seldom served any practical function. A commode did, of course, have a use as well as an undeniable bulk. The rococo commode, however, endows mass with apparent mobility: for example, the commode made for the bedchamber of Louis XV at Versailles, and now in the Wallace Collection, has a double bow and bombé front and sides, making the shapes of its drawers and cupboards quite impractical. Moreover, the pattern of the veneer of kingwood and mahogany (the work of Gaudreau) ignores the divisions of the drawers, nor is it immediately clear which of the twisting gilt bronze mounts (signed by Caffieri) that seem to swim over its surface are merely ornaments and which are handles. This commode also formed part of an ensemble: as Francis Watson explains in the preface to his 1956 catalogue of the furniture in the Wallace Collection, it fitted below a mirror and its ormolu ornaments matched the gilded carving of the panelling by Jacques Verberckt.

Watson’s preface also includes a miraculously succinct history of French furniture in which he describes how the rococo chair was adapted to an ‘easier, less formal existence’ and to the fashion for wide skirts.

The typical Louis XV chair was the bergère, which came into existence about 1725, a large, deep, embracing armchair into which the sitter could only sink in a way which would not have conformed to social conventions two decades earlier. The very names of the various types of chair met with in the 18th century – à la reine, en confessional, fauteuil à poudrer – all point to the ascendancy of women in social life. The forms taken by the chaise longue (a piece of furniture which made its appearance during this period), the duchesse, the sopha, the ottomane and the veilleuse underline the same point even more strongly.

It is precisely the point that De Troy’s painting illustrates.

Pons observes that French 18th-century inventories distinguish between furniture which was meublant or dormant and that which was d’usage. The former terms were always used of furniture that was related to a wall even when not attached to it. One of the photographs in his exceptionally handsome book illustrates how the sinuous back frame of an armchair from the Château d’Abondant dips to reveal a flourish of ornament in the panelling behind it – both the panelling and the chair frame have recently been restored by the Louvre to their original matching grey and pale green paint. Given this sort of relationship, it is likely that curved walls prompted the making of furniture with rounded backs, such as the duchesse. In any case, the invention of chairs in which there was, for the first time, a fluent relationship between arms and legs and back, owed as much to a desire to impart to carpentry the organic unity of a flower or a shell as it did to any considerations of comfort, important though these were.

Katie Scott does not attempt either to evoke or to analyse the wit and fantasy, the spatial audacities, those ‘idées riantes que la magie des glaces répète encore et semble multiplier à l’infini’, nor does she chart the emergence of a less formal way of life among the rich. Her first chapter opens with an introduction to wood panelling, explaining how the wood was prepared and carved. She then considers how the invention of plate glass made mirrors available in large sheets (and discusses their cost in relation to that of painting and tapestry – their rivals as wall covering); notes how dyes of a richer tonal range were introduced by a painter into the silk and wool used by the tapestry factory at Beauvais; and traces the introduction of ornament imitating carved wood but cast in ‘composition’ (a sort of putty), the use of which was eventually suppressed by law (except in picture-frames).

All this is highly informative but the book is not intended to supply a full introduction to the materials and techniques employed in these interiors. Gilding was an essential component of the most luxurious rooms. The prestige attached to it is discussed here (as is the royal veto applied to it), but there is no explanation of fire gilding (for bronze) or water gilding and oil gilding (for wood). There is nothing on the art of the ébéniste, on the taste for veneers, on the richly patterned exotic woods which replaced the fashion for ebony (after which the ébénistes were named) and nothing on the popularity of ormolu (gilt bronze) mounts. Nor are the new types of chair discussed. In fact Scott’s book contains hardly anything about furniture, although it was inseparable from the design of the interior.

Perhaps the chief value of The Rococo Interior lies in its attempt to explain how and why the French version took the form it did. Scott examines the rivalries between joiners and woodcarvers, woodcarvers and architects, house painters (also gilders and mirror suppliers) and figure painters (some of them Academicians) as well as the co-operation among them and the compromises they reached. She asks whether designs were followed exactly or interpreted freely, and how much value was attached to invention and how much to practical skill. The artistic pretensions displayed by the hairdressers of Paris in their polemical bid for emancipation from the guild of wigmakers – a fascinating episode apparently of little relevance to the rococo interior – provides valuable evidence for her reflections.

A study of the relations between the arts is essential to any explanation of rococo interiors because their artistic unity was the product of artistic collaboration, even when there seems to have been a single controlling mind. Moreover, the major innovators among the leading designers of interiors in early 18th-century France – figures not studied in detail by Scott – were not prominent painters and architects, as had previously been the case in both France and Italy. These innovators included Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, who is first recorded as a royal goldsmith (and whose architectural commissions dismayed leading architects), and Nicolas Pineau, who was a woodcarver by profession (he revealed an aptitude for interior design at the Russian court and continued to exercise it on his return to Paris, where his banishment of straight lines and symmetry was much applauded). The most striking example of all is Charles Cressent, whom Scott does not mention at all, the daring novelties and extraordinary beauties of whose furniture and clockcases have been plausibly credited to the fact that the patronage of the Regent enabled him to ignore the guild regulations that kept the arts of ébéniste and sculptor distinct. He also involved himself in all the processes of bronze sculpture – modelling, casting, tooling and gilding – which were normally divided between different specialists.

Scott’s approach also helps to explain the exceptional achievements of French woodcarving in this period – achievements best exemplified by the luxury picture-frame. Two qualities are especially remarkable in such work: refinements of texture and sheen (and addition of fine sand to some surfaces, the scratching of hatched and cross-hatched patterns into the gesso covering the wood, the varied burnishing of the gold-leaf) and intricate plasticity (tendrils and scrolls detached from the surface, mouldings merging with ornament and swirling into the corners). Both these qualities must have been developed as a result of competition from work in gilt bronze which was often cast from wax models and easily adopted a complex and fluent form, and was also minutely and meticulously tooled because it was associated with luxurious objects made in more precious materials by goldsmiths. The competition must have been particularly acute not only because comparisons were unavoidable – bronze candlebranches, for example, were attached to carved mirror frames – but also because the founders employed carvers to make their wooden models while at the same time threatening to usurp their role. Ormolu mounts replaced carved ornament on much of the finest furniture, and some picture-frames (including several very large ones at Versailles) were even commissioned in bronze.

After her discussion of materials and makers Scott turns her attention to the patrons, the decorum of ostentation and the expectation of rank, the new locations selected by the nobility for their hôtels, the uses to which interiors were put and the differences between appartements de parade and appartements de société. She scans social attitudes and architectural plans rather than exploring specific buildings in vivid detail, and is exceedingly attentive to the values of the nobility and to their shifting political allegiances, although occasionally inclined to depict them as more Martian than they were: ‘Naissance should be translated as “lineage”, not “birth”,’ she writes, ‘for it was not so much a known biological event as the historical or mythological trace of a social and cultural process,’ perhaps forgetting that ‘birth’ does not merely mean parturition in English.

Turning from the attitudes of the nobility in Paris to the misfortunes of Psyche in Apuleius’ fable, Scott adopts modern ideas as well as modern vocabulary. She claims that Psyche ‘did not overturn the dominion of male subjectivity ... but sought merely to equal Cupid’s ability to fashion history. What the story of Cupid and Psyche seemed to question was not the authenticity of chauvinist perceptions of history, but the necessity or even desirability of autonomy centralised in the hands of a single individual. The political implications of such an interpretation are tantalising indeed.’ They would be, if it could be shown that such an interpretation would have been advanced in the 18th century. This account of Cupid and Psyche is made with reference to the series of paintings made by Charles-Joseph Natoire in 1737-8 for the above-mentioned Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise. The notion that we might expect to find the ‘complex articulation of social and political concerns’ within a decorative scheme of this kind is licensed by the fact that the paintings in royal palaces often incorporated not only heraldic devices but hyperbolic allusions to their patron (the Sun King at Versailles, most famously). But it is not clear how seriously these allusions were taken. Scott herself notes how contemporary accounts of ballets performed at court and of statuary arranged in the palace gardens ignored the political meanings that we now tend to emphasise.

The paintings in the Salon de la Princesse are set in frames of an elaborate pattern which was obviously not designed by the painter. It is likely that Boffrand devised the decorative scheme without regard for the subject-matter of the paintings. The contiguity of the areas reserved for canvas made it desirable that the paintings be devoted to episodes from the same story; and of stories with numerous episodes suitable for the zone between a vault and a wall (that is, which involved the interaction of gods and mortals), that of Cupid and Psyche would have been the most obvious. Familiarity with the story had been increased by the highly popular adaptation of 1669 by La Fontaine and by the tragédie-ballet of 1671 by Molière. The story had an additional attraction among artists and connoisseurs because it had been painted on vaults and pendentives by both Raphael and Giulio Romano (a precedent which Scott does not mention). The likelihood that the paintings express complex social and political concerns shrinks considerably if we allow that there was a prejudice against such allegorical painting, that the decorative scheme had priority and that the subject was highly familiar. Scott herself observes justly of appartements de société that ‘paintings were required to blend with the rest of the decoration not stand out from it – hence the ubiquity of easily recognisable and familiar pictorial themes.’ There seems no reason to suppose that the situation would have been completely different in more public ceremonial spaces.

Whereas the early chapters of Scott’s book emphasise the importance of collaboration in the creation of the rococo interior, in the later chapters, when she is discovering meanings in the paintings, context is often disregarded. It is the story of Cupid and Psyche more than the treatment of it by Natoire that she discusses, but if we turn to the large colour plate of Psyche admiring her sleeping lover by lamplight we may admire the way the composition (unfortunately reproduced in reverse here) is adapted without any sense of strain to the shape of the frame: the tilt of the head, the line of her outstretched arm, even the sole of her raised foot respond to its curves. Gilded stucco brothers of the putti within the pictures play amid the scrolls and foliage above and below them. Thus, as we scan the room, we meet no barrier which would suggest that a different kind of attention is now appropriate.

Figurative elements are obviously of marginal significance in so-called grotesque decorative schemes, in which they act merely as minor incidents amid the ornament, which could be lyrical and even poignant as well as whimsical and comic. Why such decoration should have become so popular in France during the late 17th century with the work of Audran and Bérain is a highly interesting question. It is very likely true, as Scott argues, that this style ‘offered relief from the regimentation and authoritarianism of academic culture’. The grotesque, however, was itself more a part of academic culture than Scott allows, and its profusion was not ‘unprecedented’: very large interiors had been covered with grotesques in 16th-century Italy and the style was especially associated with Raphael.

Marianne Roland Michel’s monograph on Chardin is more orthodox in conception but also agreeably free of the obfuscations of current academic discourse. It opens with an account of his life and career as a Parisian painter and then considers the contemporary response to his art (above all, but not only, the praise of Diderot and Cochin, whose writings on the artist are very usefully reproduced in an Appendix), his technique (a chapter of notable originality and sensitivity), the development of the different types of painting that he practised, his sources (for example, in Dutch and Flemish painting) and his influence, and the engravings made after his work (also catalogued in an Appendix).

Chardin’s maturity as an artist (between the late 1720s and his death in 1779) was dominated by the institution of the Académie, of which he became a much respected member. Only at the very end of his life did he receive an official rebuff when the new Directeur des Bâtiments, the Comte d’Angiviller, reminded him that some of his peers who worked in ‘genres no less if not more difficult than his’ were as worthy of the reward he felt to be his due. By then, the official promotion of Neoclassical painting had begun – heroic performances which would win a competition, shine in an exhibition and then hang in some museum of modern art, but which refused to serve as decor.

The presentation of Chardin’s paintings at the Académie’s exhibitions in the Salon Carré of the Louvre (held regularly from 1737 onwards) encouraged people to contemplate them, and critics to assess them, as autonomous works of art. They were, however, for the most part, commissioned works and had sometimes been painted for particular places. Chardin’s first important commission was for overdoors (in the Hôtel Rothenburg) as were his most prestigious later commissions (including those for the French Crown and for the Russian Empress). It is easy to forget the original position of these paintings because they are usually now displayed in frames at a more accessible height. (Only the pair in the Musée Jacquemart-André – the great Parisian collection now at last once more properly open to the public – still serve as overdoors). One of Chardin’s most famous paintings, The White Tablecloth (or The Saveloy) in the Art Institute of Chicago, which has a high vanishing-point (anticipating examination from above) and originally had arched upper corners, must have been made to fill a chimney-piece in summer. Other leading painters of still-life made works of this kind, and some by Oudry have survived. I do not recall ever seeing one in place in a French 18th-century interior, though a whole set survives at Stupinigi.

It may be objected that the great majority of Chardin’s paintings were not intended to be so closely integrated with a scheme of interior decoration. However, throughout his life, Chardin painted fictive low-relief sculpture, a type of painting that is more effective if set into panelling rather than an orthodox frame. As for his genre scenes and still-lifes, Marianne Roland Michel counts a dozen pairs in the first category and about twenty in the latter. In other words, a great many of his paintings were pendants – sometimes companions for Old Masters or other painters or for his own earlier work, but most often conceived of as pairs from the start. Often his compositions are complementary and sometimes there is a witty equivalence in the subjects, as with the Gobelet d’argent, which has as its pair a painting of a glass vessel of similar shape. No other painter of easel pictures with a comparable reputation – with the exception of his contemporary Canaletto – can have devoted so much thought to how his paintings would work as wall decorations. It is surely significant that in 1755 Chardin became tapissier to the Académie, responsible for arranging the hanging of the paintings at the Salons. Michel amply documents the diligence, tact and wit he displayed in the performance of this duty.

The tapissier was the son of a cabinet-maker and parquet specialist. The man who stood godfather at his baptism and the friend who stood witness at his second wedding were also cabinet-makers. Chardin painted the family of the latter, Jean-Jacques Lenoir, and it is Lenoir’s son who is building a house of cards in the painting in the National Gallery. It was as natural for Chardin as it was for the maker of console tables and commodes to think of himself as furnishing a domestic interior.

The calm order of Chardin’s compositions seems opposed to rococo movement, and his crumbly impasto and dragged brushstrokes seem alien to the flourish and flicker of gilded ornament, but the interiors for which he would have painted were either relatively calm versions of rococo taste or designed in reaction to it. It should also be recalled that the taste for matt gilding, and for the dry texture of biscuit and terracotta, used as a complement or contrast to burnished gilding and shining porcelain, dates from the mid-18th century.

Chardin’s large overdoors depict luxury objects – rich fabrics, ornamental bronzes, musical and scientific instruments – and he has never been surpassed as a painter of porcelain and silver. But many of his paintings show simple food and humble utensils and indeed plain (although never poor) people, including servants. One anonymous critic, quoted by Michel, observed that ‘there is no woman of the third estate’ who would not acknowledge the truth of Chardin’s paintings. But this is just what was said of the ordinary folk in comedies that were nevertheless chiefly written for the highest section of society. La Bénédicité, here translated as Saying Grace, the artist’s most celebrated work, was presented, together with its pendant, to the King, and the Swedish ambassador, Comte Tessin, wrote of his keen desire to acquire paintings of such simple, dutiful, clean people.

It is said that Chardin was unwilling to paint unless he had a model or object before him: Diderot claimed that when a brace of rabbits began to rot he left the painting of them unfinished because it was impossible to match them with others sufficiently close in colouring (Michel brilliantly identifies the painting in question as a still-life in Washington). But before Chardin thus dedicated himself to truth he had made numerous decisions as to what would be decorous and pleasing to look at – and to live with. The connoisseur or artist approaches his pictures, not to see them better, not to discover more in them, but to see how they are made or rather to marvel at the impossibility of doing so. They seem right at a distance; even La Bénédicité with its small figures is eloquent from ten feet away, which is rarely the case with the Dutch antecedents of this type of picture. Chardin consistently avoided representing the backgrounds in his paintings with any precision, or depicting deep pictorial space. Rather, his fish and fowl, vegetables and vessels, are arranged in shallow space, often imprecisely defined, and it is rare for his genre scenes to include much of a room. He had, in any case, little proficiency at linear perspective (Michel is perceptive on his lack of proper academic training), although he was accomplished at painting objects (a pouting carp on a table or a key in a drawer) that seem to project into our space. All this means that the eye is not constantly drawn into his pictures. He knew, one suspects, that it can be tedious to live with anything which it is hard not to look at.

For this reason, too, there is no obvious excitement in Chardin’s paintings. After the robber cat in his great early still-life La Raie, he never painted any obviously dramatic incident. His subjects, which require no previous literary knowledge and are easy to understand, are full of subtleties of sentiment of which we cannot tire. He abandoned landscape at an early stage and the paintings he made thereafter are of interiors: the light within them is the same sort of light that would be found in the rooms where they hung. The stone colour that he repeatedly used as a foil for linen, an egg or a duck’s wing, for red wine, offal or an orange, also contains traces of almost any colour likely to be chosen for the wall behind the picture. Chardin must have chosen the colours in his overdoors with reference to specific decorative schemes, as can be seen to have been the case in the 18th-century overdoors that have remained in place, such as those in some of the panelled rooms in the Musée Carnavalet and in the chimneypiece landscape by Richard Wilson in the dining-room at Platt Hall, Manchester, where sunlight and clouds are embraced by stone-grey rococo plasterwork touched with gold.

When we admire Chardin’s paintings today in the art gallery they retain the magic that amazed his contemporaries at the Salons. But they were tailored for a type of interior which hardly survives, and few people now live with his paintings as he intended. We can only envy those who once did so. What we can have in our own home is Marianne Roland Michel’s excellent book, though it is a pity that it has been produced in so large a format that it is difficult to handle and impossible to shelve. It is almost itself a piece of furniture.