Eros and Endearment: The Look of Love in 18th-Century French Prints
Curated by Adrienne Foster
21 February – 11 April 2010
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Love, in all its manifestations, is an important theme in much eighteenth-century French art. As well as traditional scenes of romance, passion and seduction, there was a new emphasis on images of family relationships, motherhood, and children. This exhibition, selected from the W. McAllister Johnson collection of historical French prints, explores how different types and degrees of “love” were portrayed, and the significant role that prints played in disseminating these images throughout France and Europe.
The birth of modern consumerism in the eighteenth century resulted in the expansion of the print market. The increased purchasing power of the middle classes created a progressively wider audience for prints, many of whom were drawn to scenes of love. By 1783 prints were favourably compared to more expensive media such as paintings and statues: “[Prints] are within reach of everyone and today they are a highly fashionable kind of luxury.”
Genre painters like Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Etienne Jeaurat, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and others were well aware that the print market was an excellent way to disseminate their work. However, the printmakers who translated their paintings were more than mere artisans or copyists. Once they became probationary members (“agréés”) of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, they could exhibit at the Salon du Louvre. In the passage from painting to print, engravers could add to or change the meaning of an image through the addition of poetry (versification) and print titles.
Prints were purchased for collection or display; when glazed and hung on the wall, they might be morally instructive or simply entertaining. Some buyers speculated in them, while others were more interested in their artistic value or wanted to demonstrate their “good taste.” Prints of a similar size (pendants) with complementary themes became increasingly popular as the century progressed.
Whatever their function, prints depicting the consequences, both positive and negative, of love were favoured. During the Ancien Régime, (pre-revolutionary France) sentimental prints of happy domesticity became popular. Equivocal and even licentious images, whether or not they were veiled in allegory or symbolism, were also admired by men and women of all classes. Erotic prints ignited far-reaching public debate: moralists lamented the impure nature of public taste, while critics feared that prints depicting everyday life would overshadow “higher” forms of art such as history painting.