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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Interior Spaces: The Exotic and the Erotic

This paper was given in the late 1990s,
at a meeting of the Western Society for French History

The shower of gold coins that falls on Titian's Danäe (Naples) offers a specific clue to interpreting not only this beautifully erotic painting, but also prompts reflection on the relation between the foreground, or exotic image and the background of an erotic painting. The coins explicitly suggest, as Huse noted in 1989, that Danäe was a courtesan, not a virtuous princess.(1) While the religious, mythological and general cultural associations between luxury and the erotic are as old as the history of vices as a program in art -- one thinks immediately of the images of Hell in the Last Judgment tympana that begin to appear in the eleventh century -- little attention has been given to the exotic that luxury often is, and the erotic, as specific stimulus images to consumerist behavior. In an earlier paper on eighteenth-century French portraiture I tried to show how still-life themes -- so important in invoking memories and the sense of the fragility of life, were part of a structural iconographic program.(2) One rarely did not appear without the other, especially if the persons portrayed were women or children. The still-life objects in these paintings were often of little or no value -- flowers being the prime example -- while in a specifically erotic painting such as Titian's Danäe just the opposite may be true.

In previous consumerist scholarship paintings are, of course, items of value to be counted up in the overall evaluation of domestic furnishings.(3) They may also be commissioned or collected as prestige items -- interpreting consumerist behavior as a dimension of social rivalry and political power seeking.(4) But picture evaluation in this consumerist literature is grounded only on market evaluations or the amount of the commission. Little attempt has been made, to my knowledge, to relate the specific iconographic elements in pictorial production, to the remarkable rise of the "empire of things" in Western culture.(5) Understanding the relation between the erotic foregrounds and the exotic (possibly) backgrounds in Western art obviously is an enormous undertaking. If we limit our sources to paintings, and perhaps a few written sources from the Early Modern French period, it may be possible to test the hypothesis that some distinct effects on consumerist behavior may be discerned by the concentrated attention on the backgrounds in erotic paintings. For purposes of analysis it is desirable to assume that the erotic dimension is constant in these paintings -- over the centuries -- and that, though the genre evolves and becomes more complex, that it is not our subject. Similarly, while it is certainly possible to discern erotic dimensions in pictures with religious themes, that was usually not the principal intention of those who painted or commissioned such works. This said, we shall also have to recognize that some paintings of Biblical subjects had, by about 1530, definitely moved out of the category of inspirational religious art -- the so-called histories of Lot, and of Susannah and the Elders being prime examples.

Before turning to paintings very much in the category of Titian's Danäe, it is worthwhile to note in passing that there may well have been a consumerist effect resulting from the painting of landscapes as exotic spaces. I simply want to mention this in passing. Late-medieval gardens generally were small affairs. The immensity of later seventeenth-century and especially eighteenth-century gardens -- constructed at great expense -- owed something to the exotic landscape painters of Italy from whom Claude Lorrain learned so much, and whose art would inspire emotional needs to have vistas, reflecting pools, ruined temples, and mountains. The great English gardens created in the eighteenth-century -- and their subsequent imitations all over Europe -- owed something to the synthesis of light and man-created nature in the paintings by Claude and his imitators.

The first step in studying the background in an erotic painting is, of course, to make an inventory of the jewelry, the mirrors and the silk shifts and gauzes that literally decorate and encrust the female figure (Dame at her toilette by Dubreuil, Louvre). (6) The iconic force of the image, like the emotional attachment that may have linked the person depicted with the person who commissioned the painting, prompted gifts in the form of jewelry and luxurious clothes that stimulate a sense of feeling through the eye. Like the perennial theme of la dame à sa toilette, combing hair, dressing, and putting on jewelry may well have permitted the beholder to sense not only erotic feelings, and past memories of them, but also a sense of possession in that the subjects are wearing jewelry and fine clothes actually given to the person depicted.7 It might well be possible at this point to suggest that she be called "the beloved." The sixteenth century French erotic portrait was, I think, an especially commissioned portrait -- of someone by someone else. It is impossible to resist quoting the Béarnais-Navarrois at this point:

Je vous escrys mes cheres amours des prets de votre peynture, que j'adore seulemant pource qu'elle est fayte pour vous non qu'elle vous resamble. J'an puys estre juge competant, vous ayant peynte an toute perfection dans mon ame, dans mon ame, dans mon cur, dans mes yeux.(8)

Henry wrote this in his own hand to Gabrielle d'Estrées in 1599, and it is highly probable that the king did in fact travel with at least a miniature of Gabrielle with him as well as a small portrait that could be put on a easel. The king was also known to be a very generous gift-giver to his beloved mistresses.

While these paintings often had specific moral messages, usually vanity evoked by the image in the mirror, the image also enhanced the emotional valence of the picture -- more often than not allowing the beholder to contemplate the eyes of the beloved from two different angles, thereby intensifying the sense of presence. Estimating the value of the jewelry and finery in these pictures is something best left to specialists in material culture. My point is simply the association of the exotic in the sense of finery, with the erotic.

Like the Worcester Art Museum example, the famous François Clouet -- often referred to as Diane de Potiers -- of the National Gallery in Washington, has a domestic scene in the more remote background.(9) The Clouet is clearly the much more elite painting: the fireplace, the picture on the wall, and the richly tapestried heraldic chair give an atmosphere deemed worthy of the beauty of the person in the bath. The silk drapery frames the picture in a way that stimulates a sense of intimacy, but also richness of touch in the silk and its color. The Worcester painting is thematically the same, but the painter lacked the talent to stimulate the emotional intensity that Clouet prompted, and still prompts. There are other paintings of this type that have survived the campaigns of moralists to destroy them. It is impossible to estimate just how many there were in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries -- especially since they rarely appeared in inventories because their owners kept them in quite private places in their houses.

Evidence of where erotic pictures were hung is very scanty, but there are occasional allusions to their being seen in the garde-robes of aristocratic households. The chamber in which Abraham Bosse depicts a young man being shaved is not princely or aristocratic, but rich, urban and minor noble, financier, or professional. The theme of the painting depicted hanging on top of a tapestry wall is the perennial Venus and the Old Woman, certainly a trope, but nevertheless quite special in Bosse's repertoire of household interiors, since all the other pictures he has on walls in interiors have religious or mythological subjects. To be sure, there is a moral here -- the ravages of aging on beauty -- but the scene is nonetheless erotic. The background of the picture can be interpreted as a stimulus to luxury spending and general consumption, since we see masses of bedding. By contrast, the room in which the picture hangs has a degree of luxury and refinement. Still, it is worthwhile to recall at this point that in her perhaps overly statistical studies of consumption in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Paris Annik Pardailhé-Galabrun found that bedding and the bed was the most expensive consumable item in households, except among the very, very wealthy -- and even here, proportionately, the bedding was extremely costly. In Eustache Le Sueur's Sleeping Venus Surprised by Love in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the bedding and the bed-rail certainly suggest abundance and high quality: there's plenty of it. The drapery is luxurious as well, but not in the high-finish Flemish manner that we saw in the Clouet. This frankly erotic work was painted in 1639 or 1640, but nothing has been found so far that informs us about who commissioned it.(10)

Thanks to the research of Françoise Bayard and Daniel Dessert, the cultural history of the high-consuming groups known as the financiers, or tax farmers, is becoming increasingly well known, and was obviously very important.(11) Their patronage of the principal architects, painters, and decorators of the time is well known, but the possibility that they had a still less inhibited inclination toward the luxury than the high aristocracy must now be explored. The social circles that supported Fouquet tended to live like him, thus leaving behind high Robe well-to-do families and wholesale merchants as living well, but not truly high spenders. Daniel Roche has already suggested a similar pattern for elite Parisian eighteenth-century society -- as he found domestic servants, financiers, and government officials actually spending more on the latest visible signs of affluence, than did established merchant families.(12) Within Parisian society there was not only an elite of established families -- certainly participating in high-consumption living by comparison with artisans and retail merchants, but still quite separate from this elite were the tax farmers, munitioners, and suppliers of luxury commodities to the court -- in a vanguard of luxury consumption. By way of introducing us to the question of the cross-over of religious themes to specific erotic ones, the life style of Pierre Forget de Fresnes provides a distinct social framework for erotic art in this high-consumerist luxury culture.(13) A secretary of state, and probable drafter of the specific terms of the Edict of Nantes, Fresnes's ancestors were silk merchants in Tours until his father became the royal treasurer for building the Château of Chambord for Francis I. Note already this synthesis of luxury cloth and building in the family, putting Forget in a social milieu not only courtly but luxury oriented. By 1577 he was grand audiencier and secretary of finances, the two making a remarkable synthesis of prestige at court, and high income from administering royal finances. Buying the Hôtel de Rambouillet in 1606, Forget furnished it with all the finery that the artisans trained to supply the court could produce. He purchased paintings in Rome, the most expensive being described as the History of Lot. There was also a painting of the goddess Flora, another of a woman coming out of a bath, others of the Four Seasons, and one of a "woman holding a handkerchief." The inventory of tapestries is also extensive. These tapestries were not only more valuable than the paintings, they are also suggestive of the possibility that, according to the conventions of the day, the paintings were hung on top of the tapestries. Irrespective of whether the History of Lot remained within the older moral-religious frame -- which is highly doubtful -- the woman coming out of the bath (she might be a Suzannah) and the woman holding a handkerchief were highly likely to have been erotic, and explicitly so. Everything we learn about Fresnes's life-style (he had two carriages and a very large library that was Humanistic, not religious or legal) was high consumption, in the current luxury patterns of expenditure. But before going further, a brief glance of the paintings on the theme Suzannah.

At first glance, the fact that the scenes only have forests or natural vistas in the background would seem to refute the hypothesis that there is a link between the exotic and the erotic. We must recognize the fact that the natural setting for the erotic world would have enormous appeal to the French: thus paintings of Suzannah and the Elders, for example will be depicted outside, in nature, all the way from examples in the School of Fontainebleau, to Boucher, and beyond. But first it is pertinent to try to establish a shift from the explicit moral-religious themes to the covertly erotic, and then try to discern a shift toward the luxurious exotic interior.

While still in Rome, the Flemish but Lyon-born Jacques Stella created a Suzannah and the Elders in which architectural elements are very much present and are carefully integrated into the picture. While still outside, the bath is an expensive stone construction that is part of a garden. The companion painting, also from 1631, depicts Joseph and Potiphar, a rich seductive scene of nudity, bedding, draperies, all set in a vast room with a window looking out on a urban setting. The bath and balustered ramp of the Suzannah remind us of the ramps in Bosse's engravings of the marbled courts located between houses and gardens. The Stella paintings are only 25 cm by 35.5 cm, and on marble, just the type of very private commissioned erotic art that could be stored in a locked cabinet.(14)

Lest it be inferred that there were only a few examples of the Suzannah painting, it is interesting to note that F. Lehoux found one in the house of a physician, along with another picture entitled "une courtisane". On the same walls there also hung a picture of a bath, another of a shepherdess, and still another of two boys. Pardailhé-Galabrun's larger sample from inventories after death yields a figure of 55% religious themes in the paintings on the walls in Paris in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bayard finds five copies of the history of Lot in her sample of inventories, and four Suzannah and the Elders. But before turning to bath scenes more generally, it is useful to look at this Lucretia committing suicide; bed, bedding, carpet, slipper, draperies, and mirror are all quite rich in this work by Simon Vouet that was engraved by Claude Mellan.(15)

For bathing scenes derived neither from the Suzannah or from Clouet models, we have to wait until Nicolas Bonnart's moralizing engravings of the 1670's. Clearly elite, perhaps courtly, fine clothing, servant, and tapestry make this scene part of the luxury-consuming society of the time. Le Sueur's "chambre des bains" in the Hôtel Lambert, that most splendid and luxurious residence built at the point of the Île-Saint-Louis in the early 1640's, had a remarkable painted ceiling that gave the beholder the illusion of seeing the sky through an aperture of ironwork, arabesques, and flowers.(16) This ceiling survives down into the present. It is highly probable that the Dame dans son bain, an engraving from the mid-seventeenth century, depicts that bath, since it is part of a series showing other rooms in the Hôtel Lambert. But the pattern of luxurious illusion, which transforms the inside so that one must look outside, and which is found especially but perhaps not exclusively in women's baths, marked a continuity in requiring a natural setting for the erotic. The carefree, aristocratic and bucolic environment created in d'Urfé's L'Astrée both articulated mentalités linking the environment to the erotic and assured the diffusion of these mentalités toward luxury-loving financier families.

For evidence from inventories about baths, in her sample of households of medical practitioners Lehoux found only one tub that might have been used for the purpose. Pardailhé-Galabrun also found a few small tubs in the seventeenth century, and only a few after 1730, in 6.5% of the households. In one instance a tub is located in a greenhouse at the back of the garden, and another is in a wine cellar. Baths were rarely taken: the tubs were probably brought into chambers by servants and stored after use. (17)

Only at the end of the eighteenth century, and only in the most luxurious houses of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, do cabinets de bain begin to appear. One is particularly interesting for our subject. "There is a ceiling with a cornice and a window of large pieces of Bohemian glass, with walls painted of pilasters and trellises from floor to ceiling, a niche with a copper tub in it, and a fresco representing nymphs on foot supporting a vase and floors in each corner, with two busts of women."(18) The inventory does not say whether there were grape or ivy vines growing on the trellises, but it may be that the semantic range of the word "trellis" included plants growing on them. Though probably a unique example, it confirms some of the structural elements relating the erotic and luxury. If Suzannah bathed in a natural setting, and bathing was understood to be an outside activity, the decor of this cabinet de bain with its trellises and pilasters, drew on the painters ability to create an illusion of a natural setting while actually being inside the house. In this example, which Pardailhé-Galabrun says is "anglo-saxon" inspired, we may have found the ancestor of the ivy-patterned wall coverings on thousands of bathroom walls, throughout much of the nineteenth century and down to the present.

In another inventory, this time of a merchant draper who died in 1751, the decoration of the toilette is painted in the Chinese manner, with a black background, two squares for combing [sic], a little brush, five boxes of powder "à plotte" for beauty spots, and a mirror with two chandeliers à toilette in silver. A wine merchant's wife puts her toilette necessary -- it consists of a mirror, two boxes of powder, a coffret and brush, all painted in the Chinese fashion -- into an antique style cabinet also painted in the Chinese style. At this point it seems evident that the luxury expenditures were there, at least in elite households, and in artificially created 'natural' or exotic settings; but the role in the creation of this luxury site in the house may not at all have developed as a result of scenes in the backgrounds of erotic pictures. Still, the one instance of an artificially created natural setting for the bath is of some interest, in that it confirms an old iconographic structure of the image of the female nude in a wooded or island setting -- a pictorial iconographic structure that Boucher would articulate with great effectiveness.

In the mid-seventeenth century there appeared a modified version of the Venus-in-her-bed genre, thanks to the invention of the daybed.(19) As always, the tension between portrait and genre is evident. Madame de Montespan's highly luxurious great hall at Clagny is captured in her portrait, of which the almost cheap, popular engraving of the male visitor to the woman on a daybed is an obvious variant; but both suggest that the creation of a new, distinct piece of household furnishing, the daybed, occurred with, and implied high luxury furnishings and clothes.

In addition to paintings, of course, the cheap erotic print, especially in illustrated books, may certainly have played a part in expanding the market for luxury goods. Philip Stewart gives numerous examples.(20) The Fredenberg of 1774 seems typical of the iconographic structure; the bath has replaced the bed; but the Audran, with its dark, obscure niche and vague almost menacing sculpture on the wall, certainly raises questions about how, at least since Francis I, the monumental bath in imitation of the ancient Romans, had emphasized grotto-like atmospheres around monumental tubs. Louis XIV's cabinet des bains was also very much in that tradition. In the Audran, Daphnis and Chloé are bathing in a grotto of the nymphs.

Following Doreon's funeral, Chloé led Daphnis into the grotto of the nymphs. There she washed her shepherd, and for the first time in Daphnis' presence she herself bathed, although her body needed no bath to heighten the glory of its whiteness and beauty.(21)
It would be Voltaire who would reverse the erotic direction when he has women observe a male bathing. The erotic affect would not have been the same at all if there had been numerous males in the bath; the Eisen illustration for Voltaire's Histoire de Jenni is not in a luxury-filled setting, which suggests that it may well have been the female nude, more than the male nude, that required luxury surroundings, and this at a time when males were still spending more on clothes and furnishings than women.22

In the illustrations for Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Valmont's visit to Madame de Tourvel's servant girl requires that the background be non-luxurious, and Monnet/Godefroy thus provide a comparison with the luxury space.(23) The piles of things in storage, the cupboard doors, and the shoes askew suggest promiscuity. The comparison with the normative luxurious bed and room is evident.

There remains to firm up the link between the exotic and the erotic that has only been alluded to so far in this paper. No better way of doing this would be than to study the detailed illustrations of Persian, Turkish, and Chinese women in suggestive dress and poses -- which begin to appear as early as the mid-seventeenth century. A way of illustrating this structural relation from images that had an almost mass market success would be to take Moreau's and also Eisen's illustrations for Montesquieu's erotic works -- not only the Persian Letters, but also in the Temple of Gnidus and in Arsaces and Ismeria. The latter two works date from a time when Montesquieu was something of a hanger-on in circles of the Comte de Clermont and the Marquise de Prie at Chantilly and the Hôtel de Condé, playful princely and sexy atmospheres in which the Marquis de Sade was born and to which, for much of his life, he sought to revert and make real his erotic memory. In Le Barbier's scene of Arsace and Ismeria, as engraved by Le Mire, the orientalism is evident -- not historically correct images of the East, but imagined oriental atmospheres, ones that Beckford could build on in Vathek. It might be possible to show how chinoiserie also generally begins in erotic illustrations, and then becomes decorative motifs on toilet articles, little tables, and toilet articles; but that would be another paper.

In conclusion, I admit that I have not proved my case. The backgrounds of erotic pictures remained the natural setting for longer than I had anticipated, the couple of examples to the contrary notwithstanding. Still, jewelry and bedding were clearly parts of exotic and erotic elite culture. Alternative interpretations such as the influence of Dutch genre painting on the art and society of the French in the eighteenth century, could be explored, but in general these pictures do not have the fine silks, delicate bedding, paneling, gauze clothes and monumental drapery characteristics of the French erotic painting from the sixteenth century on. Perhaps the historians of consumerism are right to just count and evaluate pictures, and not to look at their themes or emotional valence.
But surely the teaching of the churches about the sin and vanity of over-attention to the body must be put in opposition to attention to the body, and the material objects that reflect or frame it. The non-value of objects such as flowers surrounding portraits, and prompting memory and reflection, stands in stark contrast to the luxury that surrounds the erotic object.


1. See the general discussion of the painting by Francesco Valcanover in the Exhibition catalogue, Venice and Washington, 1990, p. 267.
2. "Intimacy in Eighteenth-Century Portraits," Word and Image, 6, 1990, pp. 351-367.
3. The standard works are F. Lehoux, Le Cadre de Vie des Médicins Parisiens aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles (Paris, Picard, 1976); Annik Pardailhé-Galabrun, La Naissance de I'intime; 3000 foyers parisiens, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1988); and C. Sargantson, Merchants and Luxury Markets... (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995).
4. An engaging way of presenting this interpretation is by Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods (London, Macmillan, 1996) Chap. 8.
5. Richard Goldthwaite's findings about the very high consumption of religious art is an important beginning, in Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) pp. 129-148 and passim. See also Creighton E. Gilbert "What did the Renaissance Patron Buy?," Renaissance Quarterly, 60, summer 1998, pp. 392-350; and Ruth Mellinkoff, "Titian's Pastoral Scene: a Unique Rendition of Lot and his Daughters," Renaissance Quarterly, 51, 1998, pp. 829-886, a thoughtful and convincing piece of art-historical detective work. For a recent English study, Elizabeth Kowalski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York, Columbia University Press, 1996).
6. I know of no general study of jewelry in Early Modern painting, but see Elise Goodman-Soellner "Poetic Interpretations of the 'Lady at her toilette'," Sixteenth-Century Journal, 14, 1983, pp. 426-442.
7. Elise Goodman-Soellner, "Le Miroir Ardent...," Simiolus Netherlands Quarterly for the history of Art, 13, 1983, pp. 218-224.
8. Exhibition catalogue, François Clouet (Paris, B.N., 1970), plate 31. The Duke of Buckingham had what is called an "espèce d'autel portrait d'Anne d'Autriche, Richelieu, Correspondance, ed. by P. Grillon, (Paris, Pédone, 1977) II, p. 506. He had lighted candles around it.
9. See Henri Zerner, "La Dame au Bain" in Le Corps à la Renaissance, ed. by Jean Céard, Marie-Madeleine Fontaine, and Jean-Claude Margolin (Actes du XXXe Colloque de Tours, 1987, pp. 95-111. The decorations of Francis's bath were largely mythological scenes, Zerner, p. 109.
10. See the exhibition catalogue of La Peinture française de XVIIe siècle dans les Collections américaines (Paris, Ministère de la Culture, 1982), p.148 and 271.
11. Le Monde des Financiers au XVIIe siècle (Paris, Flammarion, 1988) and Argent, pouvoir et société au Grand Siècle (Paris, Fayard, 1984); there is nothing so comprehensive for the sixteenth century.
12. La Culture des Apparences: une histoire du vêtement au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, Fayard, 1989), pp. 94-117.
13. Robert Descimon, "L'homme qui signa l'Edit de Nantes: Pierre Forget de Fresnes (18 avril, 1610). Éléments de biographe," Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de Protestantisme français 144, 1998, pp. 161-174.
14. Les Peintures... dans les Collections américaines, pp. 318-319.
15. Exhibition catalogue, L'oeil d'or: Claude Mellan (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, 1998), plate 13.
16. Sabine de Crest, "L'Hôtel Lambert," in L'Ile Saint Louis, ed. by Béatrice de Andia and Nicolas Cochin
17. La Naissance de I'Intime, pp. 355-365 (Paris, Paris et son Patrimoine, 1997), p. 214.
18. Pardailhé-Galabrun, p. 358. Another has glazed tiles.
19. Peter Thornton, Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 172-175.
20. Engraven Desire (Durham, Duke University Press, 1991) p. 136.
21. Stevens, p. 137.
22. Stevens, p. 162; and Roche, chap. 6.
23. Stevens, p. 197. In one of the illustrations for La Fontaine's Fables, Eisen/de Longueil, have a little dog playfully shake a bag of coins, an eighteenth century way of saying what Titian suggested about Danäe's courtisane status. Stewart, p. 226. See also Alain Montandon, "Civilitiés érotiques" in Civilitiés extrêmes, ed. by Alain Montandon (Clermont Ferrand, Faculté des Letters Blaise Pascal, 1997) pp. 115-129.