Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 7, 2018
Jessica L. Fripp, Amandine Gorse, Nathalie Manceau, and Nina Struckmeyer, eds. Artistes, savants et amateurs: Art et sociabilité au XVIIIe siècle (1715–1815) Paris: Mare & Martin, 2016. 296 pp.; 15 color ills. Paperback €35.00 (9791092054422)

The edited volume, as a scholarly format, has proliferated in recent years but is too seldom celebrated. Its demands—principally brevity when it comes to individual essays—and its overall capaciousness produce texts and experiences of discovery this reviewer cherishes. When it comes to the topic of sociability, moreover, there could scarcely be a more appropriate form of presentation. If all books are social—collaborations linking author, editor, copyeditor, indexer, designer, printer, and so on—multiauthored volumes seem explicitly sociable. Frequently emerging from conference panels or colloquia, they are traces and performances of conversation and of groups coming together around a common purpose, to paraphrase the definition of sociability in the Encyclopédie. Form and content are, then, in just the right relationship in the volume under consideration here, a rich collection of eighteen essays on the subject of mainly French art and sociability in the eighteenth century. The book’s origins lie in a symposium on the same topic held in Paris in 2011.

In the introduction, the editors chart the history of the word sociabilité as well as the trajectories of related terms, such as société, politesse, and cercle. They guide us gently through many thickets of meaning, starting in the eighteenth century when sociability was deployed by the philosophes to describe an element of human psychology—a tendency to suppress personal interests in favor of the common good. In the nineteenth century, writers used sociability more narrowly to characterize the convivial practices of the ancien régime aristocracy and imbued the word with nostalgia for a lost, elegant world. In more recent decades, academic historians, such as Maurice Agulhon, Antoine Lilti, and Dena Goodman, have attempted to strip away the nostalgia in order to use sociability as an analytical frame for interpreting how members of the eighteenth-century elite formed connections with one another. The editors of Artistes, savants et amateurs don’t resolve the semantic ambiguity they find but leave us instead with an awareness of a varied conceptual landscape. Such an awareness equips us to then consider the editors’ central question: What might be the relationship between the history of sociability and the history of art? Contributors to the volume propose their own answers in five thematic sections.

The first section explores artists’ social performance: How, the authors ask, did artists fashion themselves in relation to elite codes of sociability? Focusing on England, Elisabeth Martichou explores the divergent attitudes of Jonathan Richardson, Joshua Reynolds, and James Barry. According to Richardson and Reynolds, painters should engage in conversation with members of the social elite and learn from it, potentially benefiting from the networks conversation opened up. In contrast, the politically radical Barry set himself apart from both his fellow artists and the aristocratic patrons they cultivated, rejecting Richardson’s and Reynolds’s vision of the painter-gentleman. As Esther Bell shows through a study of the career of Charles-Antoine Coypel, participation in elite sociable activities in France was also closely related to the business of art. Coypel’s involvement in the staging of private theatrical performances offered “new avenues for artistic and commercial success” (53). In building her argument, Bell contends with objects, such as Coypel’s pastel Folly Embellishing Old Age with the Adornments of Youth (1743), that have traditionally been viewed as “bizarre” (56) and resistant to interpretation. For historians of the material culture of sociability, making sense of such baffling works is a frequent challenge. Always on the outside of history, we work hard, at times with the aid of some tactical speculation, to get inside, to recover in-jokes and intimate meanings.

The next group of essays focuses on artists’ professional communities and how they overlapped with other social worlds. Susanna Caviglia, for example, explores the French Academy in Rome, under the leadership of Charles-Joseph Natoire, as a site of intersecting and sometimes conflicting artistic, elite, and diplomatic sociabilities, while Frauke Josenhans and Nina Struckmeyer map the social networks of German artists studying in Paris during the French Revolution. From these essays, the reader gets a feeling for the everyday lives of eighteenth-century artists and how social encounters shaped their educations and careers. A similar sense of the everyday is present in one of the standout essays in the book, Hannah Williams’s discussion of the Parisian church parish as a social space, one whose center, the church itself, was a place where art was displayed, creating a zone of interaction between artists and their local communities. Making clear the stakes of her inquiry, Williams criticizes accounts of eighteenth-century art produced by Thomas Crow and other art historians that focus on secular work, pointing out that “the most common art objects found in people’s homes were . . . images of the Virgin, the Holy Family, or Christ’s Passion” (101). She argues convincingly that many Parisian artists were enmeshed in their city’s religious life through their engagement with their parishes.  

Maintaining the emphasis on institutions, Jessica Fripp opens the book’s third section, concerned with representations of sociability, with an excellent discussion of how artworks shown at the Salon in the eighteenth century were read as signs of "the friendship shared between artists” (116). If the essays in the previous section offer the reader beguiling moments of access to artists’ everyday lives, such fantasies of intimacy, Fripp reminds us, should be met with skepticism. Her goal “is not to claim that certain artists were ‘true’ friends while others were not” (116), but rather to think about how public displays of friendship could be beneficial to, say, portrait painters wanting to head off accusations that they were too interested in money. Further complicating Crow’s dominant story of eighteenth-century art, with its emphasis on the emergence of a public for art at the Salon, Fripp’s essay characterizes the exhibition as a place where artists and others blurred the line between public and private, to their strategic advantage.

The ostensible theme of the book’s fourth section is place, but its essays are as much about fluidity as fixity, unpacking complicated relationships linking places, texts, objects, and social interactions. Several of the chapters examine how texts, reading practices, and encounters with reproduced images supported a public for art in the eighteenth century. Gaëtane Maës thinks about how artist biographies and art dictionaries created the basis for conversations about art, while Valérie Kobi explores Pierre-Jean Mariette’s struggle to give his absent correspondents a faithful idea of artworks they have not seen but that he wishes to discuss. Noémie Étienne also explores the intersection of texts, objects, and social networks in her case study, which examines a shift in foreign attitudes toward the French conservation of artworks seized during the 1790s. Seeking to understand the reasons for a change from criticism to praise, Étienne charts the various roles played by paintings, an exhibition display and catalogue, and newspaper accounts. She doesn’t stop there, asking: How might we, as art historians, rethink sociability? Her answer seems right and productive: we are well placed to approach the significant role played by objects in shaping sociable interactions. As Étienne, and many other contributors show, sociability should be seen as a set of practices that were substantially mediated by experiences of materiality.

The final section, on “models of sociability,” includes an essay by Bernadette Fort that looks at Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs. Showing that Vigée Le Brun foregrounds her participation in eighteenth-century aristocratic rituals of sociability, Fort argues that the text intervenes creatively in a masculinist tradition of writing about artists’ lives indebted to Giorgio Vasari’s foundational example. The piece is a welcome discussion of gender, which is a surprisingly muted theme in the book overall. There were certainly opportunities across the essays to think more about, for instance, the relationship between cultural constructions of masculinity and sociability. Note, too, the book contains no discussion of the intersection between France’s colonial practices and sociability, surely a critical subject to be pursued.

Although Fort contrasts Vigée Le Brun’s self-construction with the mythic figure of the Romantic artist, a type in circulation when the memoirs were published in the 1830s, it is important to recognize that the figure of the sociable artist persisted into the nineteenth century. (François Gérard and Virginie Ancelot presented themselves to the world in this way, for example). Further, the nostalgia Fort finds in Vigée Le Brun’s text was a key element of the rhetoric used by nineteenth-century salonnières and salon participants to frame their sociable practices at a time when, paradoxically, salons had become more common. My point here is to put some gentle pressure on the volume’s end date of 1815, which unfortunately creates an artificial break precisely at a moment when many elite Frenchwomen and men sought to establish connections with the sociabilities of the past. Nevertheless, for an art historian of any period, this book offers a great deal: a useful mapping of definitions, a compelling set of case studies, and a powerful claim for why art history matters in a significant interdisciplinary conversation.

Daniel Harkett
Associate Professor, Art Department, Colby College