Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2019
Mary D. Sheriff Enchanted Islands: Picturing the Allure of Conquest in Eighteenth-Century France Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 416 pp.; 14 color ills.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780226483108)

This book by the late Mary D. Sheriff is a study of islands in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. Not just any islands, but islands, real and fictive, ruled by “beguiling women who captivate men through both literal and figurative enchantments” (2). These enchantresses promise love and pleasure to the men who arrive on their shores, but their aim is to dominate, corrupt, and emasculate. If manly virtue is to be restored, their charms have to be resisted and their island domains conquered.

The trope of the enchanted island came to ancien-régime France by way of a canon of ancient and modern epics—Homer’s Odyssey, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, and François Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque. But, Sheriff argues, once rooted in French culture, it achieved a new centrality, becoming a repository for collective anxieties around identity, gender, pleasure, and power. As depicted in art, literature, and performance, enchanted islands stood for difference, in all its dimensions. They were domains where the norms, hierarchies, and values of the Enlightenment were flipped on their head. Because of their geographic isolation and self-containment, they provided a corresponding conceptual space where the fundamental oppositions that structured French culture—self/other, masculinity/femininity, master/slave, duty/pleasure, virtue/corruption—could be worked through, if not resolved.

Sheriff builds her argument over six chapters that trace the permutations of the enchanted-island trope over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first chapters lay out the conceptual terrain. Chapter 1 explores thinking about the island as “geographic formation” and “mythic figure” (18–19) in both early modern France and contemporary critical theory. Chapter 2 provides a short cultural history of enchantment and magic in Enlightenment France, debunking the stereotype of the eighteenth century as a triumph of secular rationalism. Enchantment, Sheriff demonstrates, was tied up inextricably with the construction of gender. Black magic, and the threat of moral and sexual dissipation that came with it, was projected onto women. By contrast, art and science, the domain of men, provided pleasure free of the moral stain of concupiscence and in harmony with the laws of God and nature.

The following four chapters each investigate a particular configuration of the island enchantress trope and the understanding of gender, pleasure, and power that it embodied. Chapter 3 concentrates on the staging of enchanted-island stories in royal ballets and fetes, culminating in an analysis of Israël Silvestre’s suite of prints of the first fete held at Louis XIV’s Versailles, Les plaisirs de l’isle enchantée. In all of these entertainments, the king is portrayed as the conquering hero who vanquishes the beguiling sorceress and her black magic to deliver a new Golden Age. The king’s heroism vaunted not only his absolute authority but also French cultural superiority over the “effeminate,” decadent Italians.

The next two chapters examine how this paradigm was revised after Louis XIV’s death in 1715. Chapter 4 has as its focus an episode from Fénelon’s moralizing novel Les aventures de Télémaque, in which Telemachus is shipwrecked on Calypso’s island. Fénelon meant Telemachus’s experiences on the island to warn against the dangers of voluptuary pleasures and the enchanting women who proffer them, but, as many contemporaries pointed out, his novel conveys this lesson with particularly vivid, seductive writing. During the Regency this paradox was taken up in paintings of the episode by Nicolas Vleughels and Jean Raoux, which offer visual and erotic pleasure unabashedly, sometimes at the cost of moral instruction; the dangers of sexual enchantment are neutralized as they are channeled into the enchantments of art. Chapter 5 pans out to examine how Rinaldo’s enchantment at the hands of Armida in Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata was visualized in eighteenth-century paintings, ballets, and operas. Sheriff detects a subtle but unmistakable recalibration of the relationship between masculinity and pleasure in these works: rather than threatening masculinity, pleasure affirms it.

Sheriff’s final chapter leaves the world of myth to examine two real islands, Tahiti and Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti). Here, she considers the ways in which the enchanted-island trope intersected with France’s colonial project, as travelers, missionaries, and colonists drew on stories about enchanted islands to understand (and misunderstand) their encounters. When French sailors first arrived in Tahiti, they portrayed its women as beguiling Venuses, freely offering their bodies. The pleasures of Tahiti were pleasures without consequences, because the Frenchmen left soon after they arrived and no offspring resulted from their encounters (or so they could tell themselves). But the situation was different in the colony of Saint Domingue, where, according to European observers, couplings of white men and black women produced Vaudou-practicing mûlatresses, mistresses of sexual pleasure whose moral turpitude threatened established hierarchies and norms.

As my short summary indicates, this is not a work of traditional art history. True, Sheriff avails herself of the tools of art history, especially visual analysis, and works of “high art” (some by artists who have received little or no conceptually sophisticated analysis) are discussed in many of the chapters. But she gives novels, poems, prints, paintings, courtly spectacles, and travel narratives equal importance. Likewise, though nearly all of her visual materials are in one way or another representations of ancient and modern literature, this is not primarily a study of the relationship between word and image or a history of reception. Instead, the book is best understood as a contribution to the history of representations, of the shared images that make up the collective imagination.

On this ground, Enchanted Islands largely succeeds. Bringing together a diverse array of sources, Sheriff shows that enchanted islands exercised a hitherto unappreciated hold on the social imaginary of early modern France. If her limited number of sources does not quite bear out her diagnosis of a full-on “islomania” (17), her in-depth analyses demonstrate that enchanted islands proved nonetheless exceptionally “good to think with”—both in early modern France and for modern historians. Indeed, most of the themes that Sheriff discusses—the princely fete as an instrument of royal power; the autonomization of pleasure in the eighteenth century; the gendering of superstition, enchantment, and lasciviousness as female; and the process of othering in colonial encounters—are familiar to scholars of early modern France, and they are not specific to the discourse on enchanted islands. But by examining these themes through the prism of the enchanted-island trope, she is able to reveal the interconnections among what have largely been treated as discrete fields of inquiry.

In this respect, islands are not only her subject but, more importantly, her method. Of necessity, most scholars tend to work within the borders of their own little islands, focusing on particular objects or issues without much of a view past the shore. True interdisciplinarity remains rare. The great merit of Sheriff’s book is to zoom out to chart what she calls a larger “archipelago,” a “space within the social imaginary of ancien-régime France” (6) in which many of the concerns that have preoccupied historians of eighteenth-century France in recent years—gender, power, colonialism, global encounters—are all situated. The princely fete, Boucher’s paintings, and Tahiti might each constitute its own apparently isolated island, in other words, but Sheriff allows us to see how they occupied a larger seascape, linked by ocean currents and winds and underwater land masses and visited by various travelers who brought and took elements from each as they came and went. Culture is shown to function like an ecosystem: fluid, dynamic, nonlinear. The archipelago thus proves a useful, and apt, metaphor for thinking about culture (or at least elite culture) as a whole and the ways in which its various domains—art, literature, ballet, opera, philosophy—interact within a broader visual and discursive network.

With Enchanted Islands, Sheriff has charted new territory, and the resulting map makes for stimulating, provocative reading. It will, however, fall to another generation of scholars to complete it. Sheriff does not aim to be comprehensive, and she bases her arguments primarily on intricate (and sometimes highly subjective) visual analyses of a handful of case studies, rather than on an aggregate analysis of a broad range of relevant sources. There are, to be sure, more islands in her archipelago to explore—within the borders she delimits and beyond them, as well. Indeed, the literary works that form the backbone of Sheriff’s argument were touchstones for all of early modern Europe, not just France. One wonders, for example, how her conclusions might be nuanced in light of Anthony van Dyck’s or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s sensual renditions of Rinaldo and Armida, to name two famous examples in American collections of one of the most frequently depicted subjects in early modern European art.

Happily, Enchanted Islands’s interpretations of individual cases and methodology will surely stimulate scholarship for years to come. Sheriff, who passed away prematurely in 2016, played a pivotal role in bringing gender and cross-cultural encounters to the forefront of eighteenth-century art history. This important book, which brings these strands together in such innovative ways, is a fitting testament to her legacy.

Aaron Wile
Associate Curator, Department of French Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC