Editorial

The Burlington Magazine scholarship for the study of French eighteenth-century fine and decorative art

THIS MONTH The Burlington Magazine launches an annual scholarship for the study of French eighteenth-century fine and decorative art. Initiated and funded by Richard Mansell-Jones,  a trustee of The Burlington Magazine Foundation, the scholarship  offers £10,000 to a student based anywhere in the world  who has embarked or is about to embark on an M.A. or Ph.D. or is undertaking research in a post-doctoral or independent  capacity. The deadline for applications is 1st March 2018, and the successful candidate will be chosen in April by a selection panel chaired by Christoph Vogtherr, Director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle and former Director of the Wallace Collection, London. For further details visit www.burlington.org.uk. 

This is a propitious time to be studying French eighteenth-century art. That may sound a surprising statement, given that the wheel of taste has dethroned the decorative arts of the ancien régime from the supremacy they enjoyed for nearly two centuries, ever since the Revolution provided the material for a new, historicist enthusiasm for the country’s eighteenth-century art by scattering its royal and aristocratic collections. To some extent, this enthusiasm was counter-revolutionary in spirit.  When Napoleon was offered the magnificent jewel cabinet made by Jean-Henri Riesener in 1787 for the Comtesse de Provence, sister-in-law of Louis XVI, he rejected it as ‘du vieux’, part of the world that he had swept away, but for that very reason it appealed to George IV, who in 1825 snapped it up for his new apartments at Windsor Castle. The King’s appetite for French decorative arts of all periods helped set the tone for aristocratic and plutocratic interiors for generations to come.  At Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, in the 1880s Baron Ferdinand Rothschild made plain the link between royal taste and ‘le goût Rothschild’ by hanging Thomas Gainsborough’s 1784 full-length of the Prince Regent in the Red Drawing Room. 

There was nothing reactionary about that: like all his family a Liberal in politics, Baron Ferdinand welcomed the way that, as he put it, the Revolution had swept away ‘the rottenness and effeteness of the old order’. The value that he and other connoisseurs of his time placed on the art of the ancien régime while rejecting the outlook of its original patrons helped to make the taste for eighteenth-century France acceptable to American collectors, ranging from the Vanderbilts and Astors to J. Paul Getty. 

Before the twentieth century few collectors outside France showed a sustained interest in French eighteenth-century painting and sculpture as opposed to decorative arts – the Rothchilds made little effort to compete with the one great British collector in this field, the fourth Marquess of Hertford, whose monument is the Wallace Collection. It seems likely that the growth of enthusiasm in the twentieth century for such painters as Antoine Watteau was part of a general revival of appreciation of eighteenth-century architecture and design:  Victorian objections to Rococo artists as frivolous and amoral now became the basis of their attraction. 

By the late twentieth century, therefore, French eighteenth-century art and design was understood largely in terms of the delicate eroticism of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the glamour of ormolu and porcelain and the patronage of Madame de Pompadour or Marie-Antoinette.  The fall of this taste from unchallenged favour, thanks largely  to the global dominance of contemporary art and white-walled  minimalism in interior decoration, has arguably had a beneficial  impact on the academic study of the visual arts of  eighteenth-century France since it has helped broaden  appreciation of their many other aspects. 

Some of that widening of interest has continued a characteristically  French empirical tradition embodied in the series of  monographs published since 1978 by Arthéna, the Association  pour la diffusion de l’histoire de l’art, in which a strong emphasis  on the eighteenth century has strayed well beyond the Rococo.  In addition, exhibitions in France are challenging preconceptions that painting in this period lacks seriousness, or is in essence secular: for example, Le baroque des Lumières. Chefs-d’oeuvre des églises parisiennes aux XVIIIe siècle, shown last year at the Petit Palais, Paris, assembled an impressive array of religious works.1

Research on the social history of art is also reshaping understanding of the country’s culture in the eighteenth century. One notable manifestation of this is Journal18, an online periodical devoted to the long eighteenth century around the globe. Founded in 2016, and affiliated with HECAA, the association for Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art and Architecture, and the Institute of Fine Arts, New York, Journal18, offers an international context for understanding French art. This sort of approach has sprung many surprises:  a horse painting by Stubbs with a landscape by Claude-Joseph Vernet and figures by François Boucher, for example, or, as an article in this Magazine has recently demonstrated, the existence of French Rococo architecture in Beijing.2

It would be an oversimplification to contrast this new global approach with traditional French art history since in France the subject has recently taken such a fruitful international turn. For instance, links between Germany and France in the eighteenth century are among the subjects explored by the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte (the Centre Allemand d’Histoire de l’Art de Paris), founded in 1997 in Paris with funding from the German ministry for research and education. One of its  projects has been an analysis of the use of the royal apartments  at Versailles,3 which since 2006 has itself been home to an  academic organisation with an international reach, the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles. Whoever is awarded The Burlington Magazine scholarship for the study of French Eighteenth-Century fine and decorative art will take a place in a world-wide network of scholars who are developing the subject in intriguing and often novel ways. 

1 Reviewed by Humphrey Wine in this Magazine, 159 (2017), pp.572–73.

2 D. Pullins, ‘Stubbs, Vernet & Boucher share a canvas: workshops, authorship & the status of painting’, Journal18, 1 (Spring 2016), http://www.journal18.org/334 (accessed 11th December 2017); G.A. Bailey, ‘Rococo in eighteenth-century Beijing: ornament prints and the design of the European palaces at Yuanming Yuan’, The Burlington Magazine, 159 (2017), pp.778–88. 

3 T.W. Gaehtgens, M.A. Castor, F. Bussmann and C. Henry, eds.: Versailles et l’Europe: L’appartement monarchique et princier, architecture, décor, cérémonial (Paris and Heidelberg, 2017).