Recapping the Conference on Everyday Objects

Posted in conferences (summary) by Editor on December 8, 2009

Everyday Objects: Art and Experience in Early Modern Europe
Courtauld Institute Inaugural Early Modern Symposium, London, 21 November 2009

By Paula Rea Radisich

The inaugural Early Modern Symposium—Everyday Objects: Art and Experience in Early Modern Europe—was a Courtauld Institute Research Forum organized by graduate students Edward Payne and Hannah Williams. The superbly-crafted list of possible topics of discussion Payne and Williams included in their call for papers will convey to Enfilade readers just what the phrase “everyday object” evokes. They welcomed papers analyzing images of the everyday (still life, genre scenes); ephemeral objects, temporary art or displays; things and thing theory; quotidian experience as a mode of beholding; spaces and activities of everyday life; and art works as everyday objects/everyday objects as art works.

Although most of the panelists were art historians, literary scholars and historians of material culture were also represented. Historian Ariane Fennetaux (Université Paris Diderot) examined surviving examples of the tie-on pocket and its “private” contents worn by British women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. English professor Beth Fowkes Tobin (Arizona State University) described women from the same era removing the brains and other organs from their dead pet birds in order to preserve them in artfully arranged bell jars displayed in the home. Professor of English and American Literatures and Language Melinda Rabb (Brown University) explored the relation of miniature furniture and other small versions of everyday objects collected by adults in early modern Europe to the history of human cognition, which postulates awareness of scale error as central to adult existence.

While art historian Samuel Bibby (University College London) asked us to consider Donatello’s bronze boy, the so-called Atys, as an everyday object, Olivia Fryman (Kingston University and Historic Royal Palaces) reversed the proposition, demonstrating how John Riley’s 1686 portrait of Bridget Holmes, the servant charged with cleaning out the King’s chamber pot, represented her as the occupant of a dignified post engaged in serious work. In this full-length portrait commissioned directly by James II himself, the 96-year-old Holmes wears the tidy plebian clothing of a prosperous street vendor and wields a broom.  Joanna Woodall (The Courtauld Institute of Art) speculated upon the role of light in Dutch still life compositions by such artists as Willem Claesz. Heda, and Katie Scott (The Courtauld Institute of Art) summed up the production, cost and appearance of the type of salmon-colored male handkerchief appearing on the desk in David’s Portrait of Jacobus Blauw, 1795. Responding to the prompt from Payne and Williams, my own paper drew on Bill Brown’s notions of thing theory to analyze how shoes signified in Chardin’s La mère laborieuse, Lancret’s Fastening the Skate, and to a lesser extent, Boucher’s La Toilette, all produced between 1740-43 in Paris.

As the Humanities gropes for new paradigms–on this topic, see the Forum on interpreting the French Revolution in French Historical Studies 32 (Fall 2009) and the ensuing discussion on H-France–the study of the everyday object appeals from a number of perspectives. The questions posed by Edward Payne in his opening remarks are the ones that stuck with me: How can we use the formulation of the everyday object as an analytical tool? What constitutes an everyday object? How was it experienced? For whom was it “everyday”?

The author of Hubert Robert: Painted Spaces of the Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press), Paula Rea Radisich is a Professor of Art History at Whittier College, California.

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