Reviewed: Life and Luxury in Paris

Posted in exhibitions, reviews by Freya Gowrley on August 7, 2011

The exhibition Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century closes today at the Getty. It opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on September 18th and runs through December 11. With her typically lucid prose, Amanda Vickery reviews the exhibition for The Guardian (29 July 2011). . .

Opulence, bling and luxury provoke powerful responses in an age of austerity, from wistful envy to righteous disgust. Working girls flocked to see lamé gowns on the silver screen in the hungry 1930s, but Marie Antoinette is scorned for wondering why in the 1790s the poor didn’t eat brioche when the bread ran out. “Luxury” sounds so old fashioned, but the word still flourishes in marketing. The 21st-century “luxury goods market” embraces everything from jewels and luggage to private jets. In yoking a brand to luxury, advertisers draw on a vintage notion of refined taste – harking back to a world of connoisseurs, exquisite workmanship and, above all, sophistication.

François Boucher, "A Lady Fastening Her Garter (La Toilette)," 1742 (Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza)

It is this mélange of consumerism and lifestyle that the Getty exhibition Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century seeks to evoke. It is built round the outstanding collection of French decorative art that Jean Paul Getty, oil tycoon and once America’s richest man, left to his museum at his death. Ancien Regime Paris was the epicentre of European style. “Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain,” concluded Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister in 1665. French manufacturing was geared to the carriage trade. Demolish the Paris luxury industry, the Baroness d’Oberkirch concluded, and French international supremacy would wither overnight.

Across the channel the British were grinding their teeth. France was Britain’s only real economic and diplomatic rival – the two countries went to war seven times between 1688 and 1815. France was everything the new Protestant parliamentary state abhorred – Catholic, authoritarian, pleasure loving and effervescent. Yet still those thrifty Anglo Saxon Protestants could not contain their desire for French silks, tapestry, porcelain, mirrors, clocks and cabinetwork. “We are the whipped cream of Europe,” sighed Voltaire in 1735. . . .

Read the full article here»

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