Reviewed: Meredith Martin’s ‘Dairy Queens’

Posted in books, reviews by Editor on December 21, 2011

Recently added to caa.reviews:

Meredith Martin, Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine de’ Medici to Marie-Antoinette, Harvard Historical Studies, vol. 176 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 336 pages, ISBN: 9780674048997, $45.

Reviewed by Jean-François Bédard; posted 3 November 2011.

Among the most fanciful objects commissioned by the French monarchy is a pair of Sèvres porcelain pails designed for Marie-Antoinette’s pleasure dairy at the Château de Rambouillet. They are shaped like tinettes—wooden buckets used on ordinary dairy farms for making fresh cheese—and painted with wood grain to imitate their rustic models. Like Marie-Antoinette’s mock hamlet at Trianon, the Rambouillet pails are outlandish inventions of the pastoral movement in literature and art, which celebrated naturalness with contrived theatricality. As the ill-fated monarch so cruelly experienced, bourgeois sensibilities soon lashed out at this noble ostentation. To pre-Revolutionary critics of the society of orders, a queen masquerading as a dairy maid in a luxurious simulated farm was particularly odious. Marie-Antoinette’s pastoral persona triggered venomous accusations of social irresponsibility, political usurpation, and even sexual deviance that contributed to her downfall and still taint her reputation.

The pastoral has not always elicited such heated reactions. In her amusingly titled book, Meredith Martin sets out to rehabilitate this courtly art form. Looking beyond the alleged frivolity of pastoral art and architecture, Martin emphasizes the crucial role they played in the social and political self-fashioning the French nobility, most notably the queens, forged for itself. Her discussion focuses on the pleasure dairy—known in French as the ‘laiterie d’agrément’, or ‘laiterie de propreté’, to distinguish it from the functioning dairy (laiterie de préparation). . . . Martin makes a convincing case for the importance of pleasure dairies as sites of empowerment for French noblewomen. . . .

The full review is available here» (CAA membership required)

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