Paris of the eighteenth century was quite different from the modern romanticized version that is often thought of today. The city was overcrowded and dirty, and was an inhospitable environment for people of all classes. In his book Tableau de Paris, Louis-Sébastien Mercier describes Paris as: “The middling state, and our populace in their ignorance, wretchedness, and absurdities; and Paris remain to the end of its existence, the dirtiest, most debauched, poorest, and yet the most ridiculously proud and presumptuous of all the cities built since the destruction of Babylon (Mercier,242).” In response to the negative atmosphere of the growing metropolis, many people were drawn to a more natural artistic style, such as Rococo. Rococo styled objects became very popular because they were designed to represent nature through the use of ornate foliage and animals, and they often displayed scenes of people in leisurely situations in nature. The Rococo style originated from a movement away from the grandeur and rigidness of the Baroque style of Luis XIV and the Catholic Church. Rococo often consisted o lighter colors, and tended to be more playful in nature than Baroque. Rococo was originally adopted by aristocrats who were moving away from the style of the court at Versailles. But with the availability of consumer goods to the middle-class, Rococo became very popular amongst common citizens as well.
An example of the Rococo style is a French watch (figure 1 and 2) made sometime around the mid-eighteenth century. The outer casing is made of gold and it has an enamel back that is painted in the Rococo manner of a Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting. Since it was common for men and women to wear ornate objects, this could have either been a pocket watch for a man or a necklace watch for a women. The case is molded with round shell-shaped edges that are common in Rococo, and it also has diamonds in the shape of flowers. The painting on the back is a scene of two men and three women sitting on a log surrounded by trees. This scene is a prime example of the desire for the consumer to feel closer to nature. Examples of Rococo can be seen in many other types of objects, such as dishes (figure 3) and vases (figure 4). In his essay “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” Michael Kwass describes the evolution of wigs in eighteenth-century France, and how the more natural and practical wigs were chosen over the larger ones that were used at royal court. In his essay, Kwass writes: “Indeed, the language of eighteenth-century taste leaders suggests an attempt to move beyond a courtly consumer culture in which the main purpose of goods was to mark social rank. Through the printed word, taste leaders carved out a new set of consumer values—convenience, natural authenticity, and self-expression—to mediate the relationship between consumption and status (Kwass, 634).” Like wigs, Rococo styled goods became more popular as commoners began to desire more natural forms of artistic expression. Another important point Kwass makes here is the influence of the “taste leaders.” These were fashion critics that used printed articles to discuss current fashion trends. As Kwass notes, it is more likely that these people influenced consumers towards a certain style rather than the theory that it was “consumer emulation” of the wealthy that shaped fashion trends.
Much like what was seen in the Consumer Revolution in England during the eighteenth century, luxury consumer goods became much more accessible to the middle-class in France. Rococo style goods such as dishes, paintings, and furniture became increasingly popular. In his book The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England, Neil McKendrick writes: “The pursuit of luxury could now be seen as socially desirable, for as the growth of new wants stimulated increased effort and output, improved consumption by all ranks of society would further stimulate economic progress (McKendrick, 8).” In this passage, McKedrick notes that desire for consumer goods increased the demand for further production in England, which had a “trickle down” affect to the lower-classes. The result of this was that the accumulation of non-subsistence goods became more socially acceptable for commoners. Though the influx of goods in France was not as vast as it was in England, the point McKendrick makes here is just as relevant as it is in the case of eighteenth-century England. Objects such as wigs, watches, furniture, and art work were in high demand by middle and upper-class consumers, and the movement away from courtly fashion and towards a more practical and natural style continued into the next century. In reflecting on the consumer trends of his time, Mercier makes an interesting point when he writes: “The excessive expenses which luxury requires, have beggared all ranks of people, and they exhaust all manner of resources for the ruinous purpose of supporting a mere shew (Mercier, 11).” It is curious how relevant those words still are in light of the increasing debt accrued by the masses in this modern world of endless consumerism.
Kwass, Michael. “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France.” American Historical Review, 2006.
McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and P.H. Plumb. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London: Europa Publications, 1982.
Mercier, Louis-Sébastien. Tableau de Paris. Dublin. 1781
Figure 1 and 2: Watch : Gallant Scene in the Fragonard Manner, ca. 1758-65. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Accession Number: 1975.1.1245, Gallery 951. http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/460598?img=0
Figure 3: Covered bowl and stand, ca. 1765. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Accession Number: 2007.254.1a, b, .2, Gallery 508. http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/234103
Figure 4: Potpourri vase/figure, ca. 1755. The British Museum: Museum Number: 1930,0419.1.CR, Location: G46/dc17. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=71349&partId=1&searchText=rococo&sortBy=imageName&page=1