Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century is an oddly timely exhibition. It's filled with over-the-top objects and art — ornate furniture, silver dressing table accessories, gilded clocks, highly ornamented serving pieces, self-aggrandizing portraits of aristocracy — the kinds of things that Francophile hedge fund managers decorate their homes with today. These are artifacts of the 18th century aristocratic excess that brought on the Occupy Paris movement of 1789–better known as the French Revolution. Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, "Life and Luxury" presents these works in the contexts in which they were used.
The "Rising and Dressing" section of the show, in addition to a gilded bed and tables, includes things like a "Man's At-Home Cap," made from white silk delicately embroidered with colored flowers and metallic thread stems. Gentlemen would have worn these in their drafty townhouses when not sporting wigs elaborate enough to outdo any drag queen.
A solid silver toilette set from 1738-39 by Antoine LeBrun is a standout. It's one of only five extant French-made 18th Century silver toilette sets, the majority of them having been, according to the exhibition catalog, "patriotically melted down to help Louis XV finance the Seven Years' War." (Debts from that mid-century war would be a contributing factor to the later revolution.) Lest anyone confuse "toilette" with toilet, the toilette ritual was a theatrical morning "getting ready" ceremony in which the aristocracy — male and female — would entertain guests.
Basically a woman would privately bathe (to the extent that people bathed in the 18th Century) and dress before her public toilette in which she sat in front of her friends and admirers, having her already-arranged tresses arranged, pretending to wash an already washed arm in scented water and pondering which jewels and ornaments to wear. The accoutrements of the toilette were accordingly decorative and ceremonial. The set on view includes a 25-pound solid silver dressing table mirror. There are silver clothes brushes and boxes for powder and makeup. (Women coated their faces in white lead — a supremely bad idea.) There were even little boxes to hold the tiny black taffeta "beauty mark" patches women adhered to their lead-smeared faces — far less permanent than the omnipresent 21st Century tattoo.
The "Man of the World at Home" gallery presents what is essentially the "home office" of a hypothetical well-to-do 18th Century man. It features a desk with gilded brass accents and two massive corner patterned veneer cabinets (one apparently with a secret door in the back!). In the same room hangs a Jacques-André-Joseph Aved portrait of a Marc de Villiers, a secretary to Louis XV. It depicts a bewigged man in a massive flowing floral robe. Important papers are bundled on his desk as he looks up from his erudite reading, Homer's Iliad still open in his hand. The portrait conveys a sense of the power of the high-ranking government official combined with a sense of scholarly ease. We see he has important work, but he is not shown working.
The 18th Century was the Age of Enlightenment, the cultural movement in which dogma was dumped in favor of science. "Scientific Pursuits at Home" includes the accessories of a gentleman scientist. There's a massive Planisphere Clock from 1745-49, which, in addition to the day of the week, month, zodiac sign and day of the lunar cycle, would have told mean time and solar time in various international cities. The timing of tides in northern French ports was apparently thrown in for good measure. It's a nine-foot-tall, 18th Century IPhone.
"The Art of the Good Table" gallery features paintings from Jean Baptiste Oudry. The canvases depict the bountiful range of game, fish, poultry and vegetables consumed by the elite. A selection of dining-related decorative objects are also presented. Period tables would have been adorned with things like the silver centerpiece decorated with casts of broccoli and truffles or the lidded tureen ornamented with casts of a langoustine and crab. Meanwhile, finely crafted powdered-sugar shakers are displayed next to a small Bather sculpture that would have graced a dessert table. Picture this stuff the next time you grab a Whataburger value meal at the drive-through and eat it out of the sack while sitting in your car.
Ivory and porcelain gaming pieces and a 1754 harpsichord are among the objects in the "Life after Sunset" gallery. They convey something of the evening activities people would have amused themselves with in the glow of their candle-lit rooms. And amusing oneself seems to have been what most of these people did with their time. You emerge from the exhibition with a fuller sense of the lives of the 18th Century Parisian elite through the objects and art that surrounded them. You may also emerge thinking, "What a bunch of self-indulgent dicks."
Critics of the excess and frivolity of 18th Century France got the same trickle-down economics defense heard today: The wealthy, with their appetite for beauty and luxury and desire to acquire the latest fashion, created jobs for a great number of artists and skilled craftspeople. But in the end, the extreme indulgences of the aristocracy, combined with high taxes on the poor and middle class and famine, kindled the flames of revolution.
"Life and Luxury" presents the creativity and beauty that was generated to meet the rarefied demands of a highly privileged group of people. But in looking at the extravagances of the show and knowing what came after, you can't help but wonder, if the one percent had reined it in a little, would things have turned out differently?
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events