History, Painting, and the Seriousness of Pleasure in the Age of Louis XV: A Review – by Dorothy Johnson

Susanna Caviglia, History, Painting, and the Seriousness of pleasure in the age of Louis XV (Oxford: Liverpool University Press on behalf of Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford, 2020). 330 pages, 87 illustrations (63 black and white, 24 colorplates)

In this fascinating and important book, Susanna Caviglia invites us to reconsider new contexts and a complex nexus of meanings in history painting from the first half of the eighteenth century. Her study, replete with innovative ideas and fruitful ways of thinking about the practice of academic history painting during the reign of Louis XV, makes a consequential contribution to scholarship of the last thirty years that has definitively severed ties with earlier and still prevailing narratives of French rococo art. This narrative was launched in the mid-eighteenth century, by Charles-Nicolas Cochin and others, with the promulgation of a neoclassical aesthetic that denigrated and demeaned rococo art, a view that had remained predominantly unchallenged in the historiography for more than two centuries. Caviglia addresses still prevalent misconceptions about rococo history painting by focusing attention on major directions and distinctive features that characterize history painting as a whole created during the reign of Louis XV—its stylistic integrity and shared objectives as well as its intersections with the domains of aesthetic, literary, and philosophical discourses. Her book explores the ways in which history painting was profoundly tied not only to politics and personal taste but also to Enlightenment ideals of education and the pursuit of knowledge, shared by artists, aesthetic theorists, and critics, who considered art as a branch of knowledge and an important humanist undertaking. 

Caviglia demonstrates that many of the French academic history painters of the generation of 1700—including François Boucher, Carle Van Loo, and Charles-Joseph Natoire, among others—re-conceptualized the grand genre by forging new directions in works that shared important commonalities of composition and style and had similar goals in terms of meaning. The book is divided into three principal parts: “Historia in Stasis” (chapters one and two); “The Figure in Artistic Practice” (chapters three and four); and “The Fabrication of a New Grand Genre” (chapter five). Part I presents a re-examination of the manner in which history painters, such as Boucher, Vanloo and Natoire, diverged from ideas of Albertian historia or narrative action that had largely governed history painting in France since the Renaissance. She reveals that these painters and others of their generation, in response to the importance of prevailing political ideas of peace and harmony during the early reign of Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) and concomitant philosophical ideas of happiness and pleasure as important objectives for individuals and society as a whole, frequently replaced dramatic narrative actions, which had constituted the “significant moment” in history painting, with a moment of stasis, what she terms an action de repos (a term first used, she informs us, by the painter Sébastien Bourdon in 1669).  The idea of the action de repos is central to her analysis of a new aesthetic in history painting:

In principle the action de repos assumed a connotation at once aesthetic and social. It became the visual effect—of color, light, and form—necessary to evoke pleasure (plaisir) in the viewer. The state of repose was also associated with the idea of happiness (bonheur). In the eighteenth century, happiness and pleasure were separate but intimately related concepts. Happiness was described as mental and physical stasis. Pleasure was considered an emotional reaction defined by the unity of the body with the soul through the rejection of extreme passions, and, as such, it could last for a long time. In the new political and artistic context, the action de repos became the expression of happiness, signifying a universe and society at peace and suspended in time, able to produce in the viewer the particular form of real and durable pleasure that comes from internal harmony” (26).

Fig. 1. Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié, Narcissus, 1771. Oil on canvas, 113 x 146 cm. Musée Antoine-Lecuyer, Saint-Quentin. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Through close analysis of salient paintings that serve as case studies, Caviglia shows that history painters tended to pause or interrupt a narrative action and replace action with stasis. In Dumont Le Romain’s 1726 Glaucus and Scylla, for example, the violence of the mythological narrative is replaced by the representation of a conversation taking place between the eponymous protagonists who dominate the foreground. This episode of calm or repose takes place before the violent actions have begun—in fact, Cupid is just about to shoot his arrow which will make Glaucus fall hopelessly in love with beautiful Scylla. Moments of meditation, sleep, and repose characterize many religious and mythological paintings of the period. Caviglia observes that images of solitary hermit saints in meditation rose in popularity, as seen, for example, in Natoire’s 1739 The Repentant Mary Magdalene. In the realm of mythological painting, the solitary Narcissus gazing at his reflection is a recurrent theme, as seen in François Lemoyne’s 1728 version or Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié’s Narcissus Contemplating his Reflection of 1771 (Fig. 1).  These paintings and many others of the period typically focus on one or two principal figures in a moment of stasis or repose, including Boucher’s Sleeping Venus with Cupid, Rest of Diana, and Erigone, to cite but a few.

Analyzing paintings with multiple figures taken from a complex narrative, Caviglia notes how such figures, rather than being depicted in action and dynamic interaction (as had been the case in seventeenth-century French history painting), are “shown lounging statically, seated, kneeling, or standing…conceived no longer in terms of action but of configuration… Consequently, history was no longer conceived in terms of narration but as a static situation” (104, 105). She invokes the lengthy discussion of the “disposition” of figures first proffered by Roger de Piles in his Cours de peinture par principes (1708) and analyzes numerous examples, including Vanloo’s 1747 The Drunkenness of Silenus. Caviglia underscores the prepotent influence of De Piles who valued pictorial effects over narrative and stressed what he described as the tout ensemble of the composition (106-107).

Caviglia also addresses the important role played by commissions for history paintings in the smaller, more intimate spaces of private residents or hôtels particuliers.  The monumental paintings of the grand genre were no longer possible in such interiors. The smaller format required by these new spaces, as in the Hôtel de Soubise, led artists to simplify their compositions and reduce the number of principal figures in order to make them more visible in these highly decorative rooms. The subjects are often intricately related to themes of happiness and pleasure: widespread precepts of French Enlightenment thought as well as cultural ideals promoted by Louis XV as part of a society (and a monarchy) wishing to view itself within an ambit of peace and harmony. Caviglia discusses the ideal of happiness, le bonheur, and its relationship to tranquility and pleasure as propounded, for example, by Bernard le Bouyer de Fontenelle and also by Julien Offray de La Mettrie, who considered voluptuousness and pleasure as essential ingredients of happiness. The Encyclopédie article on “Bonheur” states: “All persons are reunited in the desire to be happy. Nature made for us a law of our happiness. All that is not happiness at all is foreign to us. It alone has a marked power over our hearts” (cited on 65).   Caviglia states, “[t]here is hardly a work, with the exception of the most theoretical philosophical treatises, that is not preoccupied by happiness. The conceptions and definitions of happiness are legion. Numerous texts celebrate happiness as a state of repose, a delicious immobility of the soul.” Many of the history paintings of the generation of 1700 celebrate happiness and its concomitant, “delicious repose,” described in its relationship to sensibility and pleasure in the Encyclopédie under “Délicieux” (65).

Parts II and III of the book are largely concerned with the representation of the human body in history painting and the central role played by art education in the transmission of artistic conventions governing the human form. At the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, aspirant history painters underwent a very rigorous multi-year training. Since mastery of the human figure was foundational for all history painters, student artists spent their early years learning to draw the human figure: first from reproductions of master drawings, then from sculpture in the round, and finally from the live model. Many history painters would continue to draw from the live model throughout their careers, and their figure drawings, known as académies, were often highly finished works that were much sought after by collectors, such as those of Edmé Bouchardon and Boucher. Académies by major artists of the period were often also published in collections of engravings which appealed to a burgeoning art market. Caviglia points to the importance of the wide circulation of these academy figures in the broader culture, which served not just as preparatory drawings but also came to constitute an independent genre. Academy figures during most of the eighteenth century were drawn after the live male model, but nude female models posed in private studios as depicted by the cover illustration of the Caviglia’s book, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s The Private Academy (ca. 1755).

Scholarly studies of academy figures as well as exhibitions dedicated to them have flourished in recent years. Caviglia delves deeply into those produced by history painters during the reign of Louis XV. She discusses how the focus on the isolated figure with no narrative settings, unlike those produced in the seventeenth century at the Académie Royale, led to the autonomous life of the figures as independent works detached from the history paintings for which they were intended. The copying and reuse of such figures led to the development of stereotypes and conventions in the depiction of the human figure associated with the rococo style. The académies present an image of the body as a whole, but artists also made drawings of fragments of the body, what Caviglia describes as the “poetics of dismemberment” (141). Artists were fascinated by the disarticulated body and the seemingly independent life of these forms, a phenomenon that recalls the impact of the principles of Vitalist medicine and the study of anatomy at the Académie royale. Caviglia addresses the number of paintings that depict fragments of the body in concert, such as Nicolas de Largillière’s remarkable Study of Hands (1715), which seem inter-related in a type of conversation. She analyzes such works in the context of empirical sensationalism promulgated by John Locke and developed in eighteenth-century France by Etienne Bonnot de Condillac.

Representations of the body, in repose, in stasis, integral or in fragments, constitute the central theme of this book. The body as the locus of sensation, pleasure, and happiness is the principle of the action de repos seen in so many French history paintings of the time. Caviglia eloquently sums this up in the following terms:

Corporeal representations became the privileged instrument for recording cultural and historical transformation.  The represented body became the expression of a collective construct and the place where social identity and the individual were reconsidered in light of new philosophical theories of man and knowledge of the world, of oneself, and of the other. It was within that general context of valorizing the different parts of the human body that the positioning of the figures in states of repose replaced representations of the body in motion (146).

In her excellent book, Caviglia thus demonstrates that the generation of history painters of 1700 developed a singular aesthetic and forged new directions in the genre, inspired by Enlightenment ideas and ideals that resonated with artists, critics, theorists, and the educated public. Her study reveals the significance and perseverance of certain foundational principles of pedagogy at the Académie Royale in the training of history painters. The most prominent of these was a belief in the body as the quintessential locus of meaning in art.

Dorothy Johnson is Roy. J. Carver Professor of Art History at the University of Iowa

Cite this note as:  Dorothy Johnson, “History, Painting, and the Seriousness of Pleasure in the Age of Louis XV: A Review,'” Journal18 (March 2021), https://www.journal18.org/5538.

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