Review of Corrélations: les objets du décor au siècle des Lumières – by Jean-François Bédard


 Anne Perrin Khelissa, ed., Corrélations: les objets du décor au siècle des Lumières, Études sur le XVIIIe siècle 43 (Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2015), ISBN: 978-2-8004-1585-7


In Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, Norman Bryson examines still life—that much-maligned form of painting that art academies placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of genres.[1] For Bryson, still life became a distinct painting type under the dual influence of art historians and critics who constructed its identity—either in positive terms, as the product of specialized skills, or in negative terms, as a feeble alternative to history painting—and of painters who consciously situated their work within its formal tradition. Bryson assigns a crucial role to the everyday objects still life painters depict. For him, these objects fulfill three overlapping functions: they testify to basic human activities such as eating and drinking; they communicate complex socio-political messages; and they showcase individual “technologies of painting” more effectively than do the complex narratives of history painting.

Bryson’s discussion of still life painting provides a useful model for the study of architectural decor. Like art historians who have declined, by and large, to theorize on that painting genre, architectural historians have tended to neglect the decorative arts and have focused instead on the allegedly more elevated productions of the fine arts. Historians have privileged the interpretation of visual narratives that decorative and utilitarian objects (and their painted representations) fail to sustain. Like still life’s portrayals of the mundane, however, domestic objects and the decor they populate negotiate distinct interpretative areas that adhere to Bryson’s schema: their nominal function in everyday life, their role as social signs, and the singularity of their designs within a typology of forms. To complement Bryson’s triad we can add a fourth component: human interaction in relation to objects and their settings. This component takes into account the historicity of human behavior and sensory perception, which the ritualized use of objects and their spatial deployment can bring to light.

All discussions of interiors and their furnishings touch on these four overlapping domains to different degrees. Specialists of the decorative arts, for example, have focused on the material production of objects, which includes the specificities of their media and technique, their authorship, and their sponsors. Recent architectural historical scholarship has broached the broader topic of the social meaning of decor. Historians of early-modern interiors have examined these interiors in relation to their social, political, economic, and gendered contexts. The study of self-fashioning—in particular that of the nobility and their followers—has combined these approaches. As supports to ritualized behavior, markers of social status, projections of individual taste, and settings for sensory experience, eighteenth-century interiors contributed crucially to the shaping of individuals. The study of decor thus intersects with ancien-régime “techniques of the body”: the grooming of individuals to perform behaviors prescribed by etiquette, to master certain physical activities, and to display ornamental markers of rank. We can conceive of interiors as material externalizations of this cultivated body. The same holds true for buildings, gardens, even cities.

Corrélations: les objets du décor au siècle des Lumières is a collection of twelve essays on interiors of eighteenth-century European elites. Of these, two are published in English. Although the book is divided rather arbitrarily into four parts (Principes et logiques structurants, Normes et pratiques sociales, Disposition et assemblages plastiques, and Imaginaires et incarnations sensuels), most of the contributors discuss the social meaning of decor and its role in self-fashioning. Only one contributor, Michaël Decrossas, limits his study to the documentation of an interior. In his essay, Decrossas attempts to reconstruct Philippe II of Orléans’s grand cabinet at the Château de Saint-Cloud and suggests that it served as a display room for the regent’s collection of small bronzes.

All the other essays can be grouped according to the different types of documentary sources they probe. Relying on the theoretical work of Norbert Elias, Quentin Bell, and Georg Simmel, Christian Michel provides the broadest view on the topic of decor, identifying two overriding principles that guided decoration: expenditure and fashion. He points to the elite’s need to maintain social status through consumption as the engine for changes in taste. In his view, patrons preferred certain decorative items less for their aesthetic appeal than for their novelty and high cost.

Salon de la Princesse de Soubise, Hôtel de Soubise, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Agence Bulloz. Image source: RmnGP

Salon de la Princesse de Soubise, Hôtel de Soubise, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Agence Bulloz. Image source: RmnGP

Three contributors investigate narrative programs of interiors. Two of these pinpoint the didactic role of pictorial decor in the education of the nobility through iconographical analyses of figurative ensembles. Mary Sheriff explores the gendered discourse on ornament and painting. Sheriff examines how gender differences structured the decoration of the Salon du Prince and the Salon de la Princesse at the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. She shows that the projection of normative sexual identities accounted for the distinct decoration of the two salons. She explains that while the sculpted figures in the prince’s salon failed to provide a clear narrative on which the prince could pattern his behavior, the painted cycle of the story of Psyche in the princess’s salon functioned as a cautionary tale against women’s failings. Sheriff shows that critics of the Rococo identified this style as feminine and therefore argued for its exclusion, along with its sponsors, from the public sphere.

Pascal-François Bertrand decodes the iconography of textiles that were used in Louis XV’s bedroom during his coronation at Reims. Bertrand interprets the subjects depicted—the story of Moses and the seasons from the Galerie de Saint-Cloud tapestry—as vignettes designed to glorify, but also edify, the young prince in his future duties.

Instead of relying on visual evidence, Fabrice Moulin develops his analysis of narrative programs from literature by engaging the written descriptions of boudoirs in eighteenth-century libertine novels. Moulin studies these sources to highlight the politics of prestige and selfhood that result from decoration’s sensory impact. He concludes that novelists pay little attention to decorative details in their descriptions; instead, they stress the rooms’ all-encompassing sexual effect. For him, the licentious paintings and mirrors that recur in these imagined interiors transform literary boudoirs into efficient machines for erotic desire and sexual performance.

With the exception of Moulin, contributors support their arguments with evidence from existing buildings, drawings, contemporary descriptions and theoretical writings, and archival material. Claire Ollagnier and Alexia Lebeurre survey the transformation of hôtel interiors over the second half of the century. Ollagnier describes how the transformation of social practices at the end of the century led to the reconfiguration of hôtels. She sees the decline of the enfilade and the emergence of compact hôtel plans as resulting from the rise of more personalized forms of social interaction. For her, varied room shapes and more complex spatial configurations suggest a specialization of functions that respond to emerging practices in the care of the self.

Lebeurre comes to the paradoxical conclusion that the boudoir not only served as an intimate room, but also as a space to bolster social prestige. For her, boudoirs were “public” spaces insofar as they functioned as valuable commodities in the market for distinction. Her findings put in question the facile opposition between “bourgeois” privacy and “noble” display that derives from Jürgen Habermas’s famous account of the eighteenth-century emergence of the bourgeois public sphere. Lebeurre also notes that the boudoir became the privileged site for the exploration of sensualist theories of architecture. The apparent frivolity of the boudoir, she stresses, masked its crucial role as a laboratory for buildings whose meaning rests on sensory perception.

Five contributors provide case studies to this compelling compendium of essays. Sarah Medlam and Carl Magnusson each examine specific decors in relation to social decorum. As is well known, the ancien-régime rules of decorum imposed spatial and formal configurations on users according to their social position, which was shaped primarily by rank and gender. These rules, however, were more fluid than contemporary architectural theorists and critics would have us believe. Patrons, in particular women, deftly manipulated formal codes to perform heterodox identities in a contested public terrain. Medlam examines the exceptional decor that the duchess of Norfolk commissioned for her house in London. Much like Ollagnier, Medlam notes how the London elites’ novel forms of entertainment practices transformed their house plans. For her, the duchess sponsored a bold decorative scheme to project her strong persona into the public realm. Medlam pays particular attention to the extravagant Rococo decor of the music room designed by the Turinese architect Giovanni Battista Borra and the effect it produced on visitors, making a case for a reevaluation of the role of lighting in the interpretation of interiors.

Magnusson traces the negative reception of a house designed for Pierre-Alexandre DuPeyrou in Neuchâtel. He describes how the refined Parisian decor of the house’s Grand Salon transgressed the expression of social rank expected by local elites. He shows that the salon breached the rules of decorum and thereby could not be pointed to as a model, even if, or rather because, its forms reflected the most sophisticated French taste.

Conversely, three contributors concentrate on the role of objects in decorative schemes. Isabelle Tillerot underscores the importance of decorative objects in the display of paintings. In discussing the exceptional collection of the connoisseur Jean de Jullienne, she shows how the modern distinction between the fine and decorative arts fails to account for Jullienne’s display strategy. Tillerot determines that Jullienne used a variety of objects and contrasted their material qualities to achieve the varied sensations necessary to educate the senses and transform his residence into a “temple of taste,” as contemporary observers noted.

Sandra Bazin-Henry uses the example of the Martorana room in the Comitini Palace in Palermo to demonstrate the importance of materials in room design. She describes how the physical properties of surfaces, in particular mirrors, contributed to the salon’s function as a critical space of social representation.

Bérangère Poulain describes how the emulation of nature contributed to creating the magical effect that patrons sought in boudoirs. Poulain explains that they reveled in the surprise created by the blending of natural and artificial elements—porcelain and lacquer flowers mixed with real flowers, painted landscapes juxtaposed to views of real gardens. She argues that, perhaps more than any other room in hôtels, the boudoir fulfilled the century’s thirst for theatricality.

Several of the contributors to Corrélations scrutinize embodied experience to tackle the non-figurative configurations of space, materials, lighting, and ornament. Many highlight the phenomenal power of materials, in particular of mirrored surfaces. Mirrors, of course, were extremely expensive and brought a patron’s liberality to the fore; but they also possessed synesthetic qualities that begat aesthetic pleasure, as Isabelle Tillerot reminds us in the case of de Jullienne’s collection.

Beyond their interest in displaying social prestige, patrons, architects, and ornament designers shaped and arranged materials to achieve an overall sensory effect, a surprising coup d’œil that the theorist of painting Roger de Piles deemed so important to the success of painters. Designers staged physical experiences that engaged touch, smell, hearing, and even taste; senses that historians have rarely taken into account in their analyses.

In her excellent introduction to the book, general editor Anne Perrin Khelissa notes the emergence of this “anthropological” avenue in the study of interiors and suggests that histories of the senses and of self-perception, resulting, for instance, from investigations into contemporary scientific discourse, may greatly enrich the interpretation of decors. Although one wishes that visual material had played a stronger role in the contributions to Corrélations—and in the writing of architectural history in general—the volume is to be applauded for taking up such an anthropological approach. With several contributors demonstrating the possibilities of this research strategy, alongside those who offer more traditional but nonetheless enlightening interpretations, Corrélations contributes significantly to this exciting avenue of study.

Jean-François Bédard is Associate Professor at Syracuse University School of Architecture. He specializes in the theory and practice of French architecture during the long eighteenth century.


[1] Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London: Reaktion Books, 1990).


Cite this note as: Jean-François Bédard, “Review of Corrélations: les objets du décor au siècle des Lumières”, Journal18 (October 2016),

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