The Mirror and Manners: Watching, Being Watched, and Watching Oneself in Rococo Spaces[Record]

  • Rosemary Legge

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  • Rosemary Legge
    Queen’s University

In Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting L’Enseigne de Gersaint (1720) [figure 1], the artist presents a scene of a marchand-mercier’s shop, specifically that of the art-dealer Edme-François Gersaint. Gersaint’s boutique, in the heart of Paris, was a primary site for the consumption of art and luxury objects by the aristocracy at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Watteau’s painting depicts refined men in powdered wigs and beautiful women in shimmering silks engaging with each other and with the goods for sale. While initially all of the frames hanging on the walls of the expansive room appear to enclose paintings, upon closer inspection the viewer can identify at least four mirrors in the image. Of particular interest is that, in this shop filled with large dazzling oil paintings of mythological and religious scenes, the object that captures the attention of three of the shop’s patrons is a small toilette mirror seen on the far right. The mirror is accompanied by other parts of its set: brushes, boxes, and bottles, all finished with a black lacquer, showing contemporary interest in new and exotic materials. These three figures are looking at a mirror’s reflection, which makes their gazes mysterious: is the woman on the right admiring her own image in the mirror, or is she seeing something else within it? Are her male companions looking at themselves, each other, or the woman? As Watteau only depicts back of the mirror, the viewer cannot quite discern at what or whom, these three are looking. What Watteau does make apparent in this scene is the status of the mirror in the early-eighteenth century. At art shops like Gersaint’s, mirrors were sold alongside the “fine art” of painting. In this image, Watteau may be suggesting that these aristocratic shoppers are more interested in admiring their own reflections in the mirror than appreciating the academic paintings that surround them. After a number of technological advances in glass production in the late-seventeenth century, mirrors, such as those sold by Gersaint, proliferated in the domestic spaces of the elite in eighteenth-century France. Beginning in the court of Versailles, and quickly spreading to the hôtels particuliers of the aristocracy in Paris, the mirror became a key feature of the fashionable goût moderne (rococo) in interior decoration. The mirror became ubiquitous in aristocratic and bourgeois homes, taking the place of paintings and tapestries at eye-level, mimicking windows, and enhancing chimney mantles. The expensive and fragile glass mirror was a gleaming symbol of affluence and opulence for the French elite. Architects and designers were fascinated with the mirror’s ability to create delightful effects of shine, glitter, and illusion. However enchanting, the mirror’s reflective effects also enabled exhibitionism, voyeurism, and vanity. The mirror gave its owner the unprecedented ability to examine her or himself at full length, resulting in a new visual consciousness of the body and a new standard of self-control. Mirrors provided a way for the French elite, a group preoccupied with decorum, to monitor each other’s, as well as their own, manners. In this paper, I first situate the origins of the rococo mirror in the history of interior decoration. I then consider some of the social ramifications of mirrors in the private and semi-private domestic spaces of eighteenth-century France, by exploring its use in the surveillance and maintenance of behaviour for the French elite. I argue that the rococo mirror was an effective tool for the careful construction, practice, and performance of elite identities at a moment when these identities were increasingly contested and precarious. The rococo mirror has roots ...

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