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Boucher’s Bijoux: Luxury Reproductions in the Age of Enlightenment

Susan Wager [Columbia University]
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2012 – 2014

wager-2013-2014

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour, after François Boucher after Jacques Guay, Bacchus enfant, published 1782. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection

On the death of the royal mistress Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, 1721 – 1764), her estate included eighteen paintings and three drawings by François Boucher (1703 – 1770), four prints after Boucher, ten chairs upholstered with tapestries woven after designs by Boucher, some sixty porcelain figurines sculpted after paintings and drawings by Boucher, two porcelain vases painted with “enfants de Boucher,” a gold snuffbox decorated with a miniature enamel copy after Boucher, and a cameo carved after a Boucher drawing. Although images circulated in a vertiginous array of reproductive media in the eighteenth century, scholarship on artistic reproduction has focused on technological innovations that facilitated the dissemination of relatively inexpensive and increasingly exact prints. My dissertation rethinks eighteenth-century reproduction to account for otherwise little-studied copies that were expensive, scarce, and materially assertive and that sometimes were produced or consumed through outmoded technologies or economic models. Each chapter centers on a different medium: engraved gems, porcelain, tapestry, and gold snuffboxes and objets de vertu. By displacing financial value — and in some cases artistic value — from original to copy, and from the author’s touch to the reproductive material, these objects complicate our understanding of reproduction in eighteenth-century France.

The study of reproductions in luxury media destabilizes the line conventionally drawn between original and copy, forcing us to redefine these terms in relation to eighteenth-century standards. During this period, the development of connoisseurship and the growth of the modern art market placed ever more value on the physical traces of the artist’s original touch — the seemingly unmediated expression of the artist’s creative genius. Copies, lacking this freshness of touch, were thus generally considered intrinsically inferior. And yet, many of the most luxurious media in this period were inherently reproductive. Reproduction is by definition derivative, and copies generally derive their exchange value from that of the original. But luxury reproductions also generated exchange value through their own materiality. What did it mean for a reproduction to be generative rather than derivative?

I propose that the production and collection of luxury copies had less to do with conspicuous consumption than with the transformative potential of intermedial reproduction. Images in the eighteenth century frequently underwent multiple layers of material transposition, and each translation generated new possibilities for the reproductive medium to conjugate the image, whether stylistically or semiotically. A print in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, entitled Bacchus enfant, is an example of this palimpsestic accumulation of mediative layers. The print belongs to a set of etchings made in the 1750s by Madame de Pompadour herself after cameos and intaglios carved by the gem engraver Jacques Guay (1711 – c. 1793). Each etching is the result of a relatively complex trajectory of the original image through multiple hands and media. The sard intaglio depicted in Bacchus enfant was carved by Guay after an extract from a print after a Boucher drawing. Boucher then made a drawing of the intaglio, and Pompadour produced an etching after Boucher’s drawing. The enfant, in other words, migrated from drawing to print to gem to drawing to print.

Engraved gems were an unlikely vehicle for the transmission of Boucher’s images. In the eighteenth-century imagination, glyptography was closely associated with antiquity and with a lithological durability that stretched simultaneously back to the ancients and forward to a distant future. Merging future with past, one eighteenth-century critic described gem engraving as “the genre of the debris of antiquity.” Boucher’s fugitive color palette and preoccupation with the sensual pleasures of the human body, in contrast, were bound up with rococo transience and decadence. When transposed onto engraved gems, Boucher’s work was transported from the ephemeral to the durable, from a thickly painted facture to an economy of incised lines, and from the voluptuousness of style moderne curves to the elegant austerity of classical linearity. I suggest that these translations served as a visual retort to anti-rococo and antiluxury criticism.

In her etching of the Bacchus enfant intaglio, Pompadour enacted yet another conjugation of the original image by reintroducing Boucher’s authorial presence after it had been partially erased by the intervention of Guay and the physical limitations of precious stone. She employed Boucher to make the drawing on which her etching was based. This interpolation is at odds with the diagrammatic format of the print, in which Pompadour includes schematic ovals indicating the gem’s actual size and geological identity, as if to emphasize with a quasi-scientific rigor the physical reality of the gem. And yet that semblance of empirical precision is simultaneously destabilized by the reinsertion of Boucher’s authorial specificity. Pompadour thus calls attention both to the material conditions and to the transformative processes of reproduction itself.

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Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour after François Boucher after Jacques Guay
Pompadour, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de
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Bacchus enfant
published 1782
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