Book Review: Katie Scott: Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris, (Yale University Press, 342 pp, ₤39.95, 1995)
The photos are not from the book, they were taken by me on my art tour to London & Paris in 2006, which focussed on 18th century French art.
This was a critical writing exercise for an art history honour’s class on French art in the 18th century, written in 2006; it was not a published book review.
Katie Scott has produced a lavishly illustrated and scholarly book that offers a thorough reassessment of the rococo interior. Perhaps still thought of by many as refined but frivolous, elegant if somewhat over-decorated, Scott challenges that view by giving the rococo interior back the social meanings it originally held. The book is divided into three parts – the first covers the producers of items that made up the rococo interior (although limited to wall coverings of various sorts); the second part covers the clients of the products – those who lived in the interiors; while the third part discusses the development of the rococo interior in noble palaces and hotels, its appropriation by the bourgeoisie, and its critics. Scott’s introduction sets the scene for this thematic rather than chronological approach – after using a probate inventory to describe a rococo hotel, she says the urge to describe order in decoration and see it as natural is:
to participate unwittingly in the self-deceptions of the society for which it was deployed. Most significantly, such participation serves to obscure the existence of conflict which was part of the process of decorative production and an essential constituent of its meaning (p6).
The first part of the book (three chapters) therefore breaks down this order and describes the makers of the wood panelling, tapestries, paintings and other wall decorations, their organisational structures, the conflicts that often arose between guilds and with privileged groups and individuals, but also the cooperation and coordination needed to make an interior. Her interest is in groups, not individual artisans or designers.
Part two of the book (chapters 4 and 5) begins by discussing the relationship of consumption to the different estates and ranks within the nobility. ‘Appropriate’ expenditure was believed to be relative to social status, not to actual wealth. She elaborates on the main suites of rooms of a noble house – the ceremonial (apartements de Parade); the social (the salon being the most important of these rooms) and the private. These apartments would be differently, and appropriately, decorated and Scott gives examples of this. She ranges widely in her discussion, well away from what ‘rococo interior’ might be thought to encompass, but for me this was a strength of her book. The nobles’ hotels were not just a private, familial space, they were also a public, social one. Visits were part of the daily routine.
Part three (the longest part, comprising five chapters) begins with the revival of ‘grotesque’ decoration around 1700 in some noble chateaux around Versailles. Generally, the themes of chapters 6, 7, and 8 are ‘grotesque’, pastoral, and mythological painting, respectively. Chapter 9 focuses on the use of rococo by the bourgeoisie and the reaction of the nobility to this. This was linked with debates on luxury (which she defines as the illegitimate acquisition of signs and symbols of superior rank, p224): ‘In effect, noble ideology took up residence in the denunciation of luxury …in order to articulate its own specific resistance to the gathering authority of market economics’ (p226). The chapter covers in some detail the John Law era: ‘Law’s system had profoundly altered society’s perception and experience of upward social mobility’ (p230). By the 1730s and 1740s critics of the rococo could count on the connection being made between new style and new wealth. The final chapter covers criticisms of rococo, and how being ‘exposed’ in reproductive prints, and in the Salon, helped lead to its demise.
As will be clear from this brief outline, Scott takes a social art history approach grounded in heavy reliance on archival material. This was also the approach of an earlier article in which she looked at legal documents to analyse conflict between artistic institutions. Yet she does not want to use probate inventories to ‘restore for study the practices of everyday life by reintroducing individuals to their homes and surrounding them with their possessions’ (p6), as Annik Pardaile-Galbrun, and others, have done. This risks losing the critical distance she believes is needed. For example, Scott believes: ‘A decorative ensemble can be read as a settling of competing claims and a record of a changing economy…It seemed important to reintroduce the fine arts to their economic context’ (p7). While not the first to look at the economics of eighteenth century ‘decorative arts’, she is perhaps one of the first to give it such prominence in an art historical text, and she deals with it more comprehensively than previous articles.
Her emphasis is on class – for example, she begins the book with a description of the house of Madame de Mazarin, who ‘is of little use as an individual, but as a member of a social class she may play her part’ (p7). While class is more important than gender for this period (no peasant, male or female, could have commissioned such interiors), a more nuanced approach might also have considered whether the patron’s gender made any difference to her commissions, compared to a male patron. This is something that Scott has recently taken up in her article on Madame de Pompadour’s interior spaces. More importantly, more discussion of why rococo’s critics came to see the style as feminine would have been useful.
Although Scott is in dialogue with previous accounts of the history of rococo, this is largely in footnotes, and the reader should ideally already be thoroughly familiar with this historiography. (This is not a book for beginners to this period). Scott does not explain what she means by ‘rococo’. She covers the period c.1690-1750, similar to Fiske Kimball’s ground-breaking 1943 book ‘Creation of the Rococo’. Without stating it explicitly, she is following Kimball’s outline. Nevertheless, she does sometimes apply the word ‘rococo’ to the whole period under discussion (especially in chapter 10). To fully understand Rococo Interior, a reader should already be familiar with at least Kimball’s book. Someone wanting an overview survey of the period’s interiors would be advised to start with, for example, John Whitehead’s ‘French Interior’. Scott’s approach is quite different from both of these. She combines an art historical approach (particularly the social history of art) with discussion of the ‘decorative’ arts more usually dealt with by connoisseurs or museum curators (Whitehead, for example, is an art dealer specialising in French eighteenth century objects). Kimball follows the more traditional art history method of attributing style developments to particular artists and designers – in fact, for him, the rococo was ‘in its genesis essentially an immanent, artistic one (p60) …it depended on personal initiative of gifted individuals’ (p152). Pierre Lepautre, who Kimball labels the ‘father of the rococo’ (p89) is not mentioned in Scott’s book, except in a footnote. However, her approach is not generally one of attribution, nor ‘artistic immanence’. She locates the developing ‘rococo’ style in the Meudon circle around the Grand Dauphin in the early 1700s as a way of distinguishing themselves from the classical style associated with Louis XIV. This is counter to Kimball, who sees it developing in the royal buildings designed by architects at the royal buildings department, the Batiments du Roi.
Discussion of stylistic changes in ‘rococo’ over the sixty-odd years covered by Rococo Interior is not a feature of the book, on the whole (although images illustrative of all this period are used). For Kimball the emergence of the genre pittoresque in the late 1720s was a result of ‘gifted individuals’. Perhaps surprisingly given her approach, Scott does not appear to challenge Kimball on this: ‘few would deny the seminal role played by Nicholas Pineau (a sculptor who remained at a distance from royal protection) in the creation of the so-called genre pittoresque or rococo, perhaps the most experimental and unorthodox breakthrough in eighteenth century design’ (p53). She footnotes Kimball here, for an ‘as yet, unchallenged assessment of Pineau’s role’. With Scott’s focus on class a discussion of events around this time, or perhaps an analysis of the type of patrons Pineau and others were working for, might have been expected.
As well as the many images in the book, Scott relies heavily on various texts. In fact she says:
The reproduction of architecture, whether by engraving or photography, has done little to preserve a sense of the sociability of built forms…Therefore it is rather to words, and not plans, elevations and sections that one should go to recreate an impression of the house as a centre of social life (p84).
This would not please an architectural historian (although there are still numerous plans and elevations in the book). However, such a reliance on words and not images is also perhaps somewhat surprising for an art historian. Despite the cover illustration of de Troy’s Reading from Moliere (1728), Scott seldom uses paintings from the time to illustrate the everyday usage, furnishings, or spatial layout of the rooms. While using paintings or engravings as historical ‘documents’ is not a simple matter, it is surprising that she rarely attempts it. There are many paintings illustrated, but they are mainly works that were previously incorporated in an interior decorative scheme (or occasionally still in situ). Her only description of de Troy’s painting is the ‘figures … encroach upon each other’s space and create a circle of overlapping and intimately enmeshed identities’ (p107). This painting is used to compare a ‘society’ room with a more formal chambre de parade or ceremonial room, illustrated by an engraving from 1696 (pre-rococo). Mostly, however, her use of paintings is to discuss their content. Again, this seems surprising in view of the comment that in society rooms painted decoration was designed to blend in, not stand out (p116). For example, her discussion of Natoire’s Psyche and Cupid series (Hotel de Soubise, pp206-211) focuses on their content, without mentioning how Natoire adapted his compositions to the unusual shape of the frames required by the wall panelling.
There are some examples in the book where the illustrations do not seem to quite match the point being made in the text. For example, in discussing the apartement de parade, she says ‘the logic of the enfilade determined that the last, or at least the penultimate room in a sequence, was the most prestigious…’ (p107), but both plans of hotels given on the facing page have the chambre de parade in the middle of the enfilade. In this discussion comparing the two types of apartments a careful use of photographs of still existing rooms would have been useful to help make her points.
As mentioned, de Troy’s painting (and others) could perhaps have been used to discuss how the rooms were furnished and how these furnishings were tailored to the function of the room. There is very little mention of room furnishings in the book, other than those that went on a wall. This might be partly justified in that ‘wall panelling dictat[ed] the appropriate volume and kind of furniture required’ but it does tend to make the title Rococo Interior a little misleading. In a brief discussion of chairs (p116) Scott sees their significance mostly as relating to the rhythms of fashion. Mimi Hellman gives a more thorough account of the uses and meanings of furniture in her 1999 article. Decorative objects conveyed meaning not simply through possession but also through usage – they were ‘performed’. Scott’s recent article on Madame de Pompadour does in fact attempt to redress this – she says (footnote 17) that her essay ‘attempts to retrieve the behavioural element of architecture so effectively and persuasively accomplished with respect to furniture by Mimi Hellman’. This is part of her ongoing dialogue with other art historians. The focus in this article on a significant female patron (one who is scarcely mentioned in Rococo Interior), and detailed discussion of paintings to establish layout and furnishings, suggest a different approach from her earlier book.
While the thematic approach of Rococo Interior has advantages, it does however tend to obscure the changes that occurred over the fifty or sixty years of the ‘rococo style’. Part 3 of Rococo Interior has a more chronological approach as Scott considers the revival of grotesque decoration around 1700, then the use of pastoral and mythological painting around the period of the regency and later. Although there is a feeling of chronology to this part, she describes Oppenord and Lajoue as Watteau’s contemporaries, but illustrates them with works (1738–40) long after Watteau’s death, and well into the ‘rococo’ and not ‘grotesque’ or ‘arabesque’ period. Scott has a certain laxness about chronology when it comes to style.
The final chapter, ‘The Rococo Exposed’, I found one of the most interesting. She is clear in explaining how rococo was not advantaged by being reproduced in engravings or being shown in the Salon – this divorced it from its decorative whole and deprived it of its social meanings. Her analysis of the critics’ texts is particularly interesting. Yet, true to her approach, she comes back to the view that it was social and political conditions that had changed: ‘The social and political conditions that had originally given life and vigour to the rococo had… gradually withered away. Rococo was already in retreat by the mid-1740s. Criticism didn’t defeat rococo.’ Yet, I think this view tends to imply that ‘rococo’ had only one meaning, which developed around the early 1700s, and later developments deviated from this moment. The high financiers began adopting the gout moderne early in the century; as Scott acknowledges, they generally used the same artisans as the nobility to decorate their houses. Although they did not have the same motives as the nobility for adopting the new style, it seems odd to suggest it had only one ‘authentic meaning’ (p252), when it lasted for some sixty-odd years, and was at its ‘high rococo’ phase in the 1730s.
Despite these criticisms, the book is a ground-breaking one that complements, rather than replaces, Kimball’s because of their different approaches. The book is significant for many reasons: It is one of the first to treat the ‘decorative arts’, certainly of this period, in an art historical way. Scott shows how the architecture and its decoration had social meanings, and that different political and social status claims could be manifested in different decorative strategies. As well, she reintegrates the paintings back into the spaces they were made for, unlike many art history books that treat paintings as stand-alone objects. By putting ‘rococo’ into the cultural and political milieu of the eighteenth century she has given it more substance than it usually receives, especially as its critics’ views (that it was frivolous, meaningless, etc) still hold sway to some extent.
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 The text describes the series as engravings, the caption describes it as an etching.
 Scott, K. (1998). “Waddesdon Manor [Book review of book by Bruno Pons].” The Burlington Magazine 140(1143): 394-396.
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