Art review: ‘Paris: Life & Luxury in the 18th Century’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum

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Remember when French was the official language of international diplomacy?

Me neither. Once upon a time, though, it was. That singular status unraveled in the 20th century, one of many casualties of the First World War, along with the colonialist power of Europe’s aristocracy. But, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, a fascinating and often exquisite exhibition recalls an earlier era of daunting, even exhausting hyper-refinement, once thought essential to nuanced exchanges with potentially far-reaching consequences like diplomatic discourse.

‘Paris: Life & Luxury in the 18th Century’ does it in an unusual way -- by giving a platform to the decorative arts, which form the scenery of daily life for the rich and powerful.


Here, a gilded ornamental box for storing hair ribbons, elaborately embellished by unidentified artisans, is as important as a full-size 1749 double-portrait of a hugely wealthy mother and daughter by Jean-Marc Nattier, a gifted court painter to Louis XV. The box features mother-of-pearl scenes of Venus being dressed and primped by cherubs. The painting depicts Madame Marsollier, a countess whose title was purchased for her by a socially lowly (if obviously aspirational) textile-merchant husband with a tony shop in the rue Saint Honoré. Bejeweled, she is shown in a palatial setting affixing ornaments to her daughter’s hair.

Mom looks off to one side, into the blissful azure eternity that her obscene wealth and her chaste Nattier portrait will conspire to ensure, while her daughter, innocent heir to that grandiose pledge, looks straight at us -- and gently smiles. Both are rendered with the rouged white skin whose porcelain perfection would become, a decade after the painting, a staple for the royal factory at Sèvres, just outside town near Madame de Pompadour’s palace. Held in the young girl’s hands is an open ornamental ribbon-box, a painted mirage startlingly similar in design to the actual gilded box carefully placed inside an adjacent vitrine by Getty curators Charissa Bremer-David and Peter Björn Kerber.

Looking back and forth between the actual box and the painted image is somewhat unnerving, like witnessing a dizziness-inducing mash-up of analog and virtual reality. It comes in the show’s first room, but the experience is repeated many times throughout this marvelous exhibition.

An enameled gold châtelaine (or elaborate belt-hook for a fan or watch) by Charles-Simon Bocher displayed in a case turns up in a nearly identical version at the waist of an industrious woman doing embroidery in a large and refined pastel portrait by Jean Valade. A painted pair of nighttime interiors showing party-goers by Jean-François de Troy are installed flanking a mirror-topped, sconce-framed marble mantelpiece, very much like the elaborate hearth shown in the two paintings.

And is that Chinese-style ink stand with the gilt-bronze mounts the same one that’s glimpsed in Guillaume Voiriot’s portrait of a state official at his desk writing documents? No, but it’s close. The excellent exhibition catalog even features a helpful checklist that cross-references such relationships among objects in the show; also identified are shared subjects, styles, materials and works owned by the same patrons or displayed at the same salons.

The Getty claims an extraordinary permanent collection of French decorative arts, especially from the 18th century, which is the engine that drives the show. (The ribbon box is from the museum’s holdings.) Exceptional loans have also been gathered from two-dozen public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe. (The Nattier portrait comes from New York’s Metropolitan Museum.) The show has been arranged in a carefully plotted sequence of 10 vignettes that intermingle paintings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain, tapestries, clothing and more to take us through a single aristocratic day, morning to night.


These vignettes are less old-fashioned museum period-rooms than they are evocative sketches suggestively drawn by the curators. Some feature once-in-a-lifetime pairings.

For the first time since they were separated not long after being painted in the 1740s, the Getty’s own Nattier portrait of another society matron is reunited with its companion portrait of her husband from Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The reunion is instructive. He, surrounded by the natural history specimens that were the focus of his leisure interests, is shown with an enormous book opened on his knee. She, fashionable hostess of a Parisian literary salon, is dressed as Roman mythology’s Diana, goddess of the hunt, seated in a placid wilderness. It’s as if his active reading and study of nature’s history is paired with her passive emblem of it. He is worldly, she is an allegory. Together they speak of empire.

The two party pictures by De Troy were hailed as his finest works when they were shown in 1737 at the all-important Paris Salon. ‘Before the Ball,’ which shows a maid fixing a woman’s hair as her friends (holding masks) lean forward in anxious anticipation of the revelry to come, is owned by the Getty. ‘After the Ball,’ which shows a florid post-party scene, is not; notoriously, the Getty failed to buy it at a 2000 public auction, and the picture is now in an anonymous private collection. It’s worth seeing them together while one can.

Also near the start of the show is Pierre Antoine’s hefty 1740 Latin-French dictionary, opened to the page containing the word luxe, or luxury. Notably, its definition is by far the longest on the page, which indicates its importance to the era.

Luxe does mean what we think it means, as all the indulgences in gold, marble, pastel, silk, porcelain, ebony, oil paint and other material signs of sumptuous living and elegant refinement handily demonstrate. But ‘Paris: Life & Luxury in the 18th Century’ also shows a distinctive nuance -- one with a moral underpinning that might be surprising. For the French, luxury was necessary as a sign of social station, but it carried ancient overtones of vice and sin. So, it needed to be disinfected.

The cleansing came by applying wealth to virtuous associations. Valade’s woman laboring at embroidery exemplified industrious enterprise. Expanding knowledge was the concern of Nattier’s amateur natural scientist. Voiriot’s state official at his desk preparing civil documents was doing good works.


Since clothes make the man, it’s almost as if finer clothes could make a finer man -- providing that he wears them while boosting the larger social welfare.

The ghost of J. Paul Getty, oil tycoon and once America’s richest man, haunts these galleries. Walking through the show, where roughly half the 113 objects come from the Getty’s own collection, it’s easy to see the origin of many of today’s common assumptions about cultural benefaction by the rich. In one sense, it chronicles the social phenomenon of noblesse oblige -- the idea that great privilege entails great responsibility.

At his death, Getty left one collection to his museum that was universally recognized as superlative. Neither European paintings nor Greco-Roman antiquities, it was instead composed of 18th-century French decorative arts. Small wonder, as ‘Paris: Life & Luxury’ attests. Paris: Life & Luxury in the 18th Century, J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through Aug. 7. Closed Monday. Free; parking, $15;


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-- Christopher Knight