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Life & Luxury: MFAH reveals the art of the lavish high life for socialites in 18th Century Paris

Life & Luxury
François Boucher, French, 1703–1770
Lady Fastening Her Garter (also known as La Toilette) 
1742
Oil on canvass
François-Thomas Germain, French, 1726-1791 “La Machine d’Argent” or Centerpiece for a Table 1754 Silver
François-Thomas Germain, French, 1726-1791
“La Machine d’Argent” or Centerpiece for a Table
1754
Silver
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Clock movement by Jean-Romilly, French, 1714-1796 Case attributed to Charles Cressent, French, 1685-1768 Bracket by Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain, French, 1719-1791 Clock on Bracket (Cartel sur une console) c. 1758 Gilt bronze, enameled metal; glass
Clock movement by Jean-Romilly, French, 1714-1796
Case attributed to Charles Cressent, French, 1685-1768 Bracket by Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain, French, 1719-1791 Clock on Bracket (Cartel sur une console)
c. 1758
Gilt bronze, enameled metal; glass
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Carcass and mounts attributed to Jean-Pierre Latz, French, c. 1691-1768 Marquetry panels attributed to the Workshop of Jean-François Oeben, French, 1721-1763 Corner Cupboard (Encoignure) c. 1750-55 Oak veneered with amaranth, stained sycamore, boxwood, and
Carcass and mounts attributed to Jean-Pierre Latz, French, c. 1691-1768
Marquetry panels attributed to the Workshop of Jean-François Oeben, French, 1721-1763
Corner Cupboard (Encoignure)
c. 1750-55
Oak veneered with amaranth, stained sycamore, boxwood, and rosewood; gilt-bronze mounts; brèche d’Alep marble top
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A hurried shower, breakfast on the go, makeup put on in the car and off to work. This all-too-familiar routine — as ordinary and matter-of-fact as it may seem for even the most accomplished of the glitterati — would be considered uncivilized, even churlish, for the model 18th-century Parisian socialite.

Instead, the customary semi-private toilette ritual — not meaning the bathroom, but rather the activities around getting dressed, as introduced by the court of Louis XIV in the 17th century —  would last hours in the company of a chamber maid and wardrobe assistant providing pampering services akin to the modern-day spa. It would also be permissible to attend to light business affairs, casually receiving visitants while donning undergarments or a dressing gown.

Sadly, the toilette is one of the forgotten sumptuous luxuries of the era — one that is featured in Life & Luxury: The Art of Living in 18th Century Paris on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Dec. 11.

 In collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the exhibition chronicles the everyday life of the haute one percent then residing in the City of Lights. 

In collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the exhibition chronicles the everyday life of the haute one percent then residing in the City of Lights. It showcases 160-plus paintings, decorative arts and exquisite objects that survived the revolution — silver, porcelain, furniture, music instruments, scientific gadgets, couture, clocks and time pieces — on loan from 26 museums and private collections. These items would otherwise be scattered around the globe. 

The enlightenment was a period of financial growth and stability during which wealthy patrons could afford objects of exquisite beauty. It was also a time when the dividing line between fine arts and applied arts wasn't so clearly defined as it is today.

The exhibition's substance can be summarized by the first four paintings. Nicolas Lancret’s oil-on-copper allegorical depictions of The Four Times of Day — Morning, Midday, Afternoon and Evening — illustrate the essence of taste and etiquette of the era, with a brilliant, metallic luminosity that mirrors the subject's aesthetic.

Ambling through Life and Luxury lets one walk a day in the life of the Parisian upper echelon.

Following the morning toilette, the galleries focus on business affairs, daily correspondence and record keeping in the precursor to the modern-day home office. Bureaux — meaning home office — sounds so much more exquisite (and expensive). On display are a Bureau Plat (writing table) from circa 1720-1725 decorated with gilt bronze, an ornate 1758 gilt bronze clock and a duo of immense curved Rococo corner cabinets — each decorated with gilt bronze-mount metaphors of arts and sciences — that flank the desk.

All these pieces are attributed to furniture-maker, sculptor and metalsmith Charles Cressent (1685-1768). Many of his pieces are part of the Louvre's permanent collection.

 Ambling through Life and Luxury lets one walk a day in the life of the Parisian upper echelon. 

Moving on to the study of science, there are magnification tools, maps, globes and books that show an enlightened interest in deciphering the natural world. On display are Encyclopédie by philosopher Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and Histoire Naturelle by the Comte de Buffon.

A meal would not be complete without elegant porcelain and refined silver pieces. A still-life sculpture handcrafted by François-Thomas Germain depicts a rabbit, two birds, morel mushrooms and truffles aimed to awaken the palate by engaging all the senses, showing a meal favored by the elite.

The execution is immaculate and achieves a level of virtuosic realism suited for an indulgent, yet genteel dinner.

At dusk, live music — compositions by Rameau and Couperin were le dernier cri — and card games took center stage as the preferred leisure activity. A multi-purpose reversible gambling table and porcelain betting chips with their matching storage boxes reveal that beauty and stylish design was found in even practical pieces. 

Anything else would be uncivilized.

With all this mixing and mingling, one may find it peculiar that when the time came to be in the arms of Morpheus, Parisians turned to quiet and personal prayer in the privacy of their own chamber.

For this CultureMap adventure, I enlisted the help of Helga K. Aurisch, MFAH curator of European art, and Charissa Bremer-David, associate curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the Getty Museum to walk through the collection and offer insights not evident to the naked eye. The information was so fascinating that this will the be first of a three-part series on the subject.

We begin with the morning toilette (see the video at the top of the page).

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