Power, Politics, and Adornment in France
Few places evoke style, elegance, and refinement like the French capital of Paris…
The city’s long-standing tradition of creative design and exquisite craftsmanship will be on display at the Cummer Museum in Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris, an exhibition presenting an important selection of jewelry, drawings, fashion prints, paintings, and photographs from one of the most prestigious collections of its kind. More than one-hundred and fifty pieces ranging from the 17th century until the years just after the Second World War highlight how jewelry design and creation is a true art form with a history of its own, influenced by politics, economics, and social change. The exhibition will be on view October 13, 2017 through January 7, 2018.
The first written indication of organized goldsmiths’ workshops in France actually dates back to the 7th century, when talented artisans were working out of monasteries and exclusively at the service of the king and the Church. A few centuries later, competing workshops and stalls began to appear in the streets of numerous cities and towns, prompting goldsmiths to come together in order to promote, protect, and transmit their art through the creation of a guild. The guild regulated the skills required to become a master goldsmith, ensured the competence of its members, and set standards of quality. Because the creation of a single piece rested on the proficiency of one individual from start to finish, the goldsmiths’ art was seen as a noble one from its inception.
In the 16th century, the jewelry industry flourished in part thanks to achievements in urban planning carried out under King Henri IV (1553 − 1610). The emergence of public squares in Paris resulted in goldsmiths setting up shops along the river Seine, thus gaining increased visibility and aristocratic clients. Naturally, working for the king remained the most coveted occupation since jewelry expressed the prestige and political power of the French Crown.
Despite a reign marred by diplomatic, military, and economic setbacks, the presence of King Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) in Versailles continued the artistic grandeur brilliantly achieved by his great grandfather, King Louis XIV (r. 1643 – 1715). As noted by the authors of the exhibition catalogue: “The creative radiance of Parisian jewelers, driven by the Versailles Court’s appetite for the beautiful objects they produced, cast its influence across Europe. Master artisans exported their knowledge through published engravings and by visiting kingdoms and principalities noted for their patronage.” Prints were indeed a great way to disseminate jewelry designs, but they also document the different styles that came
into fashion, allowing us to understand how those styles echoed art historical movements. For example, the interlacing of curls and counter curves, asymmetrical forms, as well as naturalistic shell and floral motifs typical of French Rococo architecture and decorative arts of the first half of the 18th century can be found in jewelry design. However, a more sober elegance, with geometric and regular forms, slowly began to appear during the second half of the 18th century, informed by a renewed interest in the harmony, simplicity, and proportion of Roman and Greek antiquity celebrated by Neoclassicism.
Fascination with the glories of past civilizations only intensified with the
multiplication of archeological excavations, and with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt. During his reign (1804-1814), jewelry makers not only sought inspiration in antiquity, they also embraced the emperor’s distinct taste for cameos. Adorning diadems, combs, necklaces, earring drops, or belt buckles, cameos depicting Greek and Roman goddesses became a must have in the fashion world, as did dresses based on those of antiquity.
The fall of Emperor Napoleon allowed for the reinstatement of the French monarchy. King Louis XVIII (r. 1815-1824) took up residence at the Tuileries Palace, but his rather austere lifestyle did little to encourage luxury industries. When his brother, King Charles X (r. 1824-1830), ascended to the throne, the glamour and grand celebrations reminiscent of the Crown’s glorious times shone once more. Jewelry was in higher demand, with semiprecious stones and coral complementing corsets, décolleté, and elaborate hairstyles. The king’s attempt to restore the monarchy’s prestige was short lived. The growing liberal middle class brought to power Louis-Philippe I, the Duc d’Orléans, in 1830. He assumed the title of “King of the French” (as opposed to the previous designation “King of France”) as a way to signal his openness to the people’s needs. He reigned without pomp and real interest for objects of luxury, and although he was much-loved by his citizens, deteriorating economic conditions led to his abdication in 1848.