True Taste Recovered and the Baroque Transfigured
When Saint-Preux, in Rousseau's famous novel La Nouvelle Héloïse , steps into Julie's garden, which she calls her Elysée, he finds it is as if he has not stepped into a garden at all, but is rather the first to set foot on some distant isle far from civilization. He seems to find himself in what the eighteenth century often referred to as a "desert," which meant not some Saharan waste but verdant nature far removed from the intervention of man. Paradoxically, one may say that Saint-Preux found himself in natural nature. The enchanted isle of Ariosto, which Louis XIV had imitated in a series of festivals to inaugurate Versailles and its gardens, had turned into the island of Robinson Crusoe. Indeed Emile, the subject of Rousseau's experiment in education, had read Defoe's famous book as part of his moral and practical education, which was devised to preserve in him a natural virtue in a corrupt society and to make him free and independent, a kind of natural man in a non-natural society. Julie's version of nature thus had the appearance of pure nature, a nature which the Baroque had rejected as imperfect and not worthy of imitation, preferring instead to construct an ideal nature, an emanation of reason, a nature corrected. If in the Baroque the grotto of Thetis might dazzle the eye and astonish the soul, by the end of the
eighteenth century there was greater charm to be had from the simple joys of nature. Formal gardens were art; hence they were artificial luxury, and as such were coming to seem as boring as other aspects of baroque luxury. And they were in bad taste, they were ostentatious; as Monsieur de Wolmar, Julie's husband, puts it:
I see in these vast and richly ornate grounds only the vanity of their owner and of the artist; the one is ever driven to show off his wealth, the other his talent, and both at great expense prepare boredom for those who are supposed to enjoy their work. A false taste for a grandeur that was never devised for man always ends up by poisoning his pleasure. A grand air is always sad; it evokes the miseries of those who assume it. In the midst of one's parterres and allées , one's own little individuality can hardly expand, and a twenty-foot tree would cover one as well as a sixty-foot tree; the body takes up only three square feet and can become lost in a sea of possessions like a mite. (360)
Rousseau's point of view is utterly at variance with that of Mandeville or with the observations of Adam Smith, who noted the expansive nature of the rich and the increase of the self through riches and possessions. But then Rousseau was hardly at ease in the Parisian salons of the great and the wealthy, and from his unease with baroque grandeur and splendor, he constructed an aesthetic experience at variance with that of the Baroque. A man who would not enjoy himself in a garden such as Julie's could only be a person of unhealthy taste and unhealthy soul. Rousseau has eliminated luxe d'ostentation ; in its place he has introduced luxe de mollesse .
In Emile (1762), his treatise on education, Rousseau distinguished between two types of luxury. One was familiar
to critics of luxury; the Marquis de Mirabeau had used the term in his economic writings. This was luxe d'ostentation , luxury tout court for Sénac de Meilhan, associated with the financier class and the power of money in society, and also called prodigality by Mandeville and Necker. This luxury of ostentation was external glitter, visible show, and unmistakably baroque. But Rousseau also wrote of luxe de mollesse —a rather novel concept, and quite unlike ostentatious luxury or what Veblen was later to call conspicuous consumption. Luxe de mollesse was internal, and referred to a state of the soul. It was the enjoyment of the simple things of life and of nature herself, such as Rousseau must have experienced in his rowboat as he dreamed and drifted on the lake of Bienne at a moment of his life when he found a few weeks of peace on the Ile de Saint-Pierre. According to this celebrated passage of his Rêveries , Rousseau felt at one with the universe. He had what we may call an aesthetic experience connected not with some work of art but with the cosmos. Rousseau can also be said to have found himself at one with that great order of nature later to be described by Court de Gébelin, with one telling exception: Rousseau was not being productive in that great order, he was dreaming. But the significance of the experience was indeed a feeling of unity with nature; luxe de mollesse was the natural luxury of dolce far niente , the joy of simply existing.
Ostentatious luxury was associated with the rich; but this does not imply that luxe de mollesse should be associated with the poor, for they have no time to enjoy their existence and the simple things of life and nature. Rather, luxe de mollesse may be associated with a new kind of man of taste, corresponding to Rousseau's interpretation of the English gentleman and man of taste as depicted in another character from the Nouvelle Héloïse , Sir Edward Bomston. Sir Edward speaks of the fine arts with discernment but without pretension; he judges of their quality by feeling rather than by rules; he has been to Italy and, being a man of feeling as well as taste, he loves Italian music. Sir Edward Bomston
is Rousseau's response to his own First Discourse , in which had begun his general critique of baroque society and its arts and masks. He manages to inhabit a corrupt society without himself being corrupted by it, and his love of Italian music places him beyond the baroque standard of taste and within a new aesthetic.
Whereas luxury could not, in the final analysis, satisfy the desires of the rich forever or quiet the anxieties of those who suffered from ennui, taste might just do that. Since Pascal and Du Bos, the arts had been considered as a kind of therapeutic of ennui. Even Rousseau accepted this principle, acknowledging that in a corrupt society the arts might be of some use. With mankind too far gone to recover a lost innocence, plays and novels had become necessary in a negative way: better to read about vice than indulge in it.
But the Pascalian and Dubosian aesthetic of divertissement, and indeed this whole aesthetic of pleasure, came to be seriously challenged, in all its aspects. The querelle des bouffons questioned the aesthetics of Rameau's opera, which is that of pleasure expressed through harmony; Diderot questioned the conventions of theatrical representation, of baroque painting and sculpture, and, in his praise of Richardson, of the novel as then established. Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse was an example of the new taste or aesthetic, as were the new types of gardens in the Anglo-Chinese manner, gardens presumably closer to nature than formal gardens. The failure of baroque aesthetics, the aesthetics of divertissement and pleasure, was the moment of birth of what later came to be known as the "aesthetic experience," which was in fact nothing but a profane version of the mystical experience of the baroque saints. Rousseau had a mystical experience of nature, Winckelmann in Rome had a mystical experience of beauty as manifest in works of ancient statuary. This implies a shift of attention away from
a work of art as a work subject to conventions, rules, the judgment of taste, to the experience of a man or woman contemplating a work of art or a work of nature. Thus taste as a standard of judgment gave way to the experience of the work, and romanticism was at hand. In the words of a Jane Austen title, sensibility triumphed over sense. In terms of aesthetic theory, the end of the baroque aesthetic meant that a work of art had now to be founded on "the natural."
A case in point is the Comte de Saléran, a fictional character from the novel of the great architect and teacher François Blondel, L'Homme du monde éclairé par les arts (1774). The Comte de Saléran, like the rich described by Helvétius and d'Holbach, was bored. The count had tasted of all the luxuries and all the pleasures that life and wealth could give him. Had he been born a hundred years later, he would have been described as decadent; not so in 1774, however, with the aesthetic era only just begun. A friend suggested that he interest himself in the arts, and there he found his salvation from ennui. His spirit, as he put it, was raised to the brilliant sphere of the arts; he was transported to a sojourn of enchantment; he saw the light; he found a new source of voluptuous pleasures; the heart he had exhausted, the senses he had lost, were restored by this interest in the arts, and he found himself like a man reborn. The baroque vision and representation of divine ravishment, indeed its very language, have here been transferred to the contemplation of the arts and of beauty. But Saléran's journey away from the pleasures of the world of wealth implies that this new interest in the arts is something different from luxury, from the possession of works of art, from mere pleasure. The conversion of the Comte de Saléran to a love of the arts implies the separation of ostentatious luxury from art. The task of taste was to effect this separation on the theoretical level. And this operation, the separation of art from luxury, was to have major consequences. For the new aesthetic, this new enthusiasm, implied at the time the dismissal of most of the art we now call baroque in the name
of true taste. What the Count acquired was precisely taste , judgment in the arts, the capacity to reflect upon his newfound pleasures.
By 1770 the man of taste was hardly a new figure, though he had usually appeared in the narrower role of amateur, connoisseur, curieux , dilettante, or antiquarian. As such, however, he had not always been a figure worthy of admiration. La Bruyère in his Caractères considered the type under the heading of fashion, whereas he dealt with literature and writing under the heading of works of mind or wit. Curiosity was dismissed as a passion: "Curiosity is not a taste for what is good or what is beautiful, but for what is rare, unique, for what we have and others do not. It is not an attachment to what is perfect but to what is sought after, to what is in fashion" (406). As for amateurs, Diderot and the other philosophes disliked them intensely. Yet critics of both French opera and the pictures displayed at the salons appealed to taste when making their judgments. The man of taste, then, was by the 1760s clearly something more than an amateur, connoisseur, or curieux .
Father Bouhours and Boileau under Louis XIV, and Dryden, Pope, and Shaftesbury in England, had all, in the wake of Gracián and Bellori, been writers and poets who taught the art of discernment in literature and pictures. By the same token, they were also the ones to establish taste, by providing examples of works which were thought to constitute good taste. The battle pitting judgment by taste against judgment by rules had been fought and won by taste. Pedants might write of the rules of art and poetry, but the public judged by sentiment. The man of taste thus exercised what Du Bos had called the goût de comparaison within his area of predilection, be it poetry, painting, architecture, sculpture, or music. His judgment was based on sentiment, and it was disinterested, as befits men and
women of quality. This attitude to taste was already beyond the moral disapproval of a La Bruyère. By the 1750s it had been recognized for some time that literature, art, and taste had a history, and that taste might be more than merely an aspect of fashion.
Thus by the time the philosophes turned their attention to the arts of their own time and found themselves unable either to approve or to understand them, they had a word at their disposal with which to disown what had become the established artistic norm: taste . One could do a great deal by asking: what is good taste? The word might equally well denote a type of judgment or an established convention in the arts; indeed, the word taste might be used to question established taste. Obviously, if the philosophes had recourse to taste and the idea of the man of taste, the latter would not be that of baroque society. For among the "men of taste" of that society had been the very amateurs who were now blamed for the decline of the arts, the confusion of taste with luxury, and the false equation of the taste of women with taste tout court. Clearly, if the arts were in decline, and if women dictated taste in the arts, then women could not have real taste; their taste was merely the false taste which ruled society.
The man of taste as represented by Sir Edward Bomston would have a new significance in the world envisaged by the philosophes, Rousseau, and even the economists. Unlike the baroque amateur, curieux , or connoisseur, who are tainted by association with passions, the new man of taste seems beyond passion. He asks himself what constitutes good taste, he inquires, like Shaftesbury's virtuoso, as to the true canon of taste, and he will tend to seek that canon in Italy or among the ancients. He may be a man of feelings; but these are dominated by his judgment.
In Diderot's Rêve de d'Alembert , Mademoiselle de Lespinasse wonders about the relation of sensibility to taste. She finds herself too sensitive to a play or to music to judge of it, and thinks that reflection upon one's feelings in such a
situation may spoil the pleasure taken in a play or an opera. Dr. Bordeu explains that too much sensibility is indeed a hindrance to what we today would call aesthetic pleasure. For to be too moved by a play, or music, or poetry means that the pleasure will pass too quickly for one to be aware of the quality of that pleasure. On the other hand, reflection upon one's pleasure does not, as Mademoiselle de Lespinasse feared, diminish it, but rather augments it. The will must thus intervene to control sensibility, so that one can admire and enjoy without the debilitating effects of pathos. The good critic suspends not so much his disbelief as his sensibility.
Thus the Comte de Saléran became over time a man of taste, in this new philosophical sense. His initial enthusiasm for the arts tore him out of his boredom and the pleasures of dissipation and introduced him to a higher form of pleasure, the refined aesthetic pleasure taken in works of art. Like so much else in the eighteenth century, taste was thus raised up from its former associations and recast as something philosophical. The former pleasures of possession were sublimated into taste. The former accumulators of luxuries were now praised as collectors of taste, whose collections of pictures enriched the national patrimony. And taste not only sublimated the notion of pleasure; it also allowed the separation of the concept of art from luxury.
This philosophizing on the subject of taste is evident not only in the work of the abbé Du Bos and the speculations of Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, and innumerable lesser writers, but also in the thought of Hume, whose discussion of taste is worth closer scrutiny in our attempt to understand the passage from baroque culture to the Enlightenment. Hume clearly presents the man of taste as a philosopher and a type superior to the man of prodigality:
Philosophers have endeavoured to render happiness entirely independent of everything external. That is
impossible to be attained: but every wise man will endeavour to place his happiness on such objects as depend upon himself: and that is not to be attained so much by any other means as by his delicacy of sentiment. When a man is possessed of that talent, he is more happy by what pleases his taste, than by what gratifies his appetites, and receives more enjoyment from a poem or a piece of reasoning than the most expensive luxury can afford. (Essays , 1:4–5)
The need for divertissement and the craving for luxuries are overcome by this delicacy of taste, as taste itself becomes a means to an attainable happiness. At the same time, within the context of eighteenth-century society, the rich man surrounded by his possessions, that hero of luxury associated by Yves Durand with the financier class, is dismissed as a model for emulation. The man of taste belongs to a new elite of the eighteenth century, an elite of culture; for he is "sensible to pains as well as pleasure, which escape the rest of mankind" (1:253). He is beyond ordinary mankind. The effects of delicacy of taste are the same as those of delicacy of passion, that sensibility alluded to by Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, inasmuch as the range of one's feelings is increased in both cases; but the effects of the passions are less harmful. For delicacy of taste is of a higher and more refined nature than mere delicacy of passion; it thus enables man to judge of character, compositions of genius, and works of art. This view of taste and its advantages is a reformulation of the abbé Du Bos's interpretation of the Aristotelian catharsis. But Hume goes beyond Du Bos in his insistence on the happiness associated with delicacy of taste. Du Bos wrote in a time still dominated by the taste and values of the age of Louis XIV; Hume is writing for another generation. And happiness, as Saint-Just put it during the Revolution, was a new idea in Europe.
Recalling the metaphor of Pascal's room, one might say that only men and women of taste could remain in that room—which, it must be admitted, had been rendered
more bearable through the interior decoration of the eighteenth century—without a feeling of anxiety or ennui. Taste thus offered a positive alternative to the Pascalian notion of divertissement with its negative overtones. And should a person of taste leave that metaphorical room, it would not be, as in baroque society, to seek salvation among the Jesuits or Jansenists, or dissipation at court or town, but for the pleasures of conversation in some other salon or drawing room—or, should it be an Englishman taking leave of that room, it might be for the supposedly higher pleasures of Italy. "One that has well digested both of books and men," writes Hume, "has little enjoyment but in the company of a few select companions" (1:7). Taste has turned into a form of wisdom. And as Rousseau perceived, the delicacy of taste of a Sir Edward Bomston was a sensibility tempered by stoic wisdom, so that paradoxically the new man of taste could be defined as a stoic with sensibility.
This delicacy of taste and sensibility tempered by stoicism served not only to distinguish the man of taste from the majority of mankind, but also from another type representative of baroque culture. We have noted that the man of taste can be distinguished from the amateur and the curieux ; but he can also be distinguished from the man of the court, the courtier. As Rousseau further describes Sir Edward in La Nouvelle Héloïse: "Though he may not possess that circumspect and reserved politeness based uniquely on external forms, a politeness which young officers from France have, he has that of humanity, which prides itself less on distinguishing rank and status at a glance but generally respects all men" (81). The distinction between a baroque consideration for form and rank and the supposedly greater and broader conception of humanity in the Enlightenment could hardly be better put. Sir Edward possesses universal human qualities. The man of taste is defined as a universal type, a universal ideal, beyond relative, local, or institutional values. His ancestor in this respect may well have been the honnête homme of the seventeenth century,
who likewise distinguished himself from the courtier and from other types of the Baroque such as the hero, thus placing himself within the realm of disinterestedness and civility. Yet the greater and finer sensibility of the man of taste of the eighteenth century made for the approval of the philosophes and even Rousseau; whereas the honnête homme had already been exposed by La Bruyère, who discerned in the type more appearance than substance.
While the man of taste was defined as a universal type and model for emulation, there remained the question of whether the judgment of taste itself could lay claim to universal validity. To be valid, taste had to be beyond the whims of fashion. If taste was founded on sentiment rather than rules; if, as Hume observed, beauty was not some quality inherent in the object perceived, but lay in the eye of the beholder; if it were truly the case, to quote Shaftesbury, that if "fancy be left judge of anything, she must be judge of all. Every thing is right, if anything be so, because I fancy it" (1:208); then the logical outcome of this subjectivizing of taste (or de-aesthetizing of the concept of taste, as Colin Campbell put it in his brilliant book The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism ) is philistinism and populism, indeed no standard of taste at all and no man of taste. The eighteenth century solved that dilemma in various ways having nothing to do with logic or history, even before Kant set himself to reconcile subjectivity and universality on the theoretical level. For the question of taste in the eighteenth century could not be and was not separated from questions of culture and class, even if these might go unmentioned.
Thus the late eighteenth century, against all logic and all the evidence of history, assumed the existence of a universal beauty and standard of taste. That it could do this was in part the result of its dismissal of so much of the Baroque as
bad taste, mannerism, a departure from the natural, and an effect of the craving for luxuries on the part of the rich and the hated amateurs and the equally disliked role of women in the arts. Taste was not just a subjective preference analogous to the taste of the palate; it was in fact actually good or bad. Nor was it purely a natural trait, a delicate sensibility that an individual might or might not possess; that natural trait could be, indeed had to be, nurtured, trained, and educated. Thus subjective and historical relativism, the latter perceived by Du Bos, Montesquieu, Cartaud de la Vilatte, Voltaire, and others, were bypassed by simply adopting the classical standard of taste and accepting Du Bos's four great ages of taste in history, the Age of Pericles, Augustus, Leo X, and Louis XIV. Horace Walpole might indulge a particular bent for the Middle Ages and still pass as a man of taste, for a man of taste was entitled to amuse himself; but his Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill, was more of a curiosity than a standard of taste for architecture for anyone with true taste. Thus even Hume, who subjectivized taste by displacing beauty from the object to the perceiver, nonetheless appealed to a universal consensus: subjectivity of perception was to be countered by the objectivity of art. "The same Homer, who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and London" (1:242). Hume did not say "is still read in Paris and London." Indeed, Pococurante may have been more to the point when he said that the book of Homer dropped from his hands. Nor did Hume bother specifying by whom Homer was admired. For this need not be mentioned; it was assumed that Homer was admired by men of taste, those who had that delicacy of taste to enable them to discern the beauties of Homer even after two thousand years.
The standard of taste in fact rested on certain unstated assumptions. It supposed a class of gentlemen and, within this class, men of taste who were better than ordinary gentlemen precisely because they had taste. The standard of
taste also rested on particular works of art, mostly to be found in Italy. In the immortal words of Horace Walpole, "in short, in my opinion, all the qualities of a perfect painter never met but in Raphaël, Guido, and Annibale Carracci" (quoted in Steegman, The Rule of Taste , 102). But to know these works also presupposed the grand tour to Italy; furthermore, to these artists (representing the moderns) were to be added the rest of the artistic canon, namely the works of antiquity such as the Apollo Belvedere , the Laocoön , or the Discobolus . Bad taste, judged on this basis, was represented by Bernini and Boucher. Once back from Italy, the English gentleman might want to improve his inherited estate by building a country house in the Palladian manner, which further presupposed a considerable fortune.
Historically considered, this standard of taste leaves out of account the art of the Middle Ages and the very early Renaissance, as well as the Dutch and Flemish school and the French and English schools. This taste was truly academic , in the literal sense of the word—the taste of both the French and the English royal academies. But toward this same standard (which is that of a painter like Reynolds) English and French attitudes differed: in France critics attacked it and thereby took aim at the social strata identified with it; but in England it served as a sign of stability, respectability, distinction, and approval. The mob may have its passing fancies, but true men of taste, in the English view, had taste not subject to the vagaries of time and place. "Wherever you can ascertain a delicacy of taste," wrote Hume, "it is sure to meet with approbation; and the best way of ascertaining it is to appeal to those models and principles, which have been established by the uniform consent of nations and ages" (1:242). The Quality (as eighteenth-century England put it in reference to the aristocracy) always recognize quality. The canon of taste was thus also a canon of social merit.
Where the Baroque had been inventive in the arts despite the obligation to glorify the powers that be, the new age of sensibility would be conservative and, strictly speaking, even reactionary. For where the baroque artist or poet relied upon imagination to transform models given by the past and thereby create a modern art and poetry and sensibility, and even an entirely new genre such as the opera, the age of taste and sensibility returned to the Greeks and Romans for their supposedly universal models and for the foundations of true taste. Architecture, sculpture, painting, furniture, even dress—all were to be à l'antique , which also meant closer to nature. The Baroque had never rejected the Antique in either the arts or literature; but neither Bernini nor Rubens had sacrificed his imagination to a cult of antiquity or an aestheticism such as that formulated by Winckelmann and others. Archaeology had not stifled the imagination.
The Antique played a new role in the age of taste and sensibility of the later eighteenth century. Along with nature, it continued to be the great referent for theory; but it also served as a means of disassociating the Baroque from true taste and thereby distinguishing the concept of art from luxury, and the man of taste from the man of luxury. The amateurs were despised because their departure from the true imitation of the antique forced artists into studio mannerisms and deviation from true taste in order to please the amateurs. True taste and true art were not to be found in the exhibitions of the salon, the hôtels of the opulent, the churches of the Jesuits, or even the palaces of kings. True art and true taste lay elsewhere: in Italy, in Sicily, in ancient Rome, in ancient Greece, and even further east in Syria and Egypt. The true taste of Italy, however, was not that of modern Italy or Sicily, but only that taste discernible in the ruins of ancient Rome and those works assembled in the collections of antiquarians. Whereas the Baroque had produced an art inseparable from life, the inspiration for true taste already came from the museum. The museum age had yet to be born, but it was only a few years off.
Taste thus acquired a meaning it had not had at the time of the abbé Du Bos or Hume. For Du Bos, taste meant the taste of the gens du monde , the men and women of society, who judged on the basis of an informed pleasure and sentiment, rather than by rules as had the pedants of the seventeenth century. These men and women might even include amateurs and women of luxury. But between Du Bos and Hume, and even between Hume and Winckelmann and Diderot as the rich became more and more visible and their influence on the arts more pronounced and their luxury more striking, the notion of taste, seen now as something associated with the antique and a certain stoic wisdom, took on a significance beyond the purely aesthetic. For one thing, delicacy of taste offered greater pleasure than luxury and for that reason alone was something superior to wealth, luxury, and "consumption" as this last functioned in the Paris and London of the eighteenth century. At the same time, taste could bring discipline to luxury. The rich who would be seen and gaped at by the mob, the rich who would show off their wealth through profligacy and confuse appearance with substance, no longer awed the elite. Society now required more than mere wealth for a man to be considered a person of quality: culture and taste had become prerequisites. The man of taste had thus risen beyond a dependence on externals. He was a philosophe and, to use Veblen's later term, beyond invidious comparisons.
Of course, the man of taste could not be a poor man. What is left unsaid by Hume and all other writers on taste and the arts, with the possible exception of the far less diplomatic Monsieur Necker, is that, as we noted with Hume, delicacy of taste presupposes wealth, leisure, and ease. But wealth in itself did not make the man of taste; nor could it be bought.
As a concept, taste was based on considerations which presumably stood apart from economics, power, or even social preeminence. The concept rested instead on that newly discovered realm of the period, the aesthetic. This was a new word, but the phenomenon it alluded to had
existed before, as a certo non so che or je ne sais quoi —terms frequently used in the seventeenth century when rational explanation failed to account for some pleasure taken in a work of art or some charm of manner or wit, or perhaps the charm of a woman at court or in town who, though not considered a beauty, had a certain something which pleased, one knew not why.
In this continuity from the je ne sais quoi to the aesthetic and taste it becomes possible to see that what is considered aesthetic—that which escapes precise definition by reason, common sense, nature or necessity, in short that which seems gratuitous—may well be a constant in society. Thus in the Enlightenment, considered as the century of philosophy or the age of reason, the aesthetic represents a survival of the baroque. The mentality of the elite may no longer have been baroque, to be sure, what with the emphasis on utilitarianism and economics and the reform of the state; but this does not preclude the survival of baroque traits, as is the case even with our society. The man of taste, in this changing eighteenth century, represented a new elite of the refined within a world of other elites: the court, the rich, the old country nobility, the members of prestigious academies, the professionals of law and medicine. Taste created the cultural elite of the Enlightenment. And since the standard of taste, like human nature itself, was decreed to be universal and was discussed in universal terms, the elite which taste represented was thought to be beyond rank, estate, and class. The man of taste was the counterpole to that other new man of the eighteenth century, the economic man. The man of taste rose beyond luxury and mere wealth to a new and higher principle of existence; from this new height he might pass judgment on all previous tastes, as well as on amateurs, connoisseurs, curieux , dilettantes, and the ostentatious and prodigal rich. His luxury was not that of ostentation, either of objects or of knowledge, but that luxe de mollesse which partook of the pleasures of nature and simplicity and humanity. Nil admirari , the man of taste
judged dispassionately of what we call the Baroque and the Rococo, and ultimately of his own taste too, thereby rising in a sense even beyond taste to philosophy.
Rousseau's Emile is precisely such a man. Rousseau did not fail to cultivate Emile's taste, that is, his innate faculty for judging of that which pleases and displeases not only the greatest number of men, but also that much smaller number who comprise the elite of taste. Rousseau was, to judge from book 4 of Emile , very well read in the matter of taste. He was aware of the difficulty of defining it, of explaining the reasons for a judgment of taste in the arts, as he was aware that it was relative to mores, history, geography, character, sex, and institutions. Taste depended on one's sensibility and on the cultivation of that sensibility. Now in order to cultivate one's natural given taste, one's faculty of judgment, it was best to live in a populous society, for the acquisition of taste depended on the range of comparisons one could make. It was also best to live in a society devoted to leisure and amusement, because a society devoted to business was motivated by the search for profit rather than the search for pleasure. And it was best to live in a society where inequality was not too pronounced, where the tyranny of opinion was moderate, and where sensuality reigned rather than vanity—where, in other words, one sought pleasure rather than distinction. In fact, Rousseau was describing Paris as it was in his day for a certain elite.
Of course, this did not mean that Paris was a model of good taste. Far from it. Yet Rousseau would educate Emile precisely in Paris, even though there was probably no city in which the general taste was worse. But the place was bursting with thought, wit, and stimulation of every description; there one might learn to think and to compare, and one might survive the bad taste by invoking contrasting examples. Emile would be set to read the ancients and would soon learn to appreciate their simplicity, manliness, and natural qualities over against the products of modern
taste. He would thus have surmounted the bad taste of the present to attain to the good taste already shown by the ancients. But good taste was more than just something associated with the arts or letters; it was beyond riches. "The man of taste and true pleasure," writes Rousseau, "does not need riches; it is enough for him to be free and the master of himself" (Emile , end of bk. 4). And it is not the least of the paradoxes of that revolutionary writer that, in his speculations on what he would do were he rich, he should have posited the life and home of the country gentleman as an aesthetic ideal. The man of taste turns into a philosophe who ends up looking remarkably like landed gentry. One thinks of Voltaire at Ferney as much as of Rousseau's Monsieur de Wolmar at Clarens.
Changing Appearances: From Court to Beau Monde
The redefinition of taste was not only the philosophical result of a will to distinguish art from luxury. It may well have also been prompted by the rise of another phenomenon inseparable from luxury, indeed made possible by increased wealth and luxury, namely fashion , which, like economics and aesthetics, also achieved its autonomy with the decline of baroque society. The significance of fashion in the course of the eighteenth century thus merits a digression that may help to answer the questions raised above when we wondered whether eighteenth-century Parisian society was or was not a proto-consumer society.
Around 1755, Rousseau, prompted in part by his very real sickness but also by moral considerations inseparable from appearances, decided to reform his life. He began with a reform of his appearance, to bring it into correspondence with his self, his true being: "I began my reform with my dress; I quit gold gilding and white stockings, took on a round wig, gave up my sword, sold my watch, telling
myself with incredible joy: Thank Heaven I shall no longer need to know what time it is" (Confessions , bk. 8, 363). Rousseau's change of appearance signaled his resolution to break the fetters of opinion and fashion and to live in independence and poverty rather than continue wearing a mask, the mask required by polite society and one which the philosophes were willing to assume even while condemning the baroque society epitomized by that mask. Diderot, as Rousseau later realized, after they had gone their separate ways, had become a monsieur . Rousseau, whatever his success, still felt himself of the people, certainly not at ease in Parisian society, and he would dress accordingly, as dictated by his health and sentiments rather than by fashion. As for the watch he gave up, it was a gesture pointing to another aspect of fashion: the regulation of social appearances, calls to be made, obligations to be seen at certain places and at certain times. Time, one might say, regulated entrances and exits in the world just as it did changes of scene on stage.
Rousseau's gesture may seem revolutionary from our present-day perspective; to his philosophical acquaintances it was simply madness. One may, however, also argue that is was a profoundly conservative, even reactionary, gesture, for it implicitly accepted the traditional requirement that appearances correspond to being. Rousseau thus pointed to a baroque society gone wrong because appearances no longer corresponded to reality. Dress in baroque society, ever since the early seventeenth century and the first appearance of satires on fashion, had oscillated between two poles, stability and fashion, with fashion invariably associated with change. Both luxury and fashion thus constituted threats to the assumed correspondence between appearance and being, and therefore to the stability of society. The comic element in Molière's Bourgeois gentilhomme derives from the gap between Monsieur Jourdain's pretensions and his being—between what he would appear to be with the help of his tailor, his master of arms, his philosophy tutor, and his dancing master, and what in reality he
was born to be, a well-off commoner in trade. From the point of view of baroque society, pretensions to quality threatened the correspondence between appearance and reality on which the social world was founded. Political, social, religious, and artistic considerations required that in baroque society everyone remain in his or her God-given station and look as if he or she did indeed belong there.
This relation of appearance to being was nothing if not the general aesthetic principle of convenance , linked to bienséance , or decorum, and even to verisimilitude. It is obvious that while baroque society may have taken its justification from religion, it ultimately rested on merely aesthetic principles. It is the aesthetic and social discrepancy between appearance and being which made for the innumerable comic and ambiguous moral situations of the novels and plays of the period, and of course in real life as well. What made Casanova, a commoner of dubious extraction, possible was precisely the power which imagination as fashion exercised in the face of evidence to the contrary. He was fashionable, and he appeared and played his role in fashionable society, a new scene which appeared in the course of the eighteenth century, a scene different from that of the court yet an offshoot of it, and by the end of the century unmistakably cosmopolitan. Curiously enough, even Rousseau, for all his antisocial gestures, would also become fashionable, too much so for his peace of mind and the repose of his body. In the eighteenth century as in our own time, "the system," here fashion, had a way of absorbing even its opponents. The power of fashion was such that it transformed the old baroque court society into what we may call the beau monde . The change becomes evident in the art of portraiture.
The grand flowering of the portrait in the baroque testifies to the age's belief in the importance of appearances
even when it was suspicious of appearances. For the age believed that appearances ought to be in harmony with being, with reality; it distrusted appearances only because it knew that this was not always the case. Thus kings ought to look like kings, princes ought to look princely, the great of this world ought to look their part, and so on down the social scale. Where there was no or little correspondence between appearance and reality, between nature and the ideal, then art might correct and improve on nature. Thus if a king did not look very kingly, as with Charles I of England, then a Van Dyck might very well improve upon the king and produce a representation which made him truly look the part of the realm's First Gentleman. Louis XIV was lucky enough to be a handsome youth and to look the part he was born to; similarly Louis XV, though not Louis XVI. As for the Hapsburgs of both Austria and Spain, despite their chins and lips, a Titian or a Velázquez left no one in doubt as to what they were: the emperor looked like an emperor and the king like a king. Even ministers like the Count-Duke of Olivares and Cardinal Richelieu were represented with the grandeur, dignity, and gravity befitting their high office. The very idea of monarchy thus found its emblematic representation in the official standing portrait with its by-now-familiar attributes—the crown, the scepter, the grand column, the billowing curtains, the sword of Charlemagne for Louis XIV—while the equestrian portrait made of the king a leader of armies, a conqueror, a hero.
Attributes as signs of rank might extend from the highest echelons of society down to the lowest rank still worthy of being represented for the public gaze. And as Diderot, following Montesquieu, perceived, each rank had its own air, its own attitudes, its own expression, determined not only by the conventions of art but also by its position in society and the form of that society—monarchy, republic, despotism. Princes, bishops, dukes, and lesser ranks all had to look their part. But it was apparent, too, that the merely
rich might also, by art, be made to look grand and princely. Thus the wealthy Samuel Bernard, who was privileged to lend money to Louis XIV, had himself portrayed with the same grand column and billowing curtains as a prince would, though to signify his earthly role the painter did not neglect to include a globe and a fleet of ships to point out Bernard's grand commercial interests. Monarchs, like popes and saints, might also be portrayed in their moment of apotheosis, rising to the heavens where angels awaited their coming; or monarchs might be portrayed accompanied by the allegorical figures of certain virtues which, as some contemporary observers did not fail to note, they did not personally possess. Then there were the beauties of the court, who might also be portrayed, and beautified, as muses or pagan deities that no one believed in.
By the mid-eighteenth century these conventional portraits had been reduced to just that, a convention of limited appeal and interest. The art of portraiture in this manner had reached a certain limit. For the true type of Enlightenment portraiture one must look elsewhere.
The allegorical portrait was of course already a departure from the baroque-Christian moral requirement of the conformity of appearance to being. But this was a mere game, a play of the fancy, somewhat as the opera was a free play of the fancy. Verisimilitude was kept to a minimum. But together with the critique of opera, of poetic imagination, and of luxury, there also came an associated critique of baroque dress, in the name of both nature and health—and this was bound to affect the art of portraiture. Increasingly over the course of the eighteenth century it was no longer the court alone which set the tone and presumably determined those appearances which were supposed to correspond to being. The call for a more natural model, and the influence of the town, both began to play a role in the creation of appearances. Fashion, in short, began to determine the representation of men, women, and children, thus in effect altering the relation of appearance to being. Where
Van Dyck had improved upon nature to make Charles look like a king, the portraitists of the eighteenth century were called upon not so much to make sitters look their rank as to make them appear in harmony with something far more fluid and undefinable: the need to look fashionable. One might say that in the course of the century the town rivaled and eventually triumphed over the court by creating "society," even when "society" left town for its summer houses and châteaux in the country. By the end of the eighteenth century, court and town were united as participants in a new spectacle: society and its ever-varying fashions. And not only did fashion create fashionable portraitists, but the portraitists in turn created a fashion and made it known abroad—for fashion required a whole host of portraitists and draftsmen and engravers to spread its own creations.
In this long and by no means uniform transformation of portraiture, the roles of Reynolds and Gainsborough are of particular importance. It may well be that in England the influence of the court was weaker in matters of taste and fashion than in France, so that English society was less obliged to follow the court. Gainsborough and Reynolds would find their French equivalent later in the work of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, but for the moment they were innovators of appearance: they invented appearances as fashion rather than as representations of rank. Fashion might be described as the result of life dominated by the imagination and imitating art—which is not the same thing as rank submitting to artistic conventions of representation in order to embody the idea of what a king, a duke, a count, a great magistrate, or a hero ought to look like, so that appearance is made to correspond to being, to substance.
Thus when Reynolds adapts certain poses gleaned from antique statuary to the modern Englishman or when Gainsborough adapts Van Dyck dress and style to modern men and women, they are creating not a representation of rank in the baroque manner, as Rigaud or Rubens or Velázquez
did, but a new appearance not necessarily corresponding to any supposed substance or being or rank. They are creating pure appearance, what we call an image . What critics of baroque portraiture had seen as mere convention and illusion, discord between appearance and being, was here replaced by illusion of a new sort, one which conveyed the appearance of naturalness rather than observing the obligations and rules of representation imposed by rank. A lord need not appear as a lord, but as a man of fashion; a duchess need not appear as the Duchess of Devonshire, but as a lady of fashion. This shift was not gratuitous, for fashion dictated naturalness—a naturalness which was enhanced by the park backgrounds, the children, sometimes the melancholy of certain feminine portraits, as well as color, pose, and costume. Fashion replaced the representation of rank, which presupposed a social hierarchy, with a new creation, one which lifted those represented out of the social to a new realm of existence: distinction. These new portraits made visible the aesthetic elite.
In his 1925 work, La Barrière et le niveau , the French philosopher Goblot perceived distinction to be that which characterized the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie. For him, distinction was a separate category, a separate trait, from the aesthetic. The aesthetic, in his view, remained linked to the beautiful; thus he associated the old nobility with the aesthetic and the bourgeoisie with distinction. In truth, if he had considered portraiture from the Baroque through the end of the eighteenth century, he might have discerned his category of distinction in the making and come to see that here, as in so many other matters of social usage, the bourgeoisie was merely imitating the old nobility.
With Reynolds, Gainsborough, Vigée-Lebrun, Lawrence, and Gilbert Stuart, portraiture enters into the system of fashion, which gains its autonomy over the course of the eighteenth century. Montesquieu, as early as his Lettres persanes of 1721, had perceived that luxury begets fashion,
which begets distinction, which saps the stability of the social hierarchy. When a chambermaid can look like a duchess, social stability is threatened; but comedy is possible. It is precisely this drive for distinction that in portraiture means individuation and makes of the eighteenth century portrait such a rich source of interest and enjoyment. This adaptation of art to the creation of the new appearance makes for an element of aestheticism which is inseparable from the work of certain British portraitists who depicted high society. Reynolds in the Academy and in his Discourses may have sought to maintain the true taste of the grand manner, but in fact he lived off fashion. Dandyism was not far off.
As a result of the power of fashion, court society in the eighteenth century was gradually displaced by a new creation: the beau monde. If the courtier, the honnête homme, the English gentleman, the hero, and perhaps even the newly arrived philosophe might all represent baroque types, what, given the critique of appearances, would be the new man and woman represented in the new portraiture? We have said they would be given more individuality than their forebears; but one can nevertheless also see them as representing a new type. Historically speaking, there is no doubt that they do in fact represent the new elite of the eighteenth century, as distinct from the old nobility. What then do they have in common?
One is tempted to say, borrowing from the Physiocrats but giving the word a different meaning, "class"—class, in other words, as we still use the term today, as something standing apart from economic considerations. The new elite was no longer founded on inherited rank or mere title but on wealth and accomplishment, and what the portraits of this new elite do, in effect, is to give wealth and accomplishment "class." It is one thing to be rich, quite another to have class. The instrument used to confer this "class" was fashion, as the beau monde supplanted the court as general model for society. The painters of this new beau monde
were Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Gilbert Stuart, and others. They managed to give this new elite an air of naturalness, affability, civility, and ease, so that one quite naturally and without question accepted their ruling position in society and their distinction from the generality of mankind recently declared to be born equal and endowed with natural rights. Appearances had, despite philosophical criticism, once again triumphed over reality. Daniel Roche in his book on dress in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, La Culture des apparences , sums up the trend as follows:
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, among the higher classes, ornament and finery dictate masculine and feminine habits and a maximum of artificiality and decorative increase. A quarter of a century before the Revolution, philosophical criticism denounces the generalized excesses of fashion and aristocratic consumption in the name of Nature, which results in imposing the artificiality of the natural which is anything but economical. (51)
For Roche, the old baroque problem of the correspondence between appearance and being is resolved through the rise of fashion and its eventual autonomy in the triumph of appearances. Might this then imply that by 1789 society was more baroque than ever—that the Baroque had in fact triumphed over the Enlightenment?
If, as historians would have it, baroque society was the solution to the general crisis of the seventeenth century, then fashion was the fatal flaw within the structure of the Baroque. As Maravall has pointed out, innovation was blocked in religion, in politics, in law, even in science and technology in some countries, and consequently could thrive only in artistic and poetic caprice. Novelty in the arts
hid the lack of it in the social structure and the power structure: "Passion for the outlandish, where it was permitted, developed monstrously among peoples who found their ways blocked to a rational criticism of social life" (Culture of the Baroque , 229). The Enlightenment critique of modern life, of society, of established customs and tastes, hardly eradicated the outlandish: the freedom of imagination inherited from baroque fantasy was now perceived in negative terms, in both art and fashion—in the arts as decadence, in fashion as something unnatural and unhealthy. Fashion thus continued to be seen by Christian moralists, now seconded by philosophes and economists, as opposed to reason and nature, and as frivolity, caprice, and excess. The author of the article "Mode" in the Encyclopédie could thus write that "fashions destroy and succeed each other sometimes without the least appearance of reason, the bizarre often being preferred to the beautiful simply because it is novel" (quoted by Roche, 435). Thus, the Encyclopédie author continues, when a rhinoceros turned up in Europe, probably the one painted by Pietro Longhi in Venice, there was not a woman without three or four such creatures upon her as ornamentation; later these same women would be rushing about town to get a bonnet au lapin, au zéphir, au cupidon, à la comète , or what have you.
Had the article "Mode" been written in the 1780s, its author might also have mentioned the coiffure à la Junon , to wit, a coiffure decorated with a model of the frigate Juno , which had participated in the American War of Independence. For hairdressing was one art which triumphed over nature even after Rousseau. Marie Antoinette paid her fashionable hairdresser Leonard 1,574 livres for his work in 1784 and allowed him to dress the hair of other ladies, so that he was soon the favorite choice to dress one's hair for court receptions. Here the Baroque survived with all its fantastic freedom of expression intact. Some elaborate constructions had to be prepared the day before the reception, thus forcing the ladies to sleep sitting up or standing the night before the
event so as not to disturb these magnificant artefacts. Some coiffures were decorated with real flowers, which drew water from glass vials hidden within their complicated structures. Others sported mechanical birds which might be set to trill. And there was one type of coiffure, called à la mère , which might be raised or lowered at will by a mechanical device in case an overly lofty headdress alarmed some elderly lady. One might thus say that just as the last fireworks at court were the manifestations of a surviving baroque art form—a typically ephemeral art form—so these fantastic coiffures were likewise a surviving manifestation of baroque play, caprice, fantasy, and imagination.
Despite its excesses, to follow fashion had become an obligation for higher society and for those who wished, on a more modest level of expense, to follow in its wake. The life of society came to be regulated by the vicissitudes of fashion, affecting not only dress and coiffure but also pleasures and amusements, places to be, things or persons to see, events to be attended. Parisian and London society became a spectacle which already had its taste setters. In the Paris of Louis XVI those who set the tone were the queen herself, her friend the Duchesse de Polignac, the Comte de Vaudreuil, the king's brother the Comte d'Artois, and Duc d'Orleans, and generally the fashionable beauties portrayed by Madame Vigée-Lebrun, herself a fashionable artist. But then even Benjamin Franklin was fashionable; after all, he was so very different.
What under Louis XIII, Charles I, Louis XIV, and Charles II had still served to represent the grandeur of monarchy had thus, by the end of the eighteenth century, turned into pure appearance with no corresponding being. As Roche points out, fashion had become an autonomous phenomenon. It was considered frivolous by critics of luxury and by moralists, but it was in fact far from frivolous, since it allowed the individual to free him- or herself from the constraints of rank and hierarchy. It was also, if we follow Roche, the manifestation of a new type of culture which was largely invented for and by women.
The second half of the eighteenth century saw in France the flowering of a new type of literature, the fashion magazine. There had been satirical accounts of fashion since its beginnings in court society, but with the eighteenth century fashion prompted a far more serious type of literature. The fashion press was created by men for women, though it was sometimes also written by women. The most successful of these magazines was the Cabinet des modes , which was first published by the Parisian bookseller François Buisson in 1785. The following year it was renamed, significantly, the Magasin des modes nouvelles françaises et anglaises , signaling in effect the arrival of English fashion in France. From 1790 to 1793 this same magazine appeared as the Journal de la mode et du goût . This was the longest-lived of such journals, which appeared prolifically for greater or lesser spans of time after the 1750s and which in essence constituted a feminine press. The Journal des dames , for example, found readers from Cadiz to St. Petersburg, from Stockholm to Naples. It was a literature differing from both the literature of the Enlightenment and the low-life literature discerned by Robert Darnton. The literature of the Enlightenment, as Roche points out, produced books and writings on the sciences, arts, and philosophy; the provincial press continued to produce a good number of religious titles. What the feminine press produced showed a greater interest in belles lettres, theater, poetry, and novels—in short, a leisure culture that was also entirely lay.
This feminine culture of leisure, fashion, and taste in effect contributed, as did the Enlightenment in its own way, to undermining the foundations of the traditional hierarchies of society. For this was a culture which stressed an ethic of pleasure and a life given over to the cultivation of the agreeable arts. In this regard the new feminine culture was squarely at odds with the ethic of the economists. Indeed the economists had indirectly criticized this culture as part of their general critique of luxury even before it was singled out as specifically feminine. This new feminine culture was inseparable from the publicity given to objects
of consumption, even if such publicity was still restricted to the higher levels of society. In short, from the point of view of the critics of luxury, fashion was merely one special aspect of it, one which implied yet another form of deficit spending.
Traditional baroque society, we may suggest, is one in which appearances must correspond to being; a consumer society is one in which there are only appearances; and a bourgeois society is one in which appearance is dictated by one's budget, which the bourgeois likes to see balanced. If we follow Roche's examination of dress in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it becomes evident that by the 1780s the upper layers of the social pyramid had all the earmarks of a consumer society, with consumption evident above all in fashion—whence the significance of his title, The Culture of Appearances . From an economist's point of view this culture was the result of baroque spending, and over the course of the century the requirements of fashion drove a good part of the nobility of court and town, that is, of Paris, to overspend on appearance. The obligation to spend, once restricted to the nobility, had by now spread downward to the lesser levels of society. Deficit spending on dress was thus no longer dictated by rank alone, but by the far more capricious requirements of fashion. Dress was the most expensive item among consumer goods, not only because it had to be replaced due to wear, but also because it was subject to the variations of fashion, the tug-of-war between stability and current fashionability. Some favored stability and opted for modesty, though of course within the bounds of acceptable appearance; others opted to follow the fashion no matter what the cost or their budget. Thus the Montesquiou family, singled out as one example by Roche, was from 1780 to 1793 almost constantly running a deficit. Not all nobles spent in this manner, to be sure—witness the Schombergs, who maintained an equilibrium between their budget and the requirements of appearance—and in the provinces the requirements of fashion were far
less expensive than in Paris. What is of interest in the case of the Montesquious, the Polignacs, and others close to Marie-Antoinette is that precisely here baroque spending met its splendid apotheosis ... in the red. In Roche's words: "Fashion thus appears under its multiple faces, animator of change, magician of distinction, creator of social equality, stage manager of inequalities of appearance" (476).
During the Revolution there were a few attempts to create a national costume which would restore the old relation of appearance and being, but this attempt had no chance of success. With the Directoire, fashion regained its old dominance over a renewed society; appearance would henceforth be determined by autonomous fashion and the requirements, not of rank, but of distinction. Looking back then upon the tensions between the Enlightenment and the Baroque, between art and luxury, luxury and taste, frugality and baroque spending, we can see that the end of baroque society, taken as an aesthetically unified society in which appearance must correspond to being, implied the rise of three different autonomies: economics, aesthetics, and, last but by no means least, fashion. Kant's careful distinction between aesthetic art and the merely pleasurable arts may be more readily understood within the context of a time in which fashion was at odds with art, reason, and true taste, and still perceived by moralists, economists, and philosophers as frivolity.