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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Eros and the Materialism of the Rococo : François Boucher , Print Culture, and Modernity

  • Author(s): Sterrett, Edward L.
  • et al.

This dissertation traces the origins of the Rococo style in French painting as the emergence of a unique aesthetic regime drawn from the broader cultural and epistemological transformations of late seventeenth and early eighteenth- century France. It follows the work of François Boucher, from his early successes as an engraver and designer in the print trade to his most celebrated achievements as a history painter, in order to examine a series of interrelated points of intersection between the extraordinary pictorial ingenuity which brought him to the forefront of French painting and a network of philosophical, scientific, aesthetic and political discourses whose convergences in this period were strongly marked by an unprecedented expansion of the production and circulation of printed images, and ultimately became an essential aspect of the emergence of a proto-modern public sphere. Conventionally, the Rococo has been dismissed as being a purely decorative, rather than a properly critical or experimental style. It is figured as style in its most superficial sense, which is to say, the mark of nothing but an essential frivolity at the heart of a mentality which expressed the waning of the Ancien Regime. This dissertation joins a growing field of scholarship working against that model. It is therefore also engaged with a broader effort to develop alternative histories of modernism by re-examining and reframing the forces which shaped the European Enlightenment. One could describe the project as an archaeology of frivolity, borrowing the phrase from Derrida's study of Condillac, but taking archaeology in its properly Foucauldian sense, which is to read frivolity as a mechanism which canalizes the anxieties and exhilarations of epistemological transition across a series of distinct but structurally convergent discursive fields. Thus the persistent refrain of erotic themes, the demure, anti-heroic, narrative opacity, and the formal exuberance, at once ornamental, richly mimetic, and perspectivally vertiginous, which structure the Rococo picture, become a signal and a point of entry into an exploration of a system of countervailing aesthetic currents engaged in a dialectical process which we might call broadly: the rationalization and technicalization of vision in early eighteenth-century France

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