Laurence Ross reflects on “A Louisiana Parlor” at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the sensations of the Rococo.
“Studying art must include the study of how we know it, which begins with how we feel it.”
Anne Hollander, “The Power of Images”
The New Orleans Museum of Art recently acquired the furnishings of a Louisiana antebellum parlor, crafted in the style of Rococo Revival. The furniture has been preserved in nearly immaculate condition, thanks to the climatal grace of an east-facing room that received only early morning sunlight for the past century and a half, the foresight and protection of a family, and some careful, painstaking conservation work. That room, originally designed and cared for by Harriet Flower Mathews, was transported from the Butler-Greenwood Plantation in St. Francisville, chair by chair, carpet panel by carpet panel, gilded frame by gilded frame, to the first floor of the museum where it has been erected, the room once again blooming.
As an expression of Rococo Revival—or, as the Victorians called the style, “Modern French”—Mrs. Mathews took her inspiration straight from the fashion magazines of the 1850s. Though the walls of the Louisiana parlor are rather plain, lacking the ornamental panels of moldings or silk wallpaper characteristic of the Rococo’s emergence, wall-to-wall floral carpeting takes up the role, depicting an eclectic mix of flowers and leaves. Aside from the petaled ceiling medallion of the parlor and a marble fireplace that were left at the Butler-Greenwood Plantation, museumgoers can take in much of what gave this room its charm for generations: nine-foot-tall gilt pier mirrors stand between ochre silk lambrequin curtains; a set of carved rosewood armchairs, side chairs, and sofas, upholstered in silk brocade on linen that can look red, pink, peach, or gold depending on the angle and the light; a white marble-topped center table set atop caster wheels (as is much of the furniture in the room) to facilitate rearranging/entertaining; an étagère cabinet to showcase porcelain or silver, standing upon cabriole legs.
These essences of the Rococo cause a deep, uplifting breath and a swelling in my chest. In the intensified intimacy of a private room that has managed to maintain its ornamentation throughout the centuries, my blood tingles and races, like filigrees expanding outward. These thoughts rather flowery and this prose rather purple, I know. But here is another reality: a man walks into such a space, glances at the marble and silk and rosewood and gilt, all fine and good, perhaps even glimpses himself in the mirror, and then, unmoved by what he sees, sits patiently on the museum bench to wait for his companion. As Anne Hollander suggests, our study must begin with how we feel.
In her essay “The Culture of Flowers,” Hollander writes, “We can see how English allows the ‘flower’ or ‘flowering’ of anything to mean its essence or perfection; but we also use ‘florid’ and ‘flowery’ as derogatory terms about English itself.” Flowers, like the Rococo can be polarizing. Though a flower is most commonly assumed to be a symbol of life and joy, as a stylistic choice, they are clearly not for everyone.
Western floral presentations—and to some degree, their representations—dwindled during the emergence and prominence of monotheistic religions, at the dawn of the Byzantine era and throughout the Middle Ages. They were eventually—though slowly—revived again. Seventeenth-century Dutch flower painters became drunk in floriculture, though they often illustrated an integration of life and death that a real bed of flowers can rarely—if ever—fully express at any one given moment. These Dutch flower painters turned to mixing species of flowers (and insects) in a still life that is half blooming, half wilting; half waxing, half waning. “Artifice again proved indispensable for the truest rendering of nature,” says Hollander. They set the stage for the Rococo’s embrace of a fancifully curated nature, a nature so true it is frozen (like glass), still and unmoving as a Platonic (or perhaps, in this case, Romantic) ideal.
As Hollander says of the period directly preceding the Rococo, “Baroque art had abandoned an ideal of death-mask realism in favor of dramatic stylizations that irreversibly stretched the perceived capacities of stone, paint, and wood.” Hollander uses the word stretched as if art and its capacities were some sort of putty or dough, simply in need of some kneading in order to expand. The Rococo would go on to stretch that dough further, and, according to the aesthetic tastes of many, pull it too far. In the Rococo, realism is often manipulated and played with beyond the point of belief. The artifice, some might say, too great; a fantasy world better suited for the frivolous imaginations of children rather than serious examination. The burden of the Rococo is that it is often accused of “going too far,” and as a direct result of this distance, has risked losing a good portion of viewers along the way. The late-Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard frequently portrayed pairs of young lovers enmeshed in untamed gardens, paintings in which a flirtatious protagonist may flick a pink shoe at her suitor, delighted to swing back and forth like a pendulum between love and lust. However, young love can seem frivolous and silly, indulgent or negligent to those unsympathetic with the feeling.
Back in the parlor room of the Butler-Greenwood Plantation, white calla lilies are rendered in glass and gilt metal as curtain tiebacks. Understood primarily as an emblem of beauty, the symbology of the calla lily is complicated by its history as both a wedding and a funereal flower. These flowers are often associated with untimely death, making this flower—a marker of transition—quite apt when manifesting revival. Though the depth of this image can plunge further when pushed, as the calla lily isn’t a true lily at all, not a member of the genus Lilium but rather a member of the genus Zantedeschia. The name is an artifice evoking that which it is not.
Rococo art—and the artist/patron becoming a decadent before decadence was officially transformed to a noun—was thought to be indecent or immoral. Extravagant whimsy is a distraction from the scientific and rational pursuits of the Enlightenment, and, as Hollander reminds us, “In antiquity, many had believed for centuries in the moral danger of devotion to beautiful objects.” The Rococo Revival coincides roughly with the Decadent movement, a return toward valuing, principally, the aesthetic over all else. And though such aesthetics often reeked of artifice, to assume that this artifice was shallow would be to underestimate its depths. Does the passionate or the erotic—does feeling—implicitly denote surface alone? Joie de vivre and naïveté need not go married, hand in hand. Yes, feelings are often an immediate response. But when processed with a careful selection and amplification of their nuance so that we may better see/admire/understand, feelings may create a three-dimensional space, ever-growing.
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who aims to show in The Poetics of Space how a house—and its interiors—have the power to integrate our thoughts, memories, and dreams, also believes the cherished objects of the home possess great depths. “The house, quite obviously, is a privileged entity for a phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space, provided, of course, that we take it in both its unity and its complexity, and endeavor to integrate all the special values in one fundamental value. For the house furnishes us dispersed images and a body of images at the same time. In both cases, I shall prove that imagination augments the values of reality.”
Applied to the Rococo and its revival, the imagination can be layered over reality to create a depth worthy of plunging. The roses, violets, and daffodils found on the parlor furniture are woven in brocade atop linen; a rosewood laminate is layered over pine. The seemingly shallow nature of flowers and the joys of parlor entertainment are in and of themselves an artifice, betraying a complexity as subtle and subversive as a love letter slipped into the secret mechanical drawer of a lady’s writing table. Though often juxtaposed to the seriousness of the religious and political subjects the Baroque so embraced, is not the Rococo’s embrace and celebration of feeling—particularly joy—not also a political act? Even joy’s precursor, hope, seems scarce these days. And the Rococo manifests this hope and joy beginning in the realm of the domestic, the home, where the heart/hearth resides.
The curves of the Rococo strive to portray, and therefore honor, the fluidity and richness of nature and life; Rococo Revival restores these values to the top of the hierarchy. Cabriole legs curve outward then inward and express an elegance that exceeds what the real legs of any living creature could achieve—aspiration toward an ideal form rather than the representation of a crude one. Though as I scan the room designed by Mrs. Mathews I wonder: where is the marquetry? Where are those robustly colored wooden inlays of leaves and petals, ribbons and bows? The Rococo had been razed and its revival, at least in this room, seems at times but the green sprigs and budding undergrowth of what could have been.
What does seem in keeping with the Rococo and its revival is that Mrs. Mathews was responsible for the creation/curation of this space—also a political act, as the woman becomes the orchestrator (and not simply the housekeeper) of domestic space. For example, in her writings of the furniture of Bernard II van Risenburgh, design historian Dianne Pierce refers to the intricate tables of the Rococo period as “props for a particular kind of intimate domestic theater.” Though at first glance a paradox (for the exaggerations of theater boast its artifice with pasteboard sets, and thick curtains can cut off intimacy with the pull of a cord), Pierce asks us to consider the hidden springs and secret compartments these tables often contained, “orchestrated” by the women who bought the pieces to achieve what I presume to be reactions of surprise and curiosity that, when shared, create intimacy among a varied gathering of guests.
Francis Ponge places flora itself categorically in the realm of theater in his compilation of meditations titled The Nature of Things. Flowers gesture and, though sometimes poised as humble, are ultimately victorious. “Their posture, or ‘tableaux-vivants’: mute entreaties, supplications, composure, triumphs.” Here, too, the life of the scene is portrayed as still, a paused scene in a delicate yet complex moment.
“Images are, of course, dead,” Hollander reminds us, as if the artifice of art could be so easily forgotten one might tumble right into a painting. “Their life, therefore, has been a matter of investiture, of evocation, of attribution and projection, of consecration, of creating or recognizing a vitality in them that can be activated in certain ways.” She goes on to question: at what point do these images acquire something we might call life? The still lives of the seventeenth-century Dutch flower painters depict a life-scene that is frozen, though they represent, in striking anatomical detail, the living flora (and fauna) of their fantastic arrangement.
Ultimately, there is something a little somber about this antebellum parlor transferred from the Butler-Greenwood Plantation to the museum, this room now standing still within a room. What we see now is a room literally guarded, borders (and intimacy) in check. If Rococo Revival aesthetics were meant to re-embrace the robust fluidity of nature, then the display of a chair on which a person can no longer sit can seem a cruel, ironic fate.
We could, instead, view these revival pieces in another fashion—a window into a past that would otherwise succumb to rot and decay; a portal through which we may peek at a time that has all but perished; a frame that contains the history and narrative of a family, a locale, an outmoded style. Though childish it may seem, I do wish that I could tumble into that frame, to flit from fireplace mantle to sofa to center table, cocktail in hand, looking out at low light through sheer curtains. I do wish that the room could transform, for everyone, from the dead image Hollander conjures to the consecrated life that space might assume. When I feel that transformation, I feel that joie de vivre; I feel that Rococo feeling.
And I know that I am not the only one. Toward the end of my visit to the museum, as I took a few extra moments to stand at the edge of that room within a room and allow my eyes to wander from marble to glass to silk to tassel, a father and his young son entered behind me. The son, seeing what lay before him, burst full speed toward the middle of Mrs. Mathews’ meticulously preserved antebellum parlor. The borders, for this boy, were invisible; the guards unnoticeable; the father already far away in the distance. For him, the room still bore the air of domestic intimacy, an invitation to come in, to come closer. Of course, the alarm went off before he reached the carpet. He stopped in his tracks, limits again recognizable, and a stern reprimand from his father not far behind.
Rococo Revival is a nod back toward the overflowing/overflowering nature of nature. These are pieces—works of art—that were meant, first and foremost for domestic environments. If the Rococo has gone too far, perhaps it is time for us to catch up. The joie de vivre so typical of the Rococo and Rococo Revival is perhaps needed now more than ever, when finding moments—much less mindsets—of joy seem so few and far between.
“A Louisiana Parlor” is on view through October 11, 2015 at the New Orleans Museum of Art (One Collins C. Diboll Circle) in New Orleans.