Musings: Women, the Toilette and the Boudoir in Rococo Painting

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Time for a little titillation: The Rococo’s answer to pin-ups on cigarette cards, peep holes and voyeuristic fascination – let’s step into the boudoir. Gentlemen getting hot under the dog collar at thoughts of ‘walking in’ on a lady in a state of undress, that glimpse of an ankle, a well turned calf, the cinching of a corset… It was all there (as well you might know from a particularly saucy Mills and Boon) and artists couldn’t quite get enough of causing a stir in the private parlours of the well to-do

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‘Young Woman at Her Toilette’, attributed to Niklas Lafrensen, ca. 1780’s.

In the Rococo, you could cast your eye over an array of scintillating genre scenes – tableaus with women designed to pander to fancy and, ultimately, arouse. Whilst your neighbourhood voyeur might greedily feast on these scenes, they also had a profound mystique from the allure of a glimpse at the illusive female sphere. Here, womanhood comes into the picture: These interiors are domestic, boudoir, private spaces and wholly intimate. Whilst breaking a taboo by sneaking a peak, you’re also seeing how, under the Rococo movement, the 18th century ‘boudoir’ ideal of femininity flourished and how its own charms pampered sensibility above the grandeur and impressiveness of the preceding Baroque.

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‘The Modiste’, 1746 by Francois Boucher.

Boucher’s The Modiste (1746), Toilette (1742) and Fragonard’s The Love Letter (c. 1770s), each painted on small canvases, give an insight into the appeal of a woman’s world. Across these paintings, the ‘voyeur’ (that’s you or I in this instance) looks in on women engaged in intimate behaviours and rituals. Invasive? Absolutely.

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‘The Love Letter’, 1780 by Jean-Honore Fragonard.

For example, The Modiste sees two women unboxing items of clothing in a private setting, Toilette, a lady tying the ribbon of her silk stocking and, The Love Letter, a woman at her desk attending to her correspondence. Such scenes are confidential, intimate and sensationalised by the prying eye. Looking into the rooms, ribbons, luxuriant clothing and small animals serve as a coded reminder of coquetry and The Love Letter coyly plays on the wooing of a woman in courtship.

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‘La Toilette’, 1742 byFrancois Boucher.

Drapery, such as curtains, plush furnishings and dividing screens feature heavily in these paintings so that the women are not only framed prettily within these scenes of domestic bliss but are also, to an extent, confined by them. The place of women in these paintings is firmly established and they sit as decorative, ornamental entities: Again, arguably, for the viewing pleasure pleasure and roving commentary of a male audience.

Indeed, boudoir scenes were bought by high-ranking noblemen such as Louis XV and the Marquis de Marigny for display in private cabinets. At the same time time, as these women are ‘enjoying’ themselves within the scene, there was felt to be less shame in ‘spying’ on them to catch these moments: This privilege is enabled by the painter ‘voyeur’.

Behind closed doors…
Learn about the secrets of the 17th Century Dutch Dollhouse,
Step into the walled gardens of Medieval Courtly Love,
Meet two ladies at the court of Versailles


Sources Used: 

‘French Genre Painting in the Eighteenth Century’ in Studies in the History of Art, ed by P. Conisbee (Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, 2007).

Milam, Jennifer, Historical Dictionary of Rococo Art (Scarecrow Press, 2011).

Pain, Stephen, ‘French Rococo: Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard’, Escape into Life, n.d., http://www.escapeintolife.com/essays/french-rococo-watteau-boucher-and-fragonard/

Parker, Rozsika and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (I.B. Tauris, 2013).

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