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  • Edme Gersaint and the Marketing of Art in Eighteenth-Century Paris
  • Andrew McClellan

In the course of the eighteenth century, dealers became the essential middlemen in a rapidly expanding art market. As collecting increased as a form of recreation and a means of distinction, so did the need for the experts adept at evaluating paintings and managing the flow of art across national borders and through public auctions, which emerged as a crucial site of exchange. We know more about the role of dealers and patterns of consumption in England than in the rest of Europe, but with respect to France, we might begin by examining the career of the most famous dealer in early eighteenth-century Paris, Edme-François Gersaint (1694–1750). 1

We know little about Gersaint beyond the self-image he constructed for himself through a variety of innovative forms of publicity, ranging from the famous shopsign painted by Watteau, the Enseigne de Gersaint, to newspaper advertisements, tradecards, public auctions, [End Page 218] and sales catalogs; yet the sustained campaign to publicize himself and his business is in itself highly interesting and informative on a number of counts. First, the impulse to fashion a public image points to the emergence of a market of potential consumers, and the dealer’s need to foster an appetite for his goods and services. Second, by means of his various marketing tools, Gersaint aimed to define his profession and to forge a space for the commerce of art within the art world and high society more generally. Countering a negative stereotype of the dealer as a greedy man of commerce and parasite on the art world, Gersaint insisted on his status as a gentleman, worthy of comparison with enlightened art lovers while he equated his premises (the shop and auction house) with the refined space of the collector’s cabinet. His attempt to distinguish himself from other dealers and to articulate a new professional profile relied, paradoxically, on the appropriation of the familiar and distinctly anticommercial discourses of the aristocratic collector and cult of honnêteté.

The conflation of private cabinet and commercial venue, of merchant and honnête homme, that were key to Gersaint’s professional image and self-esteem underpin the shopsign by Watteau (c. 1720, Berlin, Charlottenburg), painted to hang outside Gersaint’s shop on the Pont Notre-Dame in Paris. 2 The painting is not a faithful record of Gersaint’s boutique, but rather an idealized representation of his business. Against a backdrop of fine paintings, a group of male and female aristocrats are shown engaged in casual conversation and enjoyment of art, evoking the setting and rituals of the collector’s cabinet. Signs of commerce are suppressed as the dealer’s shop is transformed into a locus of elite leisure and self-display. The painting works as an advertisement promising a lifestyle that flows from possession of the objects on sale in the shop. Gersaint, as proprietor of the shop and its contents, becomes the purveyor of the good life. Elegantly dressed and seemingly at one with his noble company, the dealer is assimilated by Watteau into the class of his patrons.

During the 1720s and 1730s Gersaint explored other forms of publicity to promote his business. He was the first dealer (apart from print sellers) to use newspaper advertisements. These advertisements appeared in the Mercure de France alongside other notices on the arts; to the extent that the Mercure, as a newspaper, contributed to the formation of a public sphere, in the Habermasian sense, this juxtaposition served to legitimize the commerce of art in the public’s nascent conception of the art world. 3 Gersaint was also the first dealer in France to realize the potential of public auctions (already used in Holland and England), which he organized as a kind of public spectacle and which he recommended to curieux as events both instructive and amusing. These sales were accompanied by sales catalogs, which were his most important and lasting contribution to the art of dealing. Through elaborate texts and engraved frontispieces, his catalogs carried on Watteau’s task of crafting an image of the dealer.

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pp. 218-221
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