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  • Introduction to Work, Leisure, and Art
  • Julie-Anne Plax

An emergent modern, capitalistic marketplace shaped the discursive contours of work, leisure, and art in the eighteenth century. This marketplace was the locus of exchange in which commodities were identified and valorized—whether metaphorically or in actual social practice. Moreover, in the market setting the meanings of work, leisure, and art were altered by the interplay of competing and complementary discourses. Markets were often inchoate, coalescing only gradually into fully grounded institutions; those who participated in them sometimes had to construct the market even as they explored its implications. Each of the essays in this forum examines how an individual artist or dealer working on the Continent engaged these markets, coming to terms with them from a position within preexisting economic, social, and cultural frameworks that institutionally and ideologically defined artistic production and consumption. The authors have noted new patterns of work and leisure, production and consumption, as well as the matrix of tensions that were both shaped by and the result of these new patterns. At the beginning of the eighteenth century these emerging patterns of work and leisure and of production and consumption challenged conceptions of both the artist and art; by the end of the century European society and culture had accommodated to the notion of an entrepreneurial artist producing a commodified art for the marketplace.

Candace Clements’s essay, “Noble Liberality and Speculative Industry in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris: Charles Coypel,” suggests the tensions that developed between preexisting and emergent moral economies surrounding the production of art. The ideology of work and leisure was central to these tensions. With the founding of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the seventeenth century the noble status of painting and royal sponsorship became institutionalized. A great deal was at stake in preserving the noble status of painting; forces eager to maintain royal control of the culture wished to distinguish the discourses of artists and art from those of work, commerce, and the guilds—at least in theory. As Clements points out, the same system and sponsor that underwrote art as a noble activity did not always provide adequate financial support through commissions. Hence, artists had to turn to other sources of income. Coypel turned to speculation.

Nevertheless, Coypel was compelled to carry on his speculative venture behind the scenes. The artist-as-entrepreneur was not yet acceptable; the moral and social questions [End Page 211] surrounding the meaning of work, and the definition of work in relation to artistic production made it difficult for an Academician to be openly eager for profits. A market for art existed, but the role of the artist within that market was not as yet defined. Coypel and other artists of his generation became adept at stretching the definitions and boundaries of work, art, and leisure. They developed methods of exploring the marketplace while preserving the trappings of traditional status.

Also key to situating artistic production in a market context were the emerging middlemen—the art dealers—who mediated between artist and consumer. Andrew McClellan’s essay, “Edme Gersaint and the Marketing of Art in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” examines how Edme Gersaint, who was at the forefront of this burgeoning profession, fashioned and marketed an image of the dealer. This image was problematic, for Gersaint had to negotiate between traditional institutions that upheld conventional definitions concerning art, work, and leisure, and an emerging market for painting and objets de luxe that required a reconceptualization of those terms.

Gersaint’s commercial venture, which Watteau memorialized in his famous signboard, was implicated within a larger controversy over what constituted noble status; the social meaning of work and profession was at the heart of this controversy. Dealers like Gersaint walked the line between a noble profession and a commercial one. On the one hand, they did not fabricate the objects they sold; they belonged to the corporation of marchand merciers, a group of merchants who were colloquially dubbed “noble commercants.” On the other hand, as McClellan argues, an irreducible commercial reality lay behind the aristocratic facade. That the terms of what legally and practically constituted nobility were shifting in society at large needs no elaboration here...

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pp. 211-213
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