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  • Deconstructing Dissipation
  • Paula Rea Radisich

At the end of the Robert section in his Salon of 1771, Denis Diderot added a long parenthetical denunciation about the lack of finish in Robert’s exhibited work. These passages reveal a subtext that is not about finish at all, but about artists’ work, specifically about the relation of art to luxury and luxury to the market. Diderot wrote: “If this artist continues to sketch, he will lose the habit of finishing, his head and his hand will become libertine. He sketches while he is young, what will he do when he becomes old? He wishes to gain 10 louis in the morning: he is ostentatious, his wife is a woman of fashion, he must work quickly, but he loses his talent & born to be great, remains mediocre. Finish, Mr. Robert . . . etc.” In this passage Diderot imputes a substantial role to Madame Robert, Gabrielle Soos, as the driving force behind her husband’s need for money. She is a woman of fashion. So (the so is implied), Robert must work fast. Sketchiness is here associated with haste, a haste connected to a need to increase productivity. Robert needs capital to sustain an appearance of wealth and to satisfy the appetites of his wife for fashionable commodities.

Woman has consistently figured in the debates about luxury in canonical Western texts. Classical authors equated luxury with weakness and “effeminacy.” 1 Then, Christian writers identified luxury with lechery and sexual immorality. Eighteenth-century essayists continued to debate about luxury, but it was posed in an entirely novel form. Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, and Adam Smith shifted the issues away from the domain of morals into the economic or civic realm. Nevertheless, those who censured luxury were likely to construct the excessive desire to consume as a feminine quality, as Diderot does in this passage.

Diderot’s aside actually draws on all three of these arguments against luxury. The Christian denunciation of luxury surfaces when the critic tells Robert that if he continues to [End Page 222] sketch, his head and hand will become libertine, a word expressing license of an explicitly sexual sort. Diderot’s sentence—he sketches while young, what will he do when he becomes old—plays upon the same theme, though in a slightly different register. Lack of control is still at stake, but now the reason behind it is decrepitude, a reference to the softening so decried by classical writers. Paradoxically, the sketch is a signifier for both an excess of sexual expression (libertinage) as well as its opposite, exhausted sexual vitality; either way, it is a negative figure.

This bring us to the economic objections. “Robert is ostentatious; his wife a woman of fashion.” We know from the Dialogue on Luxury inserted into the 1767 Salon that Diderot believes opulence and ostentation are responsible for all the economic ills of France, because opulence creates pockets of dammed-up wealth that should be used to cultivate agriculture. He would prefer an economic system reformed along Physiocratic lines, where all wealth originates from and recirculates through the land. Diderot’s negative representation of the Roberts, then, serves as an excuse to implicate the values of urban, commercial culture. This context explains the intrusion of the fashionable Madame Robert into an ostensibly disinterested aesthetic evaluation of her husband’s artwork. Diderot’s jibe rests upon a conviction that had wide currency in the 1770s—that women had an insatiable appetite for material goods. Recent scholarship has stressed the need to see this representation as part of a broader concern in France over women’s place as buyers and sellers in a burgeoning commercial culture. 2

Ironically, though the philosophes wholeheartedly endorsed the elimination of corporate systems governing the trades, they were markedly less enthusiastic about free market production and consumption involving women and artists. Concern about the commercial prominence of the high-fashion dressmaker, for instance, and the newly prosperous artists provoked a strangely similar rhetoric from men like Diderot, peppered with words like “caprice,” “ostentation,” “moral corruption,” and “dissipation.” Liberty of the marketplace—at least in matters pertaining to fashion and art—aroused suspicion and deep-seated anxiety in our reformers. Because he epitomized...

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