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Reviewed by:
  • Jean de La Fontaine
  • Susan Taylor-Leduc
Bibliothèque Nationale de France Exhibition, Jean de La Fontaine, 2 October 1995-14 January 1996 Catalogue under the direction of Claire Lesage, co-edition BNF/Seuil 1995

Cardinal Mazarin’s celebrated picture gallery at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France was recently transformed into a spectacular exhibition to celebrate the tercentenary of the death of Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695). The exhibition had three agendas: to present the literary and historical context for La Fontaine’s work, to chart the author’s biography, and to examine the influence of La Fontaine’s enterprise on the visual arts. The success of the exhibition lay in the curators’ ability to evoke the seventeenth-century literary salon where etiquette, metaphor, and pun served as both source and inspiration for La Fontaine. To this end, the show opened with editions of Le Songe de Vaux (1559–1661) and L’Adonis (1658), demonstrating the author’s early and steadfast attachment to Nicolas Fouquet, which continued after the patron’s fall from power. Consequently, La Fontaine had to continually search for new patrons, an independence that allowed him to publish his Contes libertins et joyeux (1664–1685) that evoked the pleasures of la vie galante, albeit with a libertine’s eye which so endeared him to the eighteenth century. In this section of the exhibition, panels recounting La Fontaine’s biography were contrasted to wall displays of paintings and engravings of his patrons and patroness as well as autograph letters by the author.

In the period 1660–1670, La Fontaine’s works were very much in fashion because the contemporary “science” of physiognomy was popularized through the illustrated Conferences, by Charles Lebrun, which coincided with the creation of the Labyrinth at Versailles. Although the Labyrinth contained fountains that enacted fables by Aesop, La Fontaine, whose unrelenting loyalty to Fouquet prevented him from receiving royal patronage, had probably participated in an earlier project for Vaux-le-Vicomte which was not realized. The allusion to Aesop’s Fables allowed the curators to develop an entire section on fables that drew on the libraries vast collections and included such works as the Arab manuscript by Ibn Al-Muqaffa, Kalia wa Dimma (ca. 720) as well as an example in a 1452 edition of Aesop’s Fables, which were then linked with synonymous taste for emblems that could be found in Alciati’s Livret des emblemes of 1492–1550.

For eighteenth-century viewers, the highlight of the show focused on the Fables. His sixty-nine stories, first published beginning in 1665, provided subjects for engravings, illustrated [End Page 433] books, paintings, tapestries, porcelains, and furniture. The exhibition included several editions of the Fables that ranged from the celebrated volumes commissioned by the Fermiers Generaux of 1762, (two vols. in octavo) illustrated with 80 engravings after drawings by Charles Eisen. Fifty-seven bound drawings by Jean Honoré Fragonard perhaps best capture the playful spirit of the author; these nonetheless escaped the meticulous hands of engravers, resulting in only sixteen plates after the artist in the Didot edition of 1795. Perhaps the most celebrated edition are those drawings by Oudry and engraved by Cochin which were well represented in the exhibition.

The influence of LaFontaine’s Fables was further demonstrated by paintings by Boucher, Vleughels, Lancret, and of course, Oudry, who used them as sources for Beauvais tapestries. The curators included several chairs covered in Aubusson tapestries next to tables that displayed porcelains and parlor games that were decorated with the stories. The exhibition concluded with the influence of La Fontaine in the nineteenth century and the entry of his works into French pedagogical practice. Even before they entered the modern school system, however, his works were influential; an autograph of the Dauphin Louis XV’s writing lessons revealed that the future king learned the moral of the fox and the crow.


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