- Merchants and Luxury Markets: The Marchands Merciers of Eighteenth-Century Paris, and: The Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris
Traditional scholarship on the decorative arts, rooted in the practice of connoisseurship, has long privileged questions of visual form, authorship, and stylistic evolution over issues of cultural context and meaning. The eighteenth-century French interior in particular, though widely recognized as an important site of artistic expression, has not been the subject of the kind of interdisciplinary, theoretically sophisticated interpretation that has transformed other areas of art-historical inquiry, nor has it received the degree of attention to the social and economic dynamics of production and consumption that historians have devoted to English and American material culture.
These two new studies, in very different ways, begin to fill in these lacunae. Carolyn Sargentson’s Merchants and Luxury Markets examines the business practices of the marchands merciers, a large and diverse corporation of luxury merchants whose key role in the circulation of goods, though widely recognized, has never been the subject of extensive research. Uniquely positioned between the realms of production and consumption, these merchants not only provided their elite clientele with a vast array of domestic and imported items (from furniture to snuffboxes) and assorted services (from installation to repair), but also designed multimedia objects and coordinated their execution by various workshops and manufactories.
Sargentson’s analysis is based largely on a wealth of detailed information gleaned from the previously unpublished documents of forty merchants with shops around the rue Saint-Honoré, the epicenter of the luxury trade. Focusing on how these businesses worked, she considers financial profiles, stock composition, relations with suppliers and clients, and advertising strategies. Two case studies assessing the role of luxury merchants in the circulation of oriental porcelain and lacquer (and European imitations thereof) and Lyonnais silks, and a discussion of the marketing and design of magasins anglais (boutiques specializing in English wares) raise some interesting questions about the nature of invention and the construction of novelty in the retail marketplace. Sargentson cites the literature on consumption, but she is more concerned to establish the quantifiable parameters of the marchand mercier ‘s enterprise than to explore its meaning within a larger cultural field. She accomplishes her goal in a clear, careful, and concise manner, and thus provides a much-needed foundation for further work from other perspectives.
In Katie Scott’s The Rococo Interior, the task of documentation is driven by more explicitly interdisciplinary and discursive aims. Drawing on a vast array of sources, Scott seeks to problematize the apparently natural coherence of the decorated interior by examining the cultural tensions that informed various phases of its production and consumption. The text comprises three sections. In part I, Scott surveys the realm of production, examining the roles of workshops, manufactories, and academies in the design and fabrication of decorative materials (paneling, paintings, mirrors, textiles), with particular attention to the conflicts that arose both within and between these highly stratified groups. In part II, she turns to the protagonists and sites central to the consumption of decoration, discussing the ideology of nobility and the characteristics of the urban building type (the hôtel ) that was a key locus of its social formation. In part III, Scott focuses on three particular types of decorative imagery—grotesque, pastoral, and mythological—in order to argue that the patronage of the rococo style by French nobles between the [End Page 249] turn of the century and the 1740s was a means of negotiating the changing social, economic, and political landscape, and articulating their shifting position within and ambivalent attitude toward the absolutist state. She then offers a new account of the eclipse of the rococo, exploring several aspects of its diffusion—patronage by the newly privileged, commodification through prints, critical objectification through published debate—that destroyed the capacity of...