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  • Nineteenth-Century French Women, the Home, and the Colonial Vision:Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique Wallpaper
  • Christin J. Mamiya (bio)

Early scholarship on the history of European colonialism was predicated on the assumption of male agency—that men were responsible for constructing the premises and methods of colonialism and for implementing those imperatives (i.e., colonizing other lands). In recent years, scholars have increasingly turned their attention to women's engagement with the sites, rhetoric, and premises of colonization. These gender-specific studies have dealt primarily with the presence of Western women in the various colonies.1 But what of Western women who remained at home? What was their engagement with colonialism?

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Figure 1.

Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. Joseph Dufour (printer), Jean Gabriel-Charvet (designer), ca. 1805. Block print on paper. Overall size: 6'2" x 34'11". Honolulu Academy of Art. Gift of Anna Rice Cooke, 1928 (2692), Conservation treatment supported by Mr. and Mrs. Christian H. Aall.

This essay investigates these questions by focusing on a popular panoramic wallpaper produced by Joseph Dufour et Cie. in 1804 titled Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (Savages of the Pacific Ocean) (Fig. 1). Depicting a wide range of Oceanic peoples and marketed in the years immediately following French expansion into the Pacific, this wallpaper raises the intriguing question, how [End Page 100] might this particular wallpaper have contributed to early-nineteenth-century French women's understanding of colonial practices?

This question is predicated on the notion that wallpaper, as an element of interior décor, can serve as a social agent. Relatively few substantive social histories of interior decoration exist; most publications on furniture and wall treatment focus on issues of style, taste, and production. Recently, scholars have begun to produce in-depth social histories that serve as models in exploring the question of how interior décor functioned socially and historically.2 These histories are based on the belief that in addition to the dynamics of use, the various elements that constituted interior decoration were part of the visual rhetoric that helped to convey class and identity. As literary scholar Andrea Kaston Tange notes, the cultural meaning of home depended "heavily on the visual as both a tangible image and a metaphor."3 Although her study focuses on the Victorian middle-class home, Tange's central concept—that decorating a home involved the management of social signifiers—applies to homes of the emerging middle class in early nineteenth-century France as well. Especially in light of the social upheaval caused by the French Revolution just two decades earlier and the establishment of the Napoleonic empire in 1804 (concurrently with the production of this wallpaper), social identity around the turn of the century in France was a fragile and no doubt carefully negotiated entity. Anything (e.g., clothing, social circles, professions, home décor) that contributed to that identity would have been chosen with care and deliberation. Further, as the middle-class home became increasingly delimited as private domestic space (in contrast to the workplace), women spent more time there than did males, who left during the day for work or school. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that although this wallpaper was not designed for a [End Page 101] female audience, middle- and upper-class women would have been among its primary viewers. Dufour acknowledged this in a published brochure that accompanied Les Sauvages, suggesting the uses to which this wallpaper could be put: "A mother will give effortless lessons in history and geography to her eager, inquisitive and intelligent daughter."4

Answering this question of how Les Sauvages contributed to nineteenth-century French women's understanding of colonialism thus entails consideration of a number of factors: European incursions into the Pacific at the end of the eighteenth century, notions of domesticity and the home, and the physical viewing dynamic (i.e., the nature of spectatorship and how viewers interacted with the wallpaper) that was encouraged by this panoramic wallpaper. It is my contention that Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique visually duplicated the incipient colonial rhetoric, thereby presenting visual justification for the colonial imperative to middle- and upper...


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