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Views of Women at Work by the Royal Academicians: The Collection Descriptions des arts et métiers (1761-1789) GERALDINE SHERIDAN The iconography of women at work in the eighteenth century has received only passing attention by scholars; the best-known examples, sometimes reproduced as illustrations in academic theses on specific trades, are drawn from the Encyclopédie, which included 11 volumes of some 3,090 plates, published between 1762 and 1772.1 But another valuable source of iconography featuring women is the collection of some 1,870 plates, less widely available and relatively ignored by scholars, that were published as part of the Descriptions des arts et métiers by the Académie des Sciences in Paris; this consisted of studies of individual trades, issued as separate treatises between 1761 and 1788, but incorporating some plates engraved as early as the 1690s.2 The quality of the drawing and engraving in many of these plates is superior to those of the Encyclopédie. With regard to this corpus of images, we will examine the ways in which they can 'speak' to us differently from the written texts which accompanied them, and to which they have generally been subordinated by scholarship, being seen as ancillary, 'illustrations' in the classic sense. That their original output source—author, artist, engraver or editor combined—intended them to be so subordinated need not deter us; for it is precisely their refusal to be contained by the authority of the word that allows these pictures to communicate other messages, with freshness and vivacity, to a modern audience. As Roland 155 156 / SHERIDAN Barthes highlighted with reference to journalistic photographs and accompanying texts : 'Il est cependant impossible [...] que la parole 'double' l'image; car dans Ie passage d'une structure à l'autre s'élaborent fatalement des signifiés seconds.'3 In an examination of the plates from this collection, we will attempt to tease out some of the meanings encoded within the visual imagery itself, as well as the slippage that occurs in the gap between the two types of text-iconic and graphic-in terms of significant omissions, inclusions and contradictions. The plates we are concerned with represent a disparate collection, reflecting the complex history of the Académie's activités throughout the period of over 80 years. Cole and Watts have traced the outlines of this project, which was first mooted by Colbert, but only really got underway after the revitalisation of the Académie des Sciences by the abbé Jean-Paul Bignon at the turn of the century.4 In 1699, for the first time, their charter specified that two of the pensionnaires should be 'mécaniciens', and two of the associés should be persons 'appliquez aux mécaniques', and in the same year a program was outlined to describe in detail the raw materials, tools and operations of the craft trades in France. The purpose of this project was clearly to promote progress in the trades in the national interest, and to facilitate comparison with best practices in other countries to the mutual benefit of the inhabitants.5 From the outset, the descriptions were to include explanations both in text and illustration, and Academicians began to assemble elements of documentation, including copperplate engravings. From 1709 to 1757 the renowned scientist Reaumur took charge of the undertaking, and, particularly in the first decade, with the support of the Regent, he himself prepared a substantial number of documents and ordered the engraving of 260 plates.6 The work subsequently slowed down, but was revitalised in 1758, after Reaumur's death, under the direction of HenryLouis Duhamel du Monceau, and with the very active assistance of his nephew and fellow academician Auguste-Denis Fougeroux de Bondaroy. The work of Madeleine Pinault and Martine Jaoul in tracing and describing the manuscript collections which originated in the estate of Duhamel at the Château of Denainvilliers has helped to clarify the history of this lengthy period of gestation, and illustrate the approach adopted by the academicians to their work: for example, a notebook belonging to Reaumur, conserved in the Newberry Library in Chicago, indicates that 250 activities had been identified as worthy of treatment, of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 155-191
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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