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  • The King, the Trickster, and the Gorgon: Jean-Marc Nattier and the Illusions of Rococo Art
  • Mary D. Sheriff (bio)

For decades scholars were certain of it: Venus ruled rococo painting, that frivolous French confection whipped up by Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard. It was the Goncourt Brothers who heralded the reign of this goddess, and their image of eighteenth-century French art long held sway over both those scholars who celebrated rococo painting and those who condemned it’s apparent lack of serious content. Watteau and Fragonard, the Goncourts cast as the great poets of love: Watteau for imagining a “Champs-Elysées of passion,” and Fragonard for drawing inspiration from Ovid’s Art of Love. It was Boucher, however, who personified the taste of eighteenth-century France, which the Goncourts pictured as a true realm of Venus in its devotion to “la volupté.”1

Although bits of the Goncourts’ vision still circulate today, scholars largely treat their account as a historical construct open to deconstruction. What art historians have left in place, however, is the tacit claim that Watteau’s work represents both the art of the regency under Philippe d’Orleans (1715 to 1723) and the origin of rococo painting.2 Thus located, Watteau embodies the transition from the France fastueuse of Louis XIV to the France galante of Louis XV; from a culture of majesty and to one of agrément.3 This focus on Watteau as the sole agent of change and mark of transition occludes the rich and varied artistic production of the Regency as well as the role of official institutions in disseminating a theory of representation that came to [End Page 1] dominate French painting through the reign of Louis XV, that is, during the period we consider the heyday of rococo painting.4 In sum, to treat Watteau and the fêtes galantes as the only starting points for rococo art insures that our histories of French painting will always list in the same direction.

I propose a return to the historical conditions under which the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture promoted new concepts of art making after the death of Louis XIV. It is not Venus but the Gorgon Medusa who reigns over my analysis, which focuses on the challenges the Academy faced when the death of Louis XIV deprived the institution of its head. I do not claim that Medusa is the privileged object of rococo painting, but rather that she figures its bedrock principles, principles that challenged prevailing notions of classical history painting. To put rococo painting under the sign of Medusa is also to recognize its gestation outside the rocaille ornament it engages in continuous dialogue, and even beyond the academic debates between line and color that also shaped its formation.5

Medusa in the Regency

Throughout the early modern period, artists and poets drew on Ovid’s version of the Gorgon’s tale, which reports how Neptune ravished the beautiful Medusa in Minerva’s temple, and then Minerva punished Medusa for the outrage by turning her luxurious locks to writhing serpents. Yet the Medusa known in eighteenth-century France had neither established lineage nor stable image. The Abbé Massieu (1665–1722) emphasized this point in his oft-quoted dissertation on the Gorgons presented to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions. A professor of Greek at the College Royale, Massieu noted how ancient authors contradicted one another, accounting for the “originals” of these monsters alternately as heroines, savage and ferocious animals, hard working daughters, prodigious beauties, models of wisdom, and scandalous courtesans.6 Ancient artists, moreover, took liberties in representing Medusa, as Bernard de Montfaucon noted in his illustrated L’Antiquité expliquée (1719): “it is the head of Medusa that we usually see on the aegis of Minerva and sometimes, although more rarely, on her shield. It is sometimes a frightening and terrible face and at other times is like the face of an ordinary woman. We often find Medusas that are entirely graceful either on the aegis of Minerva or in other monuments that represent Medusa alone.”7 One of those monuments he singled out for particular praise because it was so moving...


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