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The Triumph of Eros

Art and Seduction in 18th Century France

24 November 2006 – 8 April 2007
Somerset House, London. Hermitage Rooms

The Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, a collaborative venture of the Courtauld Institute of Art and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, provide opportunities for viewing in London, through changing exhibitions, items from the Russian state collection.

The current exhibition explores the themes of love and eroticism in eighteenth century French art. At its core is a collection of erotic engravings, believed to have been acquired by Czar Nicholas I early in the nineteenth century, and never before seen outside of St Petersburg.

There is a world of difference between eroticism and pornography, and any devotees of the latter will not find examples of it here. The paintings, engravings and sculpture on display in general convey their message through suggestion rather than through the explicit. It is a far-distant world from our own, where overt displays of sexuality (rather than sensuality) seem to dominate so many art-forms and aspects of the mass media. So far have we come — or fallen — that many of the works on display in this exhibition, including those in Czar Nicholas’ private collection — possess, it would seem at first sight, no erotic ‘charge’ at all. Watteau’s Capricious Girl of 1718, and Lancret’s The Swing of the 1730s, for example, today need the explication of an accompanying label before their message, which would have been clear enough, perhaps, to their original viewers, is disclosed.

The labelling, in fact, is like the exhibition itself, discreet and not explicit. Sexual and erotic practices are hinted at rather than made plain. The labels do, however, draw attention to the importance of the novel in the eighteenth century; how it was viewed with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility for its potential for arousing lustful feelings in the readership — particularly young, unmarried girls. (The novel, defined as “a book to be read with one hand”, was seen as an invitation to secret vice.) The novel and the love-letter feature prominently in many of the works on show in this exhibition.

Given the potential of the Biblical narratives in providing possible inspiration for the exploration of the erotic (David and Bathsheba, Susannah and the Elders, Samson and Delilah and the Song of Songs come immediately to mind), it is perhaps surprising that only one work on exhibition here has a Biblical origin, and that is Jean-Baptiste Nattier’s (1678-1726) Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife of 1711, taken from Genesis chapter 39. The lady’s persistent — and rather direct — attempts to seduce Joseph are of no avail, so in this respect the narrative is more a moral tale than anything else. However, with Nattier the emphasis is upon the lady’s obvious charms rather than upon Joseph’s rectitude. Rectitude, after all, is not what Czar Nicholas and the other collectors of these works were interested in.

John Morgan-Guy
January 2007


Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House

Oil painting by Jean-Baptiste Nattier.Jean-Baptiste Nattier, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, 1711