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Behind closed doors: Tom Stammers relishes a tour of the great private collections of early 18th-century Paris.

Sheltering Art: Collecting and Social Identity in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris

Rochelle Ziskin

Penn State University Press, $79.95

ISBN 9780271037851

Titian's Danae; Rubens's Bacchus; Van Dyck's Equestrian Portrait of Charles I: some of the most celebrated canvases in the world's museums once hung in private houses in Paris. The leading amateurs of the 18th century amassed extraordinary collections of paintings and drawings, forming ensembles which, according to Rochelle Ziskin, proclaimed taste, erudition and personal elan. These private treasure troves rarely mattered more than in 1700. The French capital was regaining its lustre, as aristocrats deserted Versailles. Aesthetic experience was being scrutinised and codified with unprecedented precision. Critics clashed over the innate sensitivity of women as producers and consumers of art. At this crossroads of mondanite and modernite, private collections functioned as key laboratories for experimentation and debate.

Sheltering Art interprets early 18th-century collecting through the lens of faction, correlating the fault-lines of dynastic politics with two distinct cultural blocs. Each bloc had its own leaders, metropolitan geographies, preferred artists and tactics of display. One camp was encapsulated by Pierre Crozat (1661-1740), the Italophile scion of a mighty banking dynasty. The walls of the Maison Crozat were lined with dramatic history paintings by the likes of Raphael, Titian, Veronese and the Carracci, while his library boasted portfolios containing 2,000 Old Master drawings. Crozat's finest pieces had passed through illustrious hands--including those of cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, Everhard Jabach (beneficiary of Charles I's holdings) and Queen Christina (whose cabinet Crozat helped acquire for the duc d'Orleans). As a tribute to these mighty forebears, Crozat proudly hung copies of some of their iconic canvases, even if that meant leaving more than 100 original works in storage.

A rival bloc of collectors was dominated by the beguiling figure of the comtesse de Verrue 0670-1736), rehabilitated by Ziskin as a woman who championed the most audacious cultural fashions of her age. Jeanne-Baptiste d'Albert de Luynes, comtesse de Verrue, spent her youth in Italy, where she scandalously separated from her husband and embarked on an affair with the duc de Savoie. Through procuring and sharing military secrets, Verrue was able to engineer her move to Paris in 1700. Whereas the Maison Crozat was located on the Right Bank--a short stroll from the influx of bankers around Notre-Dame-des-Victoires and the Place Vendome--Verrue pitched her tent on the Left Bank, living for a while in a cloistered property on the edge of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Verrue was at first obliged to live in the grounds of a convent, the bolted doors and barred windows the price of escaping from Piedmont. In 1711, however, she regained a portion of her dowry, and with her new financial independence established an exclusive and sophisticated salon at Meudon.

Verrue departed from Crozat's collecting template in several respects. While he exalted the high-minded Italian grand manner, her preferences ran to north European genre scenes. Flemish fairs, children's games and erotic mythologies proliferated. Whereas Crozat supplemented his paintings with Boulle marquetry furniture, terracotta models and bronzes, Verrue favoured playful arabesques, Japanese lacquer and oriental porcelain. Crozat's pride in provenance was generally disdained by Verrue and her set, for whom the purely pictorial qualities reigned supreme. Indeed, Verrue's clique ridiculed the pedantry of more name-fixated connoisseurs, and enjoyed catching them out with sly pastiches. If Crozat wanted to immortalise collections through folio engravings, Verrue shunned publicity. Rather, she sought to secure her fame through keeping favourite pieces within a restricted circle of relatives, friends and lovers. These strategic gifts ensured that, long after her death, Verrue's name would adorn her bequests like a fine patina.

The great strength of Sheltering Art is its descriptive plenitude. Ziskin has reconstructed the interiors and furnishings of around a dozen Parisian cabinets, and promenades through a dazzling sequence of reception rooms, studios, alcoves and boudoirs. Rarely have we learned so much about how art was hung, and how paintings were made to converse with each other in 18th-century galleries. Moreover, Ziskin persuasively argues that these referential games are essential to understanding the compositions of artists who came within the orbit of Crozat or Verrue. For instance, Watteau's allegories of the seasons from 1717, long written off as a stilted effort by an artist outside his comfort zone, appear as an ingenious appropriation and synthesis of the rich iconographies on show at the Maison Crozat.

Unfortunately, the sheer abundance can become fatiguing, as one damask hanging blurs into the next, and some chapters read more like an extended inventory than an analysis. Moreover, as the examples multiply, the original binary between Crozat and Verrue recedes from view: there are simply too many contrary instances and anomalies to believe in the decisive contours of faction. Crozat was not averse to the northern schools tout court; he proudly hung Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, and dissented from Verrue simply by insisting that smaller, quotidian scenes should be reserved for modest spaces. What Ziskin sees as the reunification of the two tendencies in the cabinet of textile entrepreneur Jean de Jullienne (Fig. 1) might rather be regarded as one more possible combination within a spectrum of influences from which no amateur could escape. The difference between the Right and Left Bank collecting seemed one of emphasis, rather than degree.

Ziskin's brilliantly researched monograph, then, lacks conceptual definition. The lexicon imported from outlying debates--namely La querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, or the battle between French and Italian opera--is only fitfully illuminating. Rather than deploy her examples to help re-frame the scholarly debate, Ziskin often defers to conventional orthodoxies, despite their dubious utility. She argues that Verrue embodied 'aristocratic' collecting, whereas Crozat distilled its 'bourgeois' variant: a claim that seems at odds with the countess and her allies' avid support of the economist John Law's banking wizardry, as well as colonial commerce. Instead of propping up the pieties of a bourgeois public sphere, Ziskin would more fruitfully underline the centrality of kinship ties, urban networks and private patronage in shaping 18th-century taste. Yet despite the sketchy theoretical scaffolding, Sheltering Art allows us to cross the threshold of several grand Paris residences, and explore the private life of many masterpieces before their consecration in the museum.

Tom Stammers is a lecturer at the University of Durham.
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Title Annotation:Sheltering Art: Collecting and Social Identity in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris
Author:Stammers, Tom
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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