Home Historical art how public figures of the Enlightenment era used the PDA to their advantage.

how public figures of the Enlightenment era used the PDA to their advantage.


The existence of “boy brides” – men inclined to constantly display heterosexual marital bliss – may well seem like a modern phenomenon, which only flourished thanks to photography, then went supernova with the advent of the internet. . In fact, when Slate started a conversation about dead women last year, one participant speculated that the woman “couldn’t exist without social media.” But while married men certainly thrive in our age of Facebook, their history stretches deep into the past. They first flourished in the second half of the 18and century, the Enlightenment. To truly understand why so many men are eager to take on this role, we have to go back to the beginning and see how ambitious men have taken advantage of new media to showcase their seemingly flawless domestic lives, all for their own benefit.

Enlightenment bride dudes had no social media, and the world’s first photograph was still decades away. But they do have portraits, and that’s where 18and the men of the woman of the century took center stage. They weren’t the first men to love their wives – of course not – but they developed new, very public ways to achieve that love. In a captivating survey of British family portraits from across the 18and century, art historian Kate Retford notes a significant shift. Earlier 18and The portraits of the century appear stiff to us: a patriarch, his wife and their children neatly arranged in neat lines, intended to convey order and respectability. But then, in the last decades of the century, things quieted down: the children looked relaxed and playful, the couples stared into each other’s eyes, all in a perfectly polished moment of “spontaneous” domestic bliss – a scene that will surely seem familiar to everyone. with an Instagram feed. And it wasn’t just that families in general were starting to look cuddly, loving, and perfectly imperfect. The married couple in particular took center stage, and the ideal couple appeared both affectionate and collaborative. They were meant to look like a good team, happily working together towards a common goal.

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Marie Anne Lavoisier, painted by Jacques Louis David, 1788.
Courtesy of the Met Museum

One of the most astonishing expressions of this new ideal is the portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier by Jacques-Louis David. Everyone involved in this portrait was a rock star in their own way: David was one of France’s brightest and most sought-after painters, while the Lavoisiers were fabulously rich and famous for their work in chemistry. Like many ambitious men today, Lavoisier used his wife to enhance his reputation or, you might say, his brand. He was a well-established scientist, with prestigious appointments and an extensive network of collaborators. But his painstaking analyzes made his work difficult to follow, and potentially off-putting, at least for the general public. Paulze Lavoisier, on the other hand, was a charming host and her husband’s most important collaborator: she wrote translations, drew illustrations and, above all, led an extensive campaign to stimulate her husband’s research over that of his rivals. . Her intelligence, wit, and charm helped her husband tremendously, and it is reflected in their portrait. David captured the two at work in their office: Lavoisier writing a treatise, while Paulze Lavoisier’s drawing board perches in a corner. They look affectionate, contented and productive. Putting his wife in the spotlight and portraying himself as his affectionate partner was a shrewd public relations move designed to bolster Lavoisier’s reputation, and for which the couple were willing to pay a heavy price – this portrait was Lavoisier’s most expensive commission. David.

Images like Lavoisier’s portrait may have depicted intimate scenes, but they were not reserved for private consumption. People could see these works of art on display or buy affordable copies of portraits or charming domestic scenes. These images were public performances, and audiences kept growing thanks to rising literacy rates, the birth of a slew of new newspapers, and falling prices for all kinds of media. Biographies and novels became huge bestsellers, encouraging readers to take a deep interest in the intimate lives of ordinary people and, eventually, celebrities. As Antoine Lilti argues in his book on the invention of celebrity in the 18and century, this media revolution helped spawn a nascent celebrity culture. Avid fans acquired images and gobbled up stories about their favorite writers, actors, and other personalities; even criminals could take a star turn.

And the curiosity of the public was especially piqued by all that was intimate; while the technology might have been different, the basic culture of selfies and sprawling fandoms was alive and well. The performers were very savvy in luring the audience in with a glimpse behind the curtains, just enough to draw them in and leave them wanting more. A typical example is Augustin de Saint-Aubin’s miniature portraits of himself and his wife, Louise-Nicole Godeau – you can see them at the top of this page. The couple are pictured in a tender and seemingly private moment. Godeau’s dress is undone, revealing her left breast; she begs her husband to be “at least discreet” while he blows her a kiss and assures her “you can count on me”. The performative PDA did not wait for the invention of Instagram; here the public is invited to take a look, even to be tempted by this intimate, apparently spontaneous, but clearly very staged moment between a husband and his wife.

A drawing of two women looking at each other in a park, captioned
The love letterby R. Sayer, London, 1787.
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Portraits were expensive and out of reach for most people, and it is true that these historical wives, at least those who left visual evidence, were usually found in middle and upper class social circles. But the letters made the phenomenon more accessible – and here, too, the wife guy thrived. The philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius particularly highlighted it: “I am the happiest man in the world because I am loved by such a kind woman”, he wrote in a missive. “You know how much I love you, how dear you are to me, how touched I am by all the signs of friendship you have given me, how sure I am of your tenderness and your love, and how much this certainty fills my life with joy; it runs through my veins like milk,” he crooned in another. Love letters were more private than portraits, but they were still shared and admired by friends, explains the historian Sally Holloway, drawing our attention to an engraving of two women walking arm in arm, gossiping about a love letter one of them received. And of course, couples didn’t correct to write letters; they would walk together while courting and then, after marriage, socialize and generally play the role of the happy, seamless couple.

Some people might call 18and century the “Age of Reason”, but this title hides how important, even fashionable, it was for social elites to wear their hearts on their sleeves. They wept over theatrical productions, sobbed over novels, generally tried to be sensitive and easily moved. Think of Jane Austen’s emotionally intense character Marianne Dashwood Sense and sensitivity minus the satire. Readers identified intensely with the romance novels of the time, becoming deeply attached to the characters. and their authors. When the characters suffered, the readers suffered, wept and grieved; when the characters rejoiced, so did their fans – and because these books were bestsellers, readers did not cry alone, but were swept up in a public outburst of sentiment. Millions of people today are caught up in shows like The single personand the 18and century was no different. They read the same books, devoured the same reports and lived them all together. It was against this background that the wife made her debut, trying to copy the heroes of favorite novels of that time. Riffing on the best-selling novel by Jean-Jacques Rousseau Juliathe philosopher and novelist Choderlos de Laclos wrote to his wife: “I would have said with Rousseau and like Saint Preux [Julie’s lover], ‘Julie, Julie, our hearts will never be deaf to each other.’ “Sentimental novels were practical manuals for future wives.

Why go to all this trouble? Because it made these men look good – sensitive, virtuous and communicative – while reinforcing patriarchal authority and facilitating power grabs. Some of the most ambitious men of the time were also his peak wives. Being a “family man” or a “wife-man” was especially important for men who wanted to be public figures, such as politicians or men of letters. Having a close and publicly cuddly relationship with their wives worked as a kind of shortcut, “proof” that they were good people and therefore trustworthy. And it’s a shortcut that we still use today. Take a look at any politician’s social media and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see some brilliant national snaps made from that same mould. Because at the end of the day, married guys were really there for themselves: look me, I am such a great husband, I have that big woman, she loves me so many. The pictures they painted were not necessarily accurate; Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier was having an extramarital affair at the time her portrait with her husband was painted, while Helvétius’ endless love for his wife did not prevent him from dating prostitutes. Like the women dudes of our time, these 18and The ancestors of the century walked a tightrope, publicly flaunting their relationships as perfect, worthy of attention and admiration, even if no marriage could live up to that hype.