Academic journal article French Forum

Strategies of Happiness Painting and Stage in Diderot

Academic journal article French Forum

Strategies of Happiness Painting and Stage in Diderot

Article excerpt

In one of his discussions about the bourgeois genre in painting Diderot states the way in which containment is essential to happiness. Why, he asks the aristocratic readers of his Correspondance litteraire, do we commission scenes of country or of family life by Wouwermans, Berghem, and Vernet to decorate the walls of our homes? Because these paintings help make up for "l'impossibilite de nous livrer aux fonctions et aux amusements de la vie champetre, d'errer dans une campagne, de suivre un troupeau, d'habiter une chaumiere." Within the painting's frame we rediscover what has been irretrievably lost in our everyday social existence, "un bonheur que nous regrettons":

   [...] et les toiles d'araignees d'Ostade sont suspendues entre des
   crepines d'or, sur un damas cramoisi, et nous sommes devores par
   l'ambition, la haine, la jalousie et l'amour; et nous brulons de la
   soif de l'honneur et de la richesse, au milieu des scenes de
   l'innocence et de la pauvrete, s'il est permis d'appeler pauvre celui
   a qui tout appartient. Nous sommes des malheureux autour desquels le
   bonheur est represente sous mille formes diverses. (Salons 3:139)

The painting's frame defines the limits between authenticity and virtue (images of simplicity, innocence and happiness), and falsehood and vice (the frenetic scenes of passion and rabid personal egotism taking place outside). Moving from the simple, almost minimalist purity of Ostade's spider webs to the crushed red velvet and gilded frame, and finally to the room where human passions are played out, we accomplish a trajectory from fiction, the space of truth and happiness--eternal and tranquil images of goodness, innocence and morality--to real life, the space of falseness and disorder. Two universes irremediably cleaved and separated by the gilded frame; two spaces that coexist in apparent ignorance of each other? Perhaps, or rather, maybe we look up periodically from our frantic passions to the space of fiction in order to find the lost happiness and coherence in our lives. At the same time, the paintings on our walls are so many accusations of our growing corruption, so many indicators of the distance that separates us from truth and morality, found henceforth within fiction. Though we may be materially rich, fiction shows us nevertheless that we are morally poor ("des malheureux"). Diderot's description of Ostade's painting is emblematic of the necessity for order and closure in the bourgeoisie's search for happiness. Order must reign not only over the economic concerns of the bourgeois household, but over matters of conjugal fidelity and sentiments.

Much has been written on bourgeois ideals at the time of enlightenment and on the portrayal of domestic happiness, a development associated with a valorization of the private sphere. (1) In this essay, I propose to examine, principally in Diderot, how the concepts of time, space, and morality specifically target the bourgeois viewer. Happiness in the eighteenth century results not only from individual contentment; it must be cultivated, or rather imposed, by aesthetic techniques and strategies.

The concept of happiness, of its possibility, was for eighteenth-century France both an instrument of debate through which the major social and political issues could be discussed and an ideal which posited the legitimacy of the individual in relation to society. The idea of happiness revealed the relativity, and in many ways, the "equality" of human beings in their desire for happiness. The philosophes' concept of happiness was different from that of official Church doctrine; the aristocrats' search for happiness took different roads from those of the bourgeois, but all shared in the pursuit of this ideal. Of course, the exact nature of happiness varied according to the socioeconomic status and, especially, the sociocultural traditions and values of the group in society. Sombart defines the bourgeois as "homo oeconomicus" (243). …

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