Friday, March 20, 2009

A Selection of Coffee Images in 18th Century Visual Arts

Rococo: The Pretty Art Before the French Revolution

Reaching the heights of social popularity among the upper classes about 1735, Rococo art and architecture, sculpture and painting eventually fell out of favor (as did the monarchy) and was considered superficial, even degenerate. The English called it "the French Style," even though its graceful undulating lines and S-curves contributed to English Chippendale furniture. Francois Boucher and Nicholas Lancret were among the most popular Rococo artists along with Jean-Honore Fragonard. Their images were the wealthy's frivolous capers in an idealized garden setting. The overall (and unintended) outcome was, eventually, a political condemnation of the outrageously unfair class system of the times, waste and something called social irresponsibility, a new idea of that time, also. But they enjoyed their coffee [See Elise Goodman's "Reflecting the Rococo: Lancret and Boucher," Eighteenth Century Life 31:2 (2007, 96-102].

Francois Boucher (Paris, 1703-1770) Morning Coffee, 1739 (Louvre Museum, Paris)
Boucher's paintings are very nearly a documentary of upper class life, idealized with richly adorned figures and rooms. He is a master of what art historians call genre painting, scenes of pastoral and domestic life. It is said that he regularly used his wife and family as models.

Nicholas Lancret ( Paris,1690-1743) A Lady in a Garden Taking Coffee with Some Children, c. 1742


Lancret's painting was formerly known as A Lady in a Garden Drinking Chocolate, but someone noticed that the servant on the left is pouring from what is identified as coffee pot. However, the mother (center) is clearly spooning the drink to the child and one guesses that it would be chocolate and not coffee, which was considered a strong drink.
On the other hand, pre-teens might have been introduced to coffee in small doses, as it was expected that they,too, would soon become coffee drinkers.
As with Boucher, Lancret's paintings showed an idealized life, though figures comported in casual positions.

Paul Revere (Boston, 1735-1818) Silver Amorial Coffee Pot , 1775








Portrait of Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley,. about 1765






Some may have forgotten that the first day of the American revolution was 18 April 1775, as noted by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and published in 1863 as "Paul Revere's Ride":

On the eighteenth of April, in seventy-five
Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.


Revere was a respected silversmith and engraver. Armorial means engraved with a family crest, coat of arms, or other sign of high social position, so this was an upscale commodity. Clearly,one did not prepare coffee in such a vessel, only served it. The actual preparation was (1) grind the coffee by hand (2) place grounds in a small cotton sack (3) steep in water that has reached the boiling point but only after the temperature has dropped to about 200 degrees.

A 19th Century Coffee Experience:
Gustave Dore (Strasbourg,France, 1832-1883) Coffee Stall Early Morning, 1872 (wood engraving)

In 1868 a journalist and playwright, Blanchard Jerrold (1826-1884) documented the darker corners of London life, sometimes with police protection. This work, London: A Pilgrimage, was illustrated by Gustave Dorer -180 etchings. At the time, Durer was the best illustrator in Europe and had provided illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy and biblical stories. His London sketches and Jerrold's prose told readers in frank terms about the sordid impoverished, and often brutal life of the masses, poor in health, threatened by crime and addicted to cheap gin.

Apparently, coffee, too.

Coffee Pots: Between Then and Now
Duncan Grant (Inverness, Scotland, 1885-1978) Still Life with Coffee Pot, 1919 (charcoal and water color) Grant spent 1906 in Paris, studying paintings at the Louvre and picking up clues to Cubism, as this image shows. He had a tumultuous life with many (male) lovers, was a fierce pacifist, a recognized muralist and a world traveler. Britain counts him as as major artist in the period up to WWII.

Fernando Botero (Medellin Antioquia, Columbia, 1932) Still Life with Blue Coffee Pot, 2002
Botero is a leading South American artist. His works have a signature feature of fullness, broadness, one could almost say obesity.

One can Google Botero, or any artist for that matter, and find out biographical details, critics' remarks and numerous examples of the artist's works.