Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Institution of the Levee

The engraving to the left is one that I find particularly evocative of eighteenth century aristocratic culture. It is after Nicolas Lavreince II, a Swedish artist, who did a lot of similarly-themed works; and is a very suitable visual for the discussion of The Morning Levee, which I told you we would get back to.

Amongst fashionable society in the eighteenth century a woman might rise as late as eleven o'clock, perhaps take some hot chocolate, which was a very popular morning refreshment, and as soon as she was partially clothed she would begin to receive visitors in a sort of ritualized informality as she continued to dress.

A quote from Dangerous Liasons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century describes the situation beautifully:-
"The toilette was a semipublic event in which an individual presided over the construction of his or her appearance while connducting a variety of interactions with a steady stream of visitors. These might include both casual and intimate acquaintances, household staff, tailors or milliners in the process of completing commissions, artists or writers in search of patronage, and sellers of a wide range of luxury goods...Moreover, by controlling the point at which visitors were received, the duration of their stay...a woman could communicate very specific degrees of intimacy or closeness. For instance a close friend might be admitted alone, while her hostess was still bare of makeup, and invited to sit close to the dressing table...In contrast a creditor might be summoned to a roomful of people during the final stages of the dressing process and made to wait, standing by the door, before being dismissed without payment."

Far more accounts and depictions of women's Levees survive than men's, it seems, and this is not a custom that appears to have been much practiced while visiting in someone else's home, which is why we haven't seen Olympe practice this ritual yet; and this makes sense if we conclude that the entire performance (for such it surely was) was predicated upon a concept of personal ownership, not only of the person it centered upon, but also of the objects, furniture, and atmosphere surrounding them. In short, it was a power play designed for the highly controlled domain of one's personal kingdom. People entered your home, you granted them an audience and determined its parameters, and then you dismissed them at your leisure.

It is very easy to see how this evolved from court ettiquette surrounding the daily activities of the King, and is not surprising that the aristocracy would want to mimic and in some way own such condescension.

Perhaps when we arrive in Paris Olympe will have her own Levee. For now, we are still searching for a residence. If only our cousin, Godefroy, had not squandered so much money on his mistress and been forced to sell the Hotel d'Evreux we might have been able to stay there. As it is we hear the Place Louis XV has some nice new residences; but that is a story for another post...

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