2:00–3:00 pm  Eric Haskell, Scripps College
“Sites of Seduction: French Folly Gardens of the Eighteenth Century”

Author’s abstract: The aesthetic frames of exoticism, the essential configurations of eroticism, and the illicit intentions of dangerous liaisons are the focus of this examination of French gardens constructed during the second half of the eighteenth century in the shadow of the guillotine. In order to understand their often complex underpinnings, we shall first define the French formal garden created by André Le Nôtre in the seventeenth century for the promulgation of the Sun King’s absolutist agenda. Then, as we visit such folly gardens as Monceau, Bagatelle, the Désert de Retz and Marie-Antoinette’s Hameau at Versailles, our inquiry will be framed within the larger context of social history, aesthetics, and the decorative arts during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. The abrupt shift from seventeenth-century formality during the reign of Louis XIV to eighteenth-century whimsy will allow us to comprehend how the garden acted as a highly refined cultural barometer during the last two centuries of the ancien régime.

My comments:

How does one relate to a guillotine? As a user, victim, voyeur? Folly and exoticism seem quite “reasonable” when both the natural and social order are collapsing. This change is inscribed in many places – especially the gardens.

Marie Antoinette, leaving her in need of a refuge. She escaped the responsibilities and structure of court life to her private estate. The Hamlet was part of Marie Antoinette’s estate, and she enjoyed dressing as a young shepherdess and acting like a peasant, a tableau vivant, as if she were part of a painting. while surrounded by the comforts of a royal lifestyle. This unintentional mockery of the economically depressed French peasants helped build the resentment towards the monarchy among the French people, eventually leading to the French Revolution.

A phrase of Neil Postman, “Amusing herself to death,” comes to mind.