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Book Review: The Libertine

By (December 18, 2013) 2 Comments

The Libertine:the libertine

The Art of Love in Eighteenth-Century France

edited by Michel Delon

Abbeville Press, 2013


If you visit the “Fragonard room” of New York City’s Frick Museum with anybody younger than 225 years old, their reaction to the art on the walls will remind you in an instant of something you might have forgotten: this is the most thoroughly detested single room anywhere in the whole of New England. It only requires a glance at the young patrons wandering through the room to know why: there up on the walls in ornate golden frames are foppishly overdressed lovers archly flirting and cavorting in storybook gardens, while shuffling across the floorboards are pasty-faced tobacco addicts in expensive store-bought Dumpster clothes, too busy separately consulting their cell phones to do more than grunt at each other. The only thing such hopelessly unpolished creatures have in common with the celebrants in those 18th-Century paintings is a near-complete avoidance of personal hygiene.

Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo by Rosalba Carriera

Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo by Rosalba Carriera

If the frilly, frolicking inhabitants of those Fragonard painting so scorned by the modern age could look down upon the zombified iPodders hurrying past them to reach the Frick’s bathrooms, they would join Beaumarchais’ gallant in crying, “The fools! They know nothing of love!” They might even declare the fine art of romance in the 21st Century to be dead.

Exploding against the bleak midwinter of such a thought is The Libertine: The Art of Love in Eighteenth-Century France, a huge, warm, stunningly ornate new volume from Abbeville Press edited by Michel Delon of the Sorbonne, who writes of his fervent period:

History was no longer condemned to repeat itself. Could it become progress? Should liberty then no longer be confined to an elite? In this era of the fete galante, aristocrats dressed up as shepherds, while boys and girls of the common people dreamed of being aristocrats. Ethics became a secular matter, something that transcended the boundaries of religions. Happiness replaced salvation as the supreme value.

Certainly in all of 2013, there has appeared no happier book than this one. It matches dozens of excerpts from the bright, intelligent literature of the time with dozens of gorgeously-reproduced paintings by rococo masters such as Watteau, Lancret, Boucher, and, yes, the king of them all, Fragonard … and the combined effect is downright intoxicating.

Granted, the pictures will steal the show here, but it’s also easy to love The Libertine for its brain as well: its well-chosen literary excerpts range from durable names like Diderot, Voltaire, and Laclos (Delon, bless him, even remembers to include Samuel Richardson) to stars of the period who’ve since faded outside of France but are still very much worth getting to know – and who invariably capture the breathless, besotted tone popular among so many coquettes and swains. The Count de Mirbelle in Claude Joseph Dorat’s The Fatal Effects of Inconstancy might well speak for them all:

Never speak ill of her to me, again. I adore, I idolize her; – the enthusiasm of my fondness has survived such a degree of happiness, as I could scarcely form an idea of. Where am I? How shall I paint the agitations of my mind, or express its transports?

Many of Dorat’s fellow enthusiasts are represented here as well, writers like Claude de Crebillon, Gabriel Charles de Lattaignant, and

A Game of Hot Cockles by Jean-Honore Fragonard

A Game of Hot Cockles by Jean-Honore Fragonard

the effervescent Pierre de Marivaux, here excerpted with very pleasing regularity in the book’s various chapters (“Seducers and Seductresses,” “Songs of Love,” and the idea-imparting “Secret Cabinet”). And all these writers would have taken as their theme some close variation of the one produced by the great leveling natural philosopher and friend to dogs, Juilen Offray de la Mettrie (who really ought to have had better things to do with his pen, but then, everybody in this volume is magnificently loitering) in this bit of his 1751 “The Art of Enjoyment”:

The voluptuary loves life, because he has a healthy body and a free, unprejudiced mind. A lover of Nature, he adores its beauties because he knows their value; invulnerable to disgust, he does not understand how this mortal poison can infect our hearts. Above Fortune and its whims, he makes his own luck; above ambition, he strives only to be happy; above storms, being a philosophical Epicurean, he fear lightning no more than death. Trees lose their greenery, but he retains his love.

In The Libertine, readers have the most opulent invitation imaginable to become voluptuaries themselves. And when they’re through absorbing all the beauties therein, perhaps a trip to the Frick is in order, to go to that hated room and pay the due reverence they’ve been withholding.



Jean-Honore Fragonard A Game of Hot Cockles


Portrait of Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo by Rosalba Carriera