Monthly Archives: March 2013

What a Visage! Louis XIV’s Wax Portrait

If you want accurate likenesses of eighteenth century aristocrats, don’t rely on painted portraits.  If you must insist on versimiltude, I have two things to say:  “Goodnight and good luck” and “Wax Portraits!!”

Before yesterday, I had never heard of such a thing.  Wax figures like Madame Tussaud’s?  Of course.  But small, uncomely representations of monarchs, mistresses, noble folk?  I am fascinated.

Somehow in the two times I visited Versailles I missed Louis XIV’s 1706 wax portrait.  Too distracted by the gilt, no doubt.  What’s peculiar about this buste is what’s most obvious.  Apart from the fact he looks dusted with flour–an ill omen caused by bad reproduction–he’s got pockmarks, a five o’clock shadow, and age spots.  If you can’t see them in the first picture,  my lack of HD quality has dashed the clarity (Super clear and creepy whole bust here).

Louis-XIV by Antoine Benoist 1715

Benoist Louis XIV eye and nose

To be fair, Antoine Benoist molded his creation when Louis XIV was an old man.  The artist was hardly the first wax artist, but he accomplished two feats which secured him favor at Versailles. First, Benoist capitalized on his art form when few had yet to do so; and second, he perfected color waxworks.

Louis looks real in the way that dead people look real, but in examining this work, I sense the accomplishment.  I almost believe I’ve seen Louis on the hay-strewn street.   His eyes, by the way, are hunter’s green or maybe hazel.  They could also be brown. It’s hard to tell.  The video about the restoration work by Versailles provides the closest look.  Watching it, you can even see the individual scars, including the thin, half-inch scar slashing at an angle above the corner of his right lip.

What’s your take on wax portraits? Predecessor of Photoshop? Prefer a potentially blander, perfected prettiness over the realer thing? I’m undecided but think I prefer both. Benoist’s representation of Louis is considered the sun king’s most accurate likeness in existence. But it’s too bad he couldn’t have come along in Louis’s youth; the contrast would’ve been marvelous to behold.

Two Awards Wherein I Break All The Rules

I’m writing this while listening to the True Blood Score and surmising this post is a lot like the scene where Sookie chooses between Eric and Bill and decides she deserves both.

Mash two things together, muddle those righteous southern lines, and hope everyone’s hunky-dorey about it.  (How much Erookie and Billookie hate mail you think they got?  How many were like “Uhn, dun’t care.  I wanna see sumbuddy die again!)

I hated that scene.  It felt . . . superfluous.  Not that I’m saying anything about awards here or my own awesomeness in receiving them.  I’m not.  I’m grateful to be nominated for these awards, but I am going to break/modify all their rules.  Every.  Single.  Rule.  Because, really, does anybody else notice they’re getting longer?  And they’re pinging around blogs faster and faster?

My head spins upon an axis of obligations.  Unless rules keep society in order, I don’t like ’em.  Does this mean whichever blogs I name get two awards?  Ring-a-ding.  Sure it does.  Why not? *Deadpan*  Seriously, why not?  I invite the bloggers to pin up their awards, keep their silence, toast themselves, or do whatever feels natural when receiving recognition.  I invite them not to follow the rules.

I must, however, name the fine lady who gave me the awards.   This post is coming to the intra-net  very belatedly (and therefore, perhaps, ungraciously).  I extend my apologies to Madame de Pique.  She has been thoughtful and deserves a proper shout-out for her contribution to the blogging community (thank you again, cherie).  If you’re inclined, do gambol over to her blog where writes though the gamut of art and aesthetics with aplomb.  She also likes Oscar Wilde and there are few things more respectable than a man whose alleged last words were:  “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

A List of Bloggers and Visual Curators Whose Blogs I Recommend

The contributors at the Women Reading tumblr

J. Langille’s Eighteenth Century Fiction (I’m crazy about the teapot of the week!)

Ancient Serpent

Spirit Dweller 

Lost in the Renaissance

Passionate Scribbles

turtle wings

In case you must, must have the rules.  And in case you want to know them before you break them.

Versatile Blogger RULES:

  1.  Thank the person who gave you this award. That’s common courtesy.
  2.  Include a link to their blog. That’s also common courtesy.
  3.  Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly.
  4.  Include a link to the mother-site: Versatile Blogger.
  5.  Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.

Liebster RULES:

  • Mind your manners and give thanks.
  • Tell 11 things about yourself – subheadings,  charts, etc. are not necessary.  If  you like bunnies, for Christ’s sake just say so.
  • Answer to the best of your ability the 11  questions that are asked of you.
  • Nominate 11 bloggers for this award – let them know too, surely, since keeping it to yourself would be mean.
  • Ask the above nominees 11 questions of your  own if you like, but remember you can also dispose of the questions you were asked.

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s The Ray, or The Kitchen Interior

I have an affection for rays. I’ve watched them sleep in a secluded bay under full moonlight, glide between channels of mangroves, and fly beneath the seawater as if they’ve wings. They’re creatures possessed of a quiet grace: Stay still in the water beside them and they’ll graze your leg if you don’t fear their spiked tail.  Mostly, though, you wouldn’t want to.  As Monsieur Chardin shows us, they are better off beyond the hands of man.

Yes, I am sentimental about rays.

Simon Chadin's still-life The Ray 1728

The Still-Life in 1728

Gazing at Chardin’s The Ray, or The Kitchen Interior plumbs from me a visceral reaction: repulsion. The tableau is unsettling and provocative, inciting neither the appetite nor the anticipation of gastronomic pleasure. The anthropomorphic ray has a face reminiscent of a sad clown or a person, however comically, pleading for mercy before death. Apart from the indignity of being eviscerated, he emblazons the wall with a natural opalescent splendor, but the eye doesn’t stray far from raw flesh; he’s hung on a hook until he’s chopped and plopped in a pot.

The sole living object in the painting is the cat. Perched in maniacal rapture, the feline is takings its chance on slurping the glutinous flesh of a half-dozen oysters before it’s swatted off the counter. The instruments of death–i.e. kitchen pans and cutlery–await the arrival of the cook. But what is being said about death here and what of life? What did Chardin intend?  Interpretations range from religious overtones of Christ and martyrs, to man versus nature, to the simplest explanation: rays or skates were a regular fixture in French fish markets.  No need for squeamishness here.

water giuseppe acrimboldo 1566

Play find the skate! – ‘Water’ by Giuseppe Acrimboldo (1566).

On Zee Plate

Curious about the customs and regularity of eating skate (the type of rays commonly dished up), I searched Google books and found recipes for fried skate, boiled skate, steamed skate, skate a la beaufort, skate a la plenty.  Turns out, Bubba’s enumeration of shrimp from Forrest Gump equally applies to skate.  In the 18th century, the fish was more common in France than England, but today the BBC has skate recipes which leads me to believe skate has been accepted as a tasty food source.   According to an 1828 Angler’s Guide, skates were also plentiful in Scotland but the traveling writer wasn’t particularly impressed.  The 1785 A View of the British Empire, most especially Scotland, cites Harwich in Essex as supplying London with 2000 tons of fish, including skate.  As another writer of ichthyofauna records, presumably some English folk besides residents of Devon ate it as a cheap and nutritious food source.

Across the channel, the opinion on the deliciousness of skate differs and there tends to be greater consensus.  The Magazine of Domestic Comforts  (1839) describes skate as “. . . held in high estimation, and is looked upon as one of the most delicate of fish.”  Back in 2006 when I was in France, I saw skate in Parisian markets and on restaurant menus throughout the countryside.   In fact, before I knew skate was a ray, I think I ate it at a restaurant in a teeny French town where the local butcher shop lady had blackened teeth and few, if any people, could or would speak English.  I remember asking the hurried waiter to describe the fish and after confirming it as having crimped white flesh, I thought: fish, edible, smells fine – we are good here.  Turns out, I believe I also ate pureed brains during that dinner because the waiter called it “cervelle” and ’twas not cervelle de canut (this is what happens when you eat in a town where a lady has blackened teeth!).

The practice of eating skate is apparently not as horror-inducing as I seem to think or as Chardin  has portrayed.  A book from 1903, Fish, Volume 1 from the Queen Cookery Books at Windsor, describes the various names, the preparation required to turn wing to edible filet, and what I have come to consider a predictable reaction to the cartilaginous fish: “. . . known as the thornback, the tinker, the ray, and the maid [‘Young skate are called ‘maids’ and their flesh is tender and delicate.’]  It is seldom seen in its natural and very ugly state on the fishmonger’s slab, though it is common enough when cut up and crimped.”

Do you recall how the ray in Chardin’s still life is hung from a hook?  Surprisingly, it is not for effect but rather practicality.  An 1897 Handbook of Fish Cookery explains:  “Skate improves by being hung up for a day before using.”  According to another fish guide, it should be hung head down (rather than Chardin’s head up) for two days in cool weather to fully develop its flavor and texture.  The wise fisherman knows that their skin secretes mucus for a number of days after catch and will ward against consuming this anti-digestive .  What is the mucus, you ask?  Ammonia the skates have converted to urea which is stored in their blood while they’re alive.  Nineteenth century Scots in the Hebrides used the hang dry  method to prepare “sour skate” (salted and strongly smelling of ammonia) which, based on what I could find, sounds similar to the Norwegian lutefisk (salted and treated with lye).

Of note to literary fans, Dickens, whose prolific pen seems to cover all topics known to man, edited a volume of Household Works in 1883.  Whilst eating a sixpence dinner at a Fisheries Exhibition in South Kensington one evening it was remarked: “We were glad it was not skate, for a portion of this fish, with the redness which gives it the appearance of being undone, was served to a lady near us, and was rejected as being uneatable.”  The reference to red flesh is a minor conundrum.  Skate flesh is ever described as white, but when it’s uncooked or, in the lady’s case, undercooked, it looks like the picture below.

uncooked skate wing

Chagrin, chagrin, my dear. Seems the lady got a raw deal, after all.

A Beauty in Search of Knowledge

As I read Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife in anticipation of review, I’ve been reflecting on how damned lucky I and all fellow females are these days.  Not so lucky as to forget the existence of feminism or the necessity for it, but lucky in that no man may lord over us unless we allow them dominance.  We are not eternally bound by “I do”.  Nor are we raised to be Emile’s adoring, spineless Sophie.  We are beauties in possession of knowledge, not forever and vainly searching for it, but behold the danger in the 18th century.  A young woman is about to ruin her mind at circulating library by renting . . . fiction.  Earlier posts on the subject can be found here and here, and if you’ve read them, you know the absurdity.  If not, reading romances or anything popular in fiction was thought to be a corrupting force in a young lady’s education (does this sound familiar today? A teensy bit).  Only history–but never in Latin–would improve a lady’s faculties and only so far as nature would allow.

18th century mezzotint

Circulating libraries like the one above popped up around London with increasing frequency in the late 18th century.  They served the middle class populace and supplemented booksellers’ incomes by charging a small fee to patrons for access to the entire library. Unlike members-only subscription libraries that offered classical literature, nonfiction, and access to the latest scholarly texts, circulating libraries stocked popular novels and were always eager to accommodate readers with the latest craze, such as the late 18th century’s gothic romances by Ann Radcliffe and others.  Anyone who could read and pay the fee could rent fiction along with travel memoirs, biographies, plays, poetry, and periodicals.

For those who enjoy dates, the first circulating library on the British Isles and the continent opened its doors in Edinburgh around 1725.  By 1750 London and other cities of sizable populations had libraries of their own, a trend that trundled along without competition until the Public Libraries Act of 1850.  The commercial establishments gasped its last breath in the 20th century when they died in favor of free public libraries.