The monkey craze was born out of orientalism, a close relation to chinoiserie, the other craze of the 17th and 18th centuries. Like many aesthetic obsessions of the time, it manifested from western Europe’s fervor for all things exotic and first cemented its mark in France. Today we can thank Claude III Audran, a designer working at the Chateau de Marly, for entertaining us with his notion that monkeys can and should sit around a table just like us humans. Or at least, they should in paintings. This idea of Audran’s was most likely inspired by 17th century aristocrats’ penchant for dressing their pet monkeys in outfits where the monkeys would then perform tricks for the amusement of courtiers at Versailles.
Unfortunately Audran’s designs have gone the way of the chateau, but we can the work of his successors. Jean Berain, the Elder, a rococo artist who painted arabesque wall decorations f0r the Sun King renewed enthusiasm for the style when he added monkeys to his engravings in 1711. I’ll leave it up to you to decipher what business the monkey is up to here.
The artist Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin is a also notable contributor with his singe paintings, the most famous being Le Singe Peintre (below) but many influential artists of the time dabbled in the style, including Antoine Watteau and Nicolas Lancret.
In art, as well as textiles and home furnishings, singerie eventually became the term for the humorous depiction of monkeys imitating human behavior. Often, these simians were fashionably dressed in oriental attire and were depicted engaging in playful pursuits. In fact, that’s where singerie comes from. In French, it translates as “monkey trick.”
The greatest surviving example of a room decorated in the singerie style is located in the Chateau de Chantilly. From 1643 to 1830, it was owned by the Bourbon Condé family, cousins to Louis XIV. For an up close look, visit Le Grand Singerie. The images above are part of the wall paneling. The whole of the room, formerly believed to have been painted by Watteau, is now credited to Christophe Huet. He also painted Le Petit Singerie which functioned as a small room between the apartments of the Duc and Duchesse of Bourbon.
For further information on singerie, see: NY Times’ Chateau’s Monkey Room is Lovingly Restored
Liked the post? Check out 18th Century Chinoiserie