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19th Century European Paintings

A French Artist’s Passion for 18th-Century Fashion and Silk

Gustave Jean Jacquet was a celebrated portraitist of the nineteenth century and was notable for his fascination with historical subjects. Unlike his contemporaries – Jean Béraud for example – Jacquet was looking back on a bygone age. In particular, Jacquet’s La Bienvenue, to be offered in Art Treasures of America: The John F. Eulich Collection on 21 November, is a prime example of his interest in the costume and textiles of French history. Reflecting on a time when French power was unmatched on the European stage, Jacquet's painting muses on the unrivalled elegance, taste and refinement of the ancien régime. Jacquet's world of the imagination, realised on canvas, stood in contrast to contemporary machinery, mass production and rapid industrial development.

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GUSTAVE JEAN JACQUET, LA BIENVENUE. ESTIMATE $400,000–600,000. TO BE OFFERED IN ART TREASURES OF AMERICA: THE JOHN F. EULICH COLLECTION ON 21 NOVEMBER IN NEW YORK.

Jacquet was evidently captivated by period costume and rendered textiles with tremendous skill, care and attention. Indeed upon Jacquet's death, over 300 lots of eighteenth-century costumes were offered in the 1909 sale of his estate at the Galerie Georges Petit – an enviable collection for any costume enthusiast.

As Jacquet surely knew, the sartorial elegance he imagined came from a flourishing textile industry dominated by the French town of Lyon. Lyon owed its success in silk production to substantial investments made under Louis XIV to develop the luxury textile industry. Louis’s ambition to have a glittering court at Versailles of unrivalled splendour, created a kingly demand for the fine fabric. Government investments in technologies ensured it was of the highest quality. Lyon silk became such a highly prized commodity that Charles III of Spain had his habits acquired from the city in secret, much to the detriment of the Spanish silk industry.

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(LEFT) SILK SATIN HABIT A LA FRANÇAISE, 1775, GALLERY OF VICTORIA, MELBOURNE. (RIGHT) A CASAQUIN JACKET, 1710-1730, IN THE PALAIS GALLIERA - MUSÉE DE LA MODE DE LA VILLE DE PARIS COLLECTION RESEMBLES THAT WORN BY A WOMAN ON THE RIGHT IN JACQUET'S LA BIENVENUE.

The production of silk was a laborious process, requiring access to numerous raw materials, skilled weavers, craftsmen and large, complex looms operated by hand. However, the resulting silks were astounding. One such example is silk damask, beautifully depicted in the luscious raspberry robe volante of Jacquet's painting. A remarkably similar example can be found in the Palais Galliera - Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

The robe volante was a gown style popular during the first quarter of the eighteenth century. With its draping folds, it was designed to give the appearance of relaxed dress, despite the fact it was worn over heavily boned and tightly laced stays.

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THIS ROBE VOLANTE, 1720-1735, IN THE COLLECTION OF THE PALAIS GALLIERA - MUSÉE DE LA MODE DE LA VILLE DE PARIS IS REMARKABLY SIMILAR TO THE ONE IN JACQUET'S LA BIENVENUE

Gowns like the robe volante and robe à la française served as excellent canvases for showcasing these refined, patterned textiles. The designs created at Lyon epitomised the rococo style, with meanders of flowers, ribbon and lace patterns, bouquets and garlands. This preference for naturalism can be seen in the silk designs of Jean Revel (1684-1751), perhaps the most prestigious of Lyonnaise silk designers. Revel brought a painterly and three-dimensional quality to his textile designs not seen prior to the eighteenth century. The superior quality of his designs led him to be called the “Raphael of Silk Design.”

Lyon's silk industry flourished until the 1780s when changing tastes for more relaxed and natural forms of dress were becoming the preferred look. Marie Antoinette’s infamous chemise à la reine required light cottons and sheer embroidered muslins from the exotic lands of the Indian subcontinent. The French Revolution soon followed, and Lyon’s silk industry only managed to hang on by a thread.

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ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN, MARIE ANTOINETTE IN A CHEMISE DRESS, 1783. COURTESY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.

Despite the revolution, the silk industry limped on – partly helped by a concerted effort from Napoleon. It was at this time that the weaving process became mechanised. As industry progressed, Jacquet’s age became one of fabric production en masse. Factories churned out relatively cheap and affordable textiles for a burgeoning middle class. The prestige and craftsmanship once associated with Lyons silks during the eighteenth century would not be achieved again. 

Painting at the time of Proust, Jacquet worked in a France enraptured by the buzz of the city and technological progress. Yet amidst the acrid smoke, hustle and noise of modernity, Jacquet looked back fondly on France’s cultural and artistic dominance in the eighteenth century. But in the textiles and costumes, which he so fastidiously collected and painted, he could at least sense, touch and imagine some of the lost splendour of his country’s dazzling past.

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