The Art of Love in Eighteenth-Century France
By Michel Delon
A lavishly presented tasting menu of excerpts from eighteenth-century libertine literature, expertly paired with delectable period artworks.
“That which both sexes then called ‘love’ was a kind of commerce that they entered into, often without inclination, where convenience was always preferred to sympathy, interest to pleasure, and vice to feeling.” Thus did one novelist describe the spirit that pervaded the twilight years of the Ancien Régime, the heyday of the libertine. Today this word typically evokes the excesses of a Sade or the cruel manipulations of Dangerous Liaisons, but the game of love, as the jaded French aristocracy played it, was most often characterized by a refinement of speech and manner, a taste for nuance over forthright assertion that finds its counterpart in the paintings of Fragonard and the operas of Mozart. The amours of the libertine also colored the intellectual life of the time, figuring into the great debates about natural instinct versus social institutions, and the proper limits of personal freedom.
This sumptuous volume re-creates the milieu of the libertine in all its lively decadence, bringing together more than eighty brief selections from eighteenth-century French literature, grouped into eight broad themes—including tales of seduction, fantasies of exotic lands, and the discoveries of youth—and introduced by an eminent French scholar. These pieces, which encompass fiction, drama, verse, essays, and letters, are the work of nearly sixty writers, some familiar to Anglophone readers—such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and yes, the Marquis de Sade—and some much less so; indeed, many of the selections are hitherto untranslated. Each excerpt is accompanied by splendid reproductions of period artworks, many rarely seen, by Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, and numerous others, that echo and heighten the mood of the texts.
Racy, thought-provoking, and a treat for the eyes, The Libertine is the perfect gift for litterateurs, art lovers, roués, and coquettes.