Sarah R. Cohen will deliver a Françoise and Georges Selz Lecture on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Decorative Arts and Culture on Tuesday, March 17, at 6 pm. Her talk is entitled “Fashioning Race Through Metalwork in French Sugar Casters.”

Three extant pairs of French sugar casters, all fashioned through various forms of luxury metalwork, present numerous problems of interpretation regarding questions of elite dining fashions, artisanal practices, and constructions of racial identity. All of the sets of casters feature figures bearing large bunches of sugar cane cast in silver; each bundle is fashioned so that highly refined, white powdered sugar can be sprinkled from holes punched through the tops of the individual stalks of cane. The figures themselves differ markedly in physiognomy, dress, and attitude: the earliest pair, fashioned in silver for Louis-Henri, duc de Bourbon, in the 1730s, feature an “African” man and woman dressed in “American” costumes inspired by travel literature. The two later sets, by contrast, feature “Chinese” boys cast in either bronze or silver and completely painted to create dark-skinned laborers in lavish Chinoiserie garments. How can we account for these eclectic and variable table ornaments? In this talk Cohen will examine their implications in light of changing conceptions of race in eighteenth-century France, in the context of global commerce, sugar production, and slavery.

Sarah R. Cohen is Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is also a joint Professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her research focuses on the body and sensory experience in art and culture from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, with a special emphasis on early modern France. Her book Art, Dance, and the Body in French Culture of the Ancien Régime was published in 2000 by Cambridge University Press, and she has two additional books forthcoming in 2020–2021: Picturing Animals in Early Modern Europe: Art and Soul and Enlightened Animals in Eighteenth-Century Art: Matter, Sensation, Knowledge. Professor Cohen’s future research will return to questions of human performance and its intersection with material constructions of the body in art.