In Focus: Fire! Staging the Hearth in Eighteenth-Century France

Eighteenth-century France has long been celebrated as a high point of domestic design, producing spaces and objects admired for their luxury, elegance, coordination, and craftsmanship. It has also been recognized as an “Age of Comfort,” when the formality of elite life in the seventeenth century gave way to ideals of convenience and commodité that transformed French living quarters and the furnishings within them. As scholars including Mimi Hellman and Joan DeJean have noted, the open fireplaces that anchored such rooms occupied a paradoxical place in these developments, becoming a privileged locus for design and display while remaining an anachronistic form of heating that stubbornly resisting technological advances. Framed by mantelpieces that evoked a proscenium arch, French foyers (a word that means both hearth and home or family) were stages for sociability, providing light and warmth on winter evenings and evoking potent associations even when not in use. At the center of this domestic theater were firedogs—elaborate and often sculpturally conceived andirons then known as grilles, chenets or simply feux (fires)—that held the logs in place and offered rich possibilities for aesthetic and symbolic expression. Typically produced in “gilt bronze” (in fact gilt brass, an alloy of copper and zinc), decorative firedogs were expensive luxuries available in an almost inexhaustible array of forms that spoke to patron’s aesthetic sensibilities or to the uses and themes of specific rooms. The most ambitious designs literally played with fire, staging hearth-related dramas or depicting dancing flames. What caused the explosion of interest in firedogs in eighteenth-century France, and how can surviving objects best be studied? While the finest royal feux are comparatively well documented, we know less about those produced and deployed at lower (but still largely elite) social and economic levels. This seminar, offered in connection with a Focus Project currently in development, uses firedogs as a window into eighteenth-century French material culture and brings participants inside the exhibition-making process. Topics will include identification of potential exhibition objects (not just hearth furniture, but also preparatory drawings, published designs, trade cards, paintings, and related items); exploration of relevant historical, economic, and interpretive frameworks; and the use of new scientific methods for analyzing and dating cast metal objects. Course requirements include in-class reports, a research paper, and drafts of materials for public interpretation in the gallery and via digital platforms. Reading knowledge of French useful but not required. 3 credits. Satisfies pre-1800 requirement.