In Focus: Playing with Fire in Eighteenth-Century France

Eighteenth-century France has long been celebrated for spaces and objects marked by luxury, fine craftsmanship, and aesthetic coordination. It has also been recognized as an “Age of Comfort” in which new ideals of convenience and commodité transformed elite interiors. As scholars including Mimi Hellman and Joan DeJean have noted, lavish fireplaces or foyers (a word signifying both hearth and home) anchored both developments, providing miniature theaters for the display of elegance while promising (if not always delivering) light and warmth. At the center of the stage were firedogs— elaborate, often sculpturally conceived andirons that held the logs in place and offered rich artistic and symbolic possibilities. Known in the eighteenth century as grilles, chenets or simply feux (fires), the finest examples were produced in gilded brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) in a dizzying array of forms and styles to match patron’s tastes and/or the uses of the room. The most ambitious feux literally played with fire, staging hearth- or heat-related dramas or depicting dancing flames.

What caused the explosion of interest in firedogs in eighteenth-century France, and what can we learn from surviving examples? While royal purchases and commissions are comparatively well documented, we know less about chenets used at other social and economic levels, including how they were designed, produced, sold, and circulated in an expanding market economy. This seminar, offered in connection with a Focus Project exhibition culminating in Spring 2027, uses firedogs as a window into eighteenth-century French life while introducing students to the exhibitionmaking process. Topics include sampling and sorting the vast corpus of surviving hearth furniture and related documentation, including preparatory drawings, published designs, trade cards, paintings, and related items; developing relevant historical, economic, iconographic, social, and other interpretive frameworks for investigating them; applying new scientific methods to analyze and attribute cast metal objects whose dating is often problematic; identifying potential loans; and considering how best to communicate the Focus Project’s findings in a public exhibition. Course requirements include in-class reports, group assignments, an individual research project or paper, and drafts of interpretive materials for the gallery and digital platforms. Reading knowledge of French useful but not required. 3 credits. Satisfies the chronological requirement.