Sarah R. Cohen spoke in the Françoise and Georges Selz Lectures on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Decorative Arts and Culture on Thursday, February 10, at 12:15 pm. Her talk is entitled “Sugar, Silver, and the Bourbon Sucriers: Sweetening Slavery in Eighteenth-Century France.”

Inseparable from the rise of sugar within the economies of international trade in eighteenth-century Europe was the Caribbean slave trade: in France, whose primary source of sugar for local consumption and re-export was its principal colony of Saint Domingue, the trade in enslaved persons swelled directly in tangent with the sugar business throughout the 1730s and beyond. But because all of the steps in harvesting and producing sugar, apart from some of the most elaborate refining processes, were carried out in the distant island colonies, such interdependency, to say nothing of the coerced labor it entailed, was invisible on the French dining table. A startling exception to this submersion of the harsh facts of how sugar cane was harvested is found in a pair of silver sugar casters (sucriers) that depict a man and woman laboring beneath bundles of sugar cane, as if physically “delivering” their sweet crystals for the elite dessert. Almost certainly made by the royal silversmith Claude II Ballin on commission for Louis-Henri, duc de Bourbon, the casters would have appeared among the duke’s many other worldly goods on display at the château of Chantilly in the 1730s. The harvesters would have been identifiable as an African woman and man through their carefully modelled physiognomies, which reflect incipient French understandings of racial type. Their bodies are cast in glistening, solid silver, while their hollowed burdens of bundled cane detach to dispense the powdered sweetener. Departing notably from typical examples of this type of luxury dispenser, whose baluster design references its placement and use on the table, rather than the sourcing of the product itself, the two large figures were also designed to occupy their own, unique place on a dessert or collation table. Cohen’s talk will explore the diverse implications of the sucriers within the context of international trade; the physical and cultural interconnections of sugar and slavery; and elite French practices of dining and festive entertainment in the early eighteenth century.

Sarah R. Cohen is Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University at Albany, SUNY. 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 books include Art, Dance, and the Body in French Culture of the Ancien Régime (2000) and Enlightened Animals in Eighteenth-Century Art: Sensation, Matter, and Knowledge (2021). A third book, Picturing Animals in Early Modern Europe: Art and Soul, is forthcoming in 2022.

Bard Graduate Center is grateful for the generous support of the Selz Foundation.