The exhibition was not only an enticing display of treasures normally isolated in separate curatorial departments, it was also an opportunity to appraise the domestic interior—and the centrality of luxurious things—to the concept of elite identity in France. The Louis XVI–style period rooms in the Wrightsman Galleries capture the self-indulgent atmosphere inherent to the time period, when fashion and furniture were intended to not only delight, but arouse. Each room offers a holistic sensory experience, with walls covered in carved paneling or expensive textiles; gleaming mirrors that frame marble mantelpieces and reflect curving, gilded-bronze chandeliers and porcelain vases; and matching sets of silk-upholstered chairs, each designed for specialized leisurely activity. The complex mechanisms and rules for gracefully maneuvering such decorations, however, provided opportunities to show off beguilingly sophisticated charm (or a stockinged ankle)—as well as the potential for embarrassing blunders that would reveal a discomfort with the codified leisure of the nobility.
“Objects were like extensions of the body, part of a wardrobe that, correctly worn, could turn the activities of elite existence into dances of artful persuasion,” Hellman writes in “Interior Motives: Seduction by Decoration in Eighteenth-Century France.” The literature of the time reflects this libertine attitude. In Jean-François de Bastide’s odd erotic novella “The Little House: An Architectural Seduction,” which inspired the Met show, the oily Marquis de Trémicour relies on the power of the luxurious objects that adorn his maison de plaisance to woo the women he brings home.
In this tale, the marquis has ensnared the young and innocent Mélite. As he gives her a tour of the house, Mélite feels her resolve weaken through evermore elegantly appointed rooms. (“Indeed, so voluptuous was this salon that it inspired the tenderest feelings, feelings that one believes one could have only for its owner.”) Mélite becomes so distraught by the beauty of the house and the marquis’s impending advances that she almost collapses onto a bergère, an upholstered armchair that offers the wily Trémicour the opportunity to get closer to her. He throws “himself at her knees,” trapping her in his gilded cage until she finally loses “the wager” and sleeps with him.