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The entomology of ornament : 'essai de papillonneries humaines' and the metamorphoses of eighteenth-century decorative art Loughlin, Dana


A unique collection of French ornament prints entitled Essai de papillonneries humaines was executed by the royal embroiderer of King Louis XV, Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin in the mid-eighteenth century (c. 1748-1756). Intended as design models for transfer onto a wide range of decorative art objects, the etchings depict witty vignettes of anthropomorphized butterflies performing activities exclusive to the elite classes. Through a consideration of the designs’ material translations and subsequent social and spatial contexts, my thesis explores the interrelated issues of class relations, intellectual history, salon practices, the culture of appearances, and various forms of ornamentation, especially of domestic interiors. Indeed, an unprecedented fervor for butterflies in the decoration of new private spaces emerged in the eighteenth century, coinciding with a fashion for entomology (the study of insects) in the cultural and intellectual projects of the period known as the Enlightenment. Drawing from changing concepts on the relationship between humans and insects expressed in entomological, philosophical, and literary natural history publications of the mid-century, I examine the ways in which insects were increasingly referenced as a source of metaphor for the social, political, and individual self as the century progressed. I suggest that there was a cultural language of entomology, one that would have been particularly familiar to the educated nobility and newly wealthy bourgeoisie and drawn upon in the practices of salon sociability. Butterflies were the host of an array of specific associations that would have been activated by the intellectual conversation and games of wit practiced in salon spaces. As such, through the example of the papillonneries designs, my project endeavors to intervene in the discourse of ornament, positing that ornamentation was a dynamic social actor, rather than mere decoration in eighteenth-century France.

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