Metropolitan Vanities – Capturing a Selfie, Cautionary Tales

Social networking starts today with snapping a ‘selfie’, an image captured creatively with a hand held digital camera or camera phone.

It is very different than a mirror, another way of viewing our own reflection.

Taking a ‘selfie’ alone, or with a celebrity is not only a new technique for creating your own image so you can enjoy your moment of fame. It is also another way of satisfying our ongoing human quest to know and understand our own identity.

It’s a cautionary tale, one that reveals a lot in the telling from antiquity until today.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York, is currently offering a modern reflective exhibition, which runs until April 13, 2014 entitled Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table.

A range of lovely objects, furniture, paintings and drawings will document the evolution of what we now know as the ‘dressing table’ from antiquity.

Curated by Jane Adlin, this show is all about exploring our age-old impulse to be, and to feel both attractive and fashionable.

It’s about how ‘dressing’ became an essential role in courtly etiquette; reflecting the owner’s noble status; about the age when the form of vanity we know today really began to take flight.

Since prehistory man has been interested in his own image and has used all sorts of expedients, from dark and shiny stones to pools of water in order to catch his own reflection.

In ancient Greece looking at one’s reflection could mean losing one’s soul, and all sorts of hypotheses were advanced concerning the formation of such images.

Stories, such as that of Narcissus a tragedy of youth, were prime examples of what can happen if we fixate on ‘self’.

Reflecting in each other’s eyes was an aspect of love and an important dialogue between philosophy and love.

It was in the mirror of love, Eve’s lovely eyes that Adam first learned to know about himself.

This curiosity led to the evolution of the mirror.

In a mirror the right hand becomes the left, which meant the mirror over the centuries, would become a metaphor for eye catching deception.

What is it that the eye is seeing? The image has no foundation nor consistency – if you move away the image is lost, much like a shadow?

At The Met for the show Metropolitan Vanities they begin their tale with an ancient Egyptian decorative box made of cedar with ebony and ivory veneer and silver mounting, which was used to hold cosmetic ephemera and Asian cosmetic carriers.

It contains a mirror inscribed “The Great of the Southern Ten” Reniseneb, and four stone ointment jars, not originally found in the box, only in its vicinity. However the main focus will be on the ceremony known as the toilette, which was an important aspect of life at the French court as it emerged out of the Middle Ages into a new age age of modernity.

France's Sun King, Louis XIV at his morning levée

During the 17th century France’s King Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) became the master of ‘dressing in public’. Courtiers and select people in favour would be able to witness his elaborate rising and retiring ceremonies, dressing and undressing.

He set the stage for the toilette to become both a public and social affair at which friends, lovers, hairdressers, husbands, abbes and others gathered to exchange new rumours or to give old rumours new sparkle.

British artist William Hogarth also recorded the levée of his countryment, who adopted many French customs

Toilet set in original leather case Fourteen identified German (Augsburg) goldsmiths and other German artisans; Japanese (Imari) porcelain maker ca. 1743-1745 courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The toilette became a ritual in Europe and England in which the dressing table reached new heights of elegance and sophistication during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Mechanical table Jean-François Oeben (1721–1763) and Roger Vandercruse, called Lacroix (French, 1728–1799) ca. 1761–63 courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This transposed into high society commissioning custom made luxurious and highly specialized furniture from craftsmen and furniture makers, which contained all the accoutrements required to carry out the rituals attached to the toilette.

A French member of the Lyon group of writer’s Claude de Taillemont (c1504-1588) a member of the Lyon group of writer’s motto was “One’s duty is to see,” said ‘the pupil of the eye transports me to itself, so that I enter in the centre, where I see myself clearly’.

Jean Antoinette Poisson (Reinette), Madame de Pompadour official Mistress to Louis XV of France, was a sophisticated lady with impeccable style

During the reigns of King Louis XV (1710-1774) and King XVI (1754-1793) everyone in society became preoccupied with self-examination and multiple mirrors reflected with merciless clarity the world which amused or intrigued.

This happened at an age when ‘mirror’ and glass technology was changing and expanding rapidly.

Reflecting light and images of fashionable people on parade became an obsession via glass mounted on the walls, hanging from the ceiling and on the table, whether it was for dining or dressing.

The Toilette provided a perfect excuse for commissioning extravagant silver, glorious glasswares, beautiful ceramic wares and traditionally given to the bride, all these lovely objects were placed in the table de toilette, which was fitted with drawers and compartments.

Just like table silver it was assembled over years and eventually contained a staggering variety of different objects, including boxes for jewellery, powder,  beauty spots and bristle brushes.

A mechanical dressing table in the show was manufactured by Jean-François Oeben and Roger Vandercruse (1761–63) and is a fine example of the curvaceous Rococo style.

This table was artfully engineered so that the top slides back as the front moves forward to reveal the vanity mirror and additional compartments.

Curators believe the table was most likely intended for Madame de Pompadour’s Bellevue château overlooking the Seine.

The design reflects the marquise’s important place in society by way of various symbols, for example the tower—the main emblem of her coat of arms—is depicted at the top of the gilt-bronze mounts at each corner.

Jean Antoinette (Poisson) ’Etioles became Louis XV’s mistress following a magnificent costume ball given at Versailles in the Galerie des Glaces in February of 1745 celebrating the wedding of the Dauphin to Maria Teresa, daughter of Phillip V of Spain.

To confuse everyone he was dressed as one of eight topiary trees, modelled after yews in the palace gardens.

Jeanne, Madame d’Etioles dressed, not inappropriately, as the huntress ‘Diana’.

Seeing one of the yew trees approaching and guessing it to be the king, she dropped her handkerchief and the king, obviously charmed by her beauty, picked it up.

Jean patronized the finest artists, designers and craftsmen to create her interiors.

Sometimes her items for the toilette were mounted in porcelain; enamel or lacquer and she also had like other women of her age, lovely fine porcelain services for the taking of tea with milady’s friends while she dressed.

The added delight of entertainment was something to look forward to.

William Hogarth, the Countess's levée - Marriage a la Mode series

The toilette ceremony in England was captured creatively by British painter and social commentator William Hogarth (1697-1764). His fine series of engravings entitled Marriage a La Mode revealed English society at the height of fashion.

This French dressing table in the Rococo style and is filled with superb Mennecy porcelain, and fittings of lacquered boxes (vernis martin) silver and glass. It came from a marchand mercier, and it was he had brought the fittings for it c1744-50

As voyeurs we find ourselves in the Boudoir of the Countess – aptly named Lady Charlotte Squander.

She is holding her morning levee while undergoing the last operations of the toilette.

A French hairdresser is curling her hair in the most approved fashion. On the ottoman her handsome and unprincipled barrister has succeeded in winning her affections; on the floor are invitation notes and complimentary cards, according to the fashion of the times.

The boudoir is thronged with visitors, who all esteem it a high honour to be admitted to the toilette of the noble mistress of the household.

The Italian opera singer the castrato Farinelli has an English musician behind him accompanying him on the flute.

He is seated next to an “exquisite” of the first water – his hair in papers, sipping the era’s best beverage chocolate, along with other notable guests.

The poudreuse in France, the low boy and the dashing dandy Beau Brummel, as well as the shaving table in England, served as models for the ‘modern’ dressing table.

Brummell grouped himself around England’s Prince Regent, gradually imposing a new fashionable style of men’s clothing, typified by studied correctness and impeccable fitting.

This led to English tailors perfecting cut, as well as giving attention to the smallest detail of their client’s clothing.

English actor James Purefoy as Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell made cravat tying an art form and one of the main preoccupations of Dandies who turned all their attention to accessories.

Elegant life demanded distinguished men and woman both cultivated beauty and style, whether you were from the aristocracy or the burgeoning middle classes.

For men paying attention to the detail of their dress was, thanks to Brummell, now too about exceptionally ‘good form’.

They used fabulous full length mirrors to aid their quest for male beauty.

ttributed to Duncan Phyfe (American, 1770–1854) Worktable 1805–15 courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For women the dressing table grew up during the 19th century and became available in numerous design styles of the European ages; Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and Empire, while over in America the tone was being set by “High Society”.

Scottish-born American furniture designer, a leading exponent of the Neoclassical style Duncan Phyfe (1710-1854) was an artistic and influential craftsman. He was in his day a leading exponent of what is now known as the American Empire style.

He supplied custom made furniture for the social and mercantile elite of New York, Philadelphia and the American South an was often referred to as the ‘United States rage’.

When he died his fame was extinguished, but only briefly until it was rekindled in the early 1900s by a passionate amateur historian and New York cabinetmaker, who had a coterie of scholars, collectors, and connoisseurs as clientele. And once again Phyfe reigned supreme.

Following World War I the reaction to four years of suffering and privation took the form of a period of exaltation, creativity and joi de vivre.

Great ladies of the demi-monde or what we would call pleasure seekers, inspired the most dazzling creations by major couturiers; hats loaded with plumes, chinchilla capes costing a fortune, with self-confident men wearing tailcoats or frock coats and cravats.

The new motto was ‘live and forget the past’.

George Barbier (French, 1882–1932) Le Bonheur du jour; ou, Les Graces à la mode 1924, Pochoir, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Etiquette changed so conformism was rejected and freedom of expression became the new rule. Refining image and bodily adornment served to establish the reputation of the beautiful soul, just as a rich frame set off the beautiful mirror.

“Ribbons, lace and mirrors are three things the French cannot live without’ said a Sicilian visiting Paris. A man of rank wore clothes as much as the clothes wore the man…appearance became everything…. revealing self esteem….in the act of pleasing others by appearance they removed from vanity all that made it detestable.

Mirrors mediated between dream and reality. A virtual field in which an imaginary scenario can be played out…it transfigured a scene in order to adorn it with a grace and beauty the reality does not have…  pleasure must be incessantly renewed and excited by new impressions and so mirrors became settings for games of love.

A mirrored boudoir serving as a stage for dual narcissism, one in which each lover is both voyeur and exhibitionist trying to attract the gaze of the other

Armand-Albert Rateau (French, 1882-1938) Dressing Table ca.1925 courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Art Deco period in America meant a boom time happening in New York and the dressing table became sleeker, chic and much in more in line with our own concept of both modernity and glamorous living.

Art Deco as a style choice because it was all about confidence, execution, structure, form and style.  It came to fruition at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held at Paris in 1925.

New technology and materials such as the synthetic resin Bakelite was used to produce affordable objects with smooth surfaces reflecting all that was good about life and contemporary society.

French architect, furniture maker and designer Armand-Albert Rateau (1882-1938) borrowed motifs and ideas from antiquity to produce his lovely dressing table made of bronze, basalt and mirror glass.

It sported a bird motif, which curators at the Met believe may derive from Persian miniature painting.

Rateau first conceived this table for a sumptuous bathroom he designed in 1921 for the Duchess of Alba at the Palacio Liria in Madrid (now destroyed).

Records related to the Alba project were destroyed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. A bomb devastated the neoclassical palace and scholars believed Rateau’s work there had gone up in flames too until seven objects he produced for the duchess’s suite turned up at a Christies at Paris auction in 2013.

His Coiffeuse table, a dressing table without a mirror designed in 1923, fetched 850,000+ dollars.

One of the Art Deco period’s greatest exponents, and subject of another recent Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York retrospective, was the French designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879 – 1933).

He proved that the most mundane and ordinary of materials could become great works of art at the hands of artists.

Ruhlmann made his debut at the Salon d’Automne of 1913, exhibiting furniture par excellence.

A designer, he was unrivalled in his field in the France of the early 1920’s.

He declared that the salvation of art depended on an elite, and that in the end, everyone will have gained.

Raymond Loewy (American, born France, 1893–1986) Valet 2000/50 dressing cabinet (DF2000 series) 1969 courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

More recently, designs for the dressing table have reflected the diversity of new style including the modern moulded-plastic valet dressing cabinet of Raymond Loewy (1969) and the Postmodernist Plaza dressing table and stool by Michael Graves (1981).

It was manufactured by Doubinski Freres, Montreuil, France and made of plastic, painted wood, mirror, and metal.

Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) was an American, who had been born in France and has often been called the ‘father of industrial design’. He made products irresistible at a time when nobody really wanted to pay for anything,” as TIME once wrote.

Consulting to some 200 companies, he would have a great influence on design evolution for everything from ‘cigarette packs to cars and spacecrafts’.

He believed that, “The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”

He spread his thoughts and ideas far and wide through lecturing for institutions and companies.

Then there is a minimalist dressing table by the Korean contemporary designer Choi Byng Hoon (2013)

The exhibition Metropolitan Vanities at The Met NY should attract those whose curiosity may lead them to understand that snapping a ‘selfie’ is about so much more!

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

December 17, 2013 – April 13, 2014

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gallery 909

Related Events:

Drop-in Drawing:
Portraiture: Modern and Contemporary
Friday, January 31, 6:30–8:30 p.m.
Free with Museum admission

Gallery Program:
Friday Evening Gallery Event—Mirror, Mirror: The Art of Vanity
Friday, January 31, 6:30–8:00 p.m.
Free with Museum admission

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.