From the Pre-Revolutionary period to the 3rd Republic 1770-1870 - Part II

Wednesday, 30 November 2022


Zoom lecture

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Lock, c. 1776-79, Musée du Louvre
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Lock, c. 1776-79, Musée du Louvre

“Dangerous Liaisons”:

Libertinage in 18th Century French Literature and Painting

with Sylvie Koneski


In the 17th century, the libertin was the one who frees himself from religious and philosophical constraints. But it is in the 18th century that libertinism truly arose: a moment in French literary history when erotic freedom paired with intellectual liberty. Contrary to the 17th century where the ideal of love was frozen in an absolute and virtuous love, in this new era, the novel favored a literature of the intimate.


Under the Regency of Philippe d'Orléans (1715-1723), nobles and wealthy bourgeois sought a life of pleasure and frivolity, in reaction against the austerity of the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Libertinage became a notion linked to sexuality. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), the painter of the Fêtes galantes, illustrates this libertinage with his couples flirting in parks, dancing, playing or listening to music in Le péleringae à l'Ile de Cythère (1717). The last great painter of the libertine spirit was, Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) whose masterpiece masterpiece of this period is the series of four large panel paintings, The Progres of Love (1771-73), was commissioned by Madame du Barry, official mistress of Louis XV.


The libertine narrative uses the fashionable form of the 18th century, the epistolary novel: The most famous is Les liaisons dangereuses, by Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803), published in 1782, which describes libertinism as an art of war, in which masculine and feminine roles are distributed with perfect precision and function.


Fragonard’s painting, The Lock (1777) is a magnificent rewriting of the erotic imagination at the turn of the 1770s and, like Laclos' novel, can be seen as the apogee of the libertine genre but also one of its last manifestations. In 1789 “the revolution swept away this brilliant but corrupted world.” 

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