Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 21, 2021
Melissa Percival and Muriel Adrien, eds. Fancy in Eighteenth-Century European Visual Culture Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. Liverpool, UK: Voltaire Foundation in association with Liverpool University Press, 2020. 325 pp.; 69 b/w ills. Paper $99.99 (9781789620030)

In American English, “fancy” has come to indicate upscale and expensive, undercut by a sense of the pretentious, staged, and overblown. British English keeps closer to meanings employed during the eighteenth-century heyday of the word: as an adjective, to describe art, clothing, or goods inspired by an active, sometimes idiosyncratic imagination; or, as a verb, to express liking someone or something, literally to envision the object of desire within one’s own projected fantasies. In her deft introduction to this slippery term for the volume Fancy in Eighteenth-Century European Visual Culture, coeditor Melissa Percival describes “an aesthetics of fancy—a dynamic that unleashes the artist’s freedom of expression, and empowers the recipient of aesthetic experience,” generally tinged positive but easily veering into connotations of excess and irrationality (2). In the Encyclopédie (1756), Voltaire defined “fantasie” as a word that “previously signified imagination,” but as the reader finds in the course of the present volume, fantasie or fancy can be framed precisely in European history, grounded in material objects and those objects’ role in articulating early modern identity from fans to landscape design, from London to Madrid.

The volume’s fifteen essays derive from a conference convened in Toulouse, France, in December 2015, held in conjunction with a remarkable exhibition at the Musée des Augustins, Figures de Fantaisie du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle (Somogy, 2015). The exhibition took the genre of so-called fancy pictures—which depicted imagined characters—as a pan-European phenomenon spanning nearly three centuries. The exhibition traced myriad relationships with expressive heads and tronies, early modern Dutch for “faces,” often of social types. Organized by thematic groupings, this was a visually rich, surprisingly varied exploration of a genre. The exhibition and conference were linked by Percival, a professor of French, art history, and visual culture at the University of Exeter, whose research has consistently engaged with physiognomy across linguistic and visual fields, most recently in her Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure: Painting the Imagination (Ashgate, 2012). She was cocurator of the exhibition with Axel Hémery, director of the Musée des Augustins, and she was coconvener of the conference and coeditor of the present publication with Muriel Adrien, associate professor of art history and visual culture in the English department at the Université de Toulouse II.

This volume’s most compelling contributions do not simply point to material instances of fancy; they do so in order to consider how the term operated as a mechanism that could link distinct geographies or inform production, consumer behavior, or marketing techniques. The pan-European reach—surprisingly rare in eighteenth-century studies—is certainly one of the most inspiring aspects of both exhibition and catalog. Focusing on a finite figure type, John Chu considers the marked sense of cosmopolitanism that attached to the notion of fancy, linking consumer behavior in London, Paris, and Berlin; considering the reception and, in effect, visual translations effected on drawing books in England, Bénédicte Miyamoto identifies the fancy genre as a cypher through which very different artistic communities communicated. Adrián Fernández Almoguera describes the absorption of European fancy, notably via France, in fashionable Madrid, ranging from architecture to garden design and even urban planning. Percival’s own essay, a comparative study of London and Paris furniture and marquetry makers (tabletterie), is an important contribution to the study of eighteenth-century consumer culture that argues for fancy’s role in staging a particular relationship between maker and consumer. She outlines “how the customer’s imagination is brought to the fore before, during and after the commercial transaction” (137) and how “through a mutually willed illusion created between seller and buyer, attention is diverted away from the monetary transaction” (138).

By being so deeply linked to consumer culture, class is rarely far behind fancy. While never addressed head-on, one of the broadest questions posed by this volume is how far up and down the social ladder fancy operated. The reader is left with the sense that fancy was arguably middle class and aspirant at its core, just as the somewhat judgmental use of the term in American English indicates today. This is also to ask, of course, whether its manifestations were essentially redundant, staged by consumer culture to cater to already anticipated needs of personal expression or desire. Guillaume Faroult’s juxtaposition of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s iconic fantasy figures with Anthony van Dyck’s Iconography, however, suggests how high fancy could climb, its more philosophical implications clearly appealing to amateurs. Discussions of Pompeo Batoni and Canaletto by Béatrice Laurent and Xavier Cervantes respectively address similarly rarefied portions of pan-European society. While the volume keeps true to a remit of visual culture, the way in which music and poetry hover at the boundaries (particularly in these more elevated circles of consumption) suggests the present study’s utility as a platform for further exploration in an even more robustly cross-disciplinary vein.

Questions of class relate to a concern that is far more easily articulated in 2021 than when the originating conference was held: namely, the issue of at whose cost these vicarious explorations of imagined subject positions and materializations of individual fancy took place. Martin Postle’s essay offers a concrete answer in his nuanced discussion of documented models who worked with English painters in order to bridge between ideal and real, their very bodies becoming, in Postle’s words, “the mechanism for ambiguity” on which those paintings sold on the open market (69). Postle’s contribution builds on arguments presented in his exhibition catalog Angels and Urchins: The Fancy Picture in Eighteenth-Century British Art (Djanogly Art Gallery, 1998), an important precedent to the projects in Toulouse and one animated by a more adamant social critique. Christophe Guillouet’s lopsided attention to the attribution of a painting to Jacques Courtin, now in the Musée d’arts de Nantes, provides a glaring example of blindness to fancy’s casualties. The painting serves as a quickly traversed waystation in an argument about prints as early propagators of fancy. Engraved by Jean Baptiste Poilly, it depicts a radiant, young European woman calmly piercing the ear of an enslaved African child wearing a silver collar whose face is contorted by the pain the woman lightheartedly inflicts. Today this painting goes by a later, descriptive title of Young Woman Piercing the Ear of Her Black Servant. For many readers, more urgent than attribution would be uncovering the source of the subject, the reasons that it caused delight or how the rubric of “fancy” allowed Europeans to so easily swallow such dramatic, violent representations of racist power relations. Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding’s contribution on chinoiserie, too, is relevant but a missed opportunity to depart from the existing scholarship on which she depends, notably that of David Porter, in order to explore the racialized dynamics that inform fancy and, indeed, fuel fantasy through imagined, foreign bodies. Chinoiserie was certainly ornamental, but plates in the design compendiums she discusses also projected depictions of East Asian people that depart in marked ways from how European fancy figures were imagined.

The essays’ more or less chronological arrangement results in the curious and provocative appearance of the key Italian and Spanish terms capricci and caprichos only in the volume’s last third. In her introduction, Percival notes fancy was a “near-synonym” of these words’ more direct English translation, “caprice.” Because capricci and caprichos have garnered so much scholarly literature, a more thorough address of this historiography and its assumptions early on in the book might have been useful in arguing for fancy’s newly found place in art historical lingo. This said, the editors’ withholding such discussion permits fancy its own freedom as a concept before it is fit into longer-standing, more familiar language. Moreover, the important pan-European scope of the project is evident in this delayed address, even if an in-depth parsing between tongues is never forthcoming. The implication, however, is that the easy translation between languages is fitting, for many consumers of fancy were not only well traveled but also fluent in foreign terms as they articulated aesthetic categories that rarely respected strict definitions. Andrew Schultz’s essay on Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos points to fancy’s peculiar leaps across time and space. He cites a letter in which Goya explains his decision to embark on a series of paintings based in “the inventive powers and inspiration of the imagination [capricho e invencíon].” Schultz turns to the Spanish Royal Academy’s 1780 dictionary definition of capricho only to realize that it was lifted directly from that provided under “caprice” in Antoine Furetière’s Dictionnaire universel in 1690 (246). The various inflections of these terms as they traversed Europe are evident across the impressive sweep of material culture, described by Almoguera, that was consumed by fashionable Madrilenians by way of Paris and London. A compelling question, perhaps, is with what flexibility and in what instances a particular term might flip between languages, appearing either translated or in the original, and whether these relays had any temporal component as words crossed Europe. Surely the Italian context for capricci was key to English-language descriptions of Canaletto, even as he painted in England, and surely the anecdotal Spanishness of Goya’s prints was best summed up by Los Caprichos, begging the question of whether caprices, capricci, caprichos, or fancies were sought. This volume makes clear, however, that the concept existed as a compelling mode of engagement between objects, their makers, and consumers across eighteenth-century Europe.

David Pullins
Associate Curator, Department of European Painting, The Metropolitan Museum of Art