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Culture news, 07.04.2006 12:50

French Engravings from the Age of Gallantry in the Collection of the State Hermitage

gallantry_age 21 March 2006 - 21 May 2006

The exhibition which has opened in the New Hermitage's Hall of Twelve Columns (room N 244)presents 18th century French engravings with amorous and erotic content from the collection of the State Hermitage.

The history of this collection goes back to the time of Nicholas I, who procured amorous prints abroad. A whole range of works comes from the collection of his private libraries in the Winter Palace. There were around 500 sheets, including quite a few rare imprints in the collection of 18th century French graphics dealing with love. Of these, the 100 best, rarest and most valuable have been selected for this exhibition. Most of them are being put on public display for the first time.

The material of the exhibition is divided into three parts: "Cupid as Tutor," "The Pupil, or Cupid's Lesson" and "Figures of the Language of Love." This is an unusual reconstruction of the Science of Love: Mercury teaches it to Cupid, who in turn tutors poets, and the latter instruct their young pupils, who crave love.

In the first section, Cupid appears as a treacherous little god and as the all-powerful teacher of young hearts; on the other hand, he is a small earthly child whom Venus, Mercury and the nymphs instruct in the Science of Love and mercilessly punish for misdeeds..

The exhibition displays a rare series of four engravings: "The Childhood of Cupid," "Raising Cupid" (2 sheets) and "The Punishment of Cupid," by G. Bouillard, based on paintings by L. Lagrenee.

The second part, "The Pupil, or Cupid's Lesson," tells about Cupid's pupil, who is reading romantic novels, looking at engravings and taking innocent relaxation while dreaming about love.

The central image of the "gallant" 18th century is that of a young pupil reading novels and dreaming about a groom as presented in the engraving entitled "The Amusements of Youth." The language of what has been depicted is symbolic: the small bird in a closed cage symbolizes a maiden's innocence, while a bird flying out of an opened cage to freedom symbolizes its loss. The young girl is an inevitable sacrifice to Cupid; she is the one to whom all of the respectful bows and refined hints of cavaliers are addressed and for whom the plans and intrigues of parents are intended.

The third part, "Figures of the Language of Love," is the subject of the love lesson, properly speaking, and is constructed in alphabetical order according to French ideas and manners of the 18th century relating to amorous conduct. These words have been taken from novels, poems and correspondence of the 18th century, while the images which correspond to them mostly come from chivalrous novels, poetry of the troubadours and books of emblems.

The engraving "First Man and First Woman" illustrates the letter "D" - for "delight" in the dictionary of 18th century love concepts and combines the Biblical subject and an erotic image. It was precisely delight which the first people - Adam and Eve - experienced. Over their heads rises an oak, the symbol of physical and moral force, symbol of immortality and long life. The curly haired cherub with fiery sword who intends to drive the first humans from Paradise is amazingly similar to the winged Cupid, who set their hearts aflame with his torch.

"H" - Hint - is symbolized by the etching entitled "Gatherer of Cherries," which is on display in the exhibition. Hints play a huge role in the game of love: it is precisely through what is not agreed, through hints, that the main things are expressed. The harvest of cherries is the traditional scenography of love: a youth climbing on the tree shakes the cherries down, while a girl collects them in her lap.

The attitude towards love novels and to life, living one's own life as a novel, a playful attitude to the sense of love concepts - all of this lies at the base of the "thoroughly French" 18th century, which has rightfully entered history as the "gallant" age. Surrendering themselves to the power of Cupid, the French in the 18th century systematized love and gave it philosophical sense. Since then the history of love behavior, the forms and shapes of love, the history of the feelings and mores of love all evoke constant interest.

The exhibition Raising Cupid allows us to recreate and reexamine anew the "Science of Love" in French art, comparing them with the culture of the day.

An illustrated exhibition catalogue has been issued by the State Hermitage Publishing House and the Slavia Publishing House. The author of the catalogue and curator of the exhibition is Dmitry Yurievich Ozerkov, doctor of philosophy and senior researcher in the State Hermitage's Department of Western European Art.

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