Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael Clune reviews A Delicate Matter

Oliver Wunsch. A Delicate Matter: Art, Fragility, and Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France. University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 2024. 192 pp.  

Review by Michael W. Clune

16 May 2024

In an era of scholarship drunk on the sociological demystification of art, Oliver Wunsch’s book offers us that rare thing—a study of the social forces shaping art that illuminates aesthetic achievement. His subject is the fraught transfer, in eighteenth-century France, of the descriptor delicate from courtly manners to the physical properties of art objects. While we are familiar with the efforts of artists like Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher to capture the qualities of wittiness, insouciance, and elegance that defined elite culture, Wunsch reveals a hitherto-neglected paradox at the heart of this endeavor. These aristocratic qualities, when transformed into paintings or sculptures, risked exemplifying the degraded other of court culture—the emerging world of consumer culture, with its ephemeral objects and fleeting fashions.

This risk was heightened by the fact that the search for more witty and sparkling visual effects involved artists in experimenting with media—from pastel to terracotta—especially vulnerable to decay. To these material and social elements, Wunsch adds a third, institutional factor—the shift, starting late in the reign of Louis XIV, away from state sponsorship of the arts, towards the private art market. Whereas the royal collections prized permanence and elevated the goal of transmitting the image of the king to future ages, the private market was often dominated by bourgeoise seeking objects associated with the transient splendor of courtly delicacy. The rapid circulation of artworks in this market meant that objects were soon lost to view, making the aim of lastingness appear even more quixotic.

Against this background, Wunsch articulates the aesthetic problem for art. Artists needed "to disavow delicacy’s association with commercial ephemerality if they wished to harness its power as an autonomous aesthetic value” (p. 36). He shows us how media like pastel, encaustic, and terracotta became battlegrounds on which artists fought to overcome—at the level of aesthetic effect—art’s now objectively inescapable orientation to commerce. Pastel, which Wunsch examines through the career of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, was initially celebrated as a medium uniquely sensitive to the artist’s hand and uniquely capable of rendering as visual spectacle the light touch and quick wit of the aristocratic sensibility. Yet its literal delicacy, its susceptibility to disturbance and decay by the vibration of passing carriages, soon led it to be castigated as exemplary of the low sensibility of the marketplace.

The supposedly more durable encaustic technique, as practiced by artists like Joseph-Marie Vien, appeared at first as an answer to the artist’s dilemma. “Encaustic, then, would be délicat in the courtly sense of seemingly effortless charm, but not in the literal, degraded sense of material impermanence” (p. 68). Yet its durability proved wildly overstated, and encaustic works soon came to seem emblematic of the consumerist craze for fleeting novelty. Finally, Wunsch shows us Clodion’s multiple strategies for giving his fragile terracotta sculptures a "plausible deniability” for their participation in a culture of ephemeral consumption (p. 103). These strategies ranged from the somber hue of the material—which gave a serious cast to the rococo shapes swirling over the surfaces—to the Bacchic iconography that enabled the presentation of scenes of sensual revelry under the aegis of the classics.

The preservation of delicate works by La Tour, Vien, and Clodion in today’s museums testifies to their success in prizing time-defeating aesthetic values from the temporal politics of their age. The achievement of Wunsch’s excellent book is to show, by fine-grained analysis of material and social dynamics, the means by which eighteenth-century French artists sought, in Freidrich Schiller’s appropriately paradoxical phrase, “to annul time within time.”[1]


[1] Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby, (New York, 2006), p. 97.