The Man Who Made the Weirdest Painting in 18th-Century France

I had a wonderful time this weekend at the 10th Anniversary Conference of immediations, the postgraduate research journal of the Courtauld Institute of Art. The concept behind the event was to invite back people who had written articles for the journal over the last decade and to hear about how their research has developed since the time of writing (a description of the event is on the Courtauld website where you can also download the programme). It was fascinating to see what everyone has been working on, to think about how our own ideas have changed, and how the discipline has shifted in such a relatively short time. Along with these thought-provoking interventions, we also enjoyed some lively discussions about experiences of publishing: editing and being edited, peer-reviewing and being peer-reviewed. All in all it was a truly stimulating day, brilliantly conceived, and impeccably organised.

As it turns out, the title of my paper was even more interest-piquing than I had anticipated — I had so many requests before and during the day to divulge the identity of “The Man Who Made the Weirdest Painting in 18th-Century France”! So, for anyone intrigued who didn’t make it to the conference, here it is: the man is Charles-Antoine Coypel and the painting is his incredibly bizarre Children Playing at the Toilette from 1728. I challenge anyone to come up with a weirder offering than semi-naked children play-acting at the eroticizing aristocratic ritual of the daily toilette!

There’s a little more information in the abstract to my paper below… but if you’re really intrigued, you’ll have to get yourself a backcopy of immediations.

Charles-Antoine Coypel, Self-Portrait, 1734 (Getty, Los Angeles)
Charles-Antoine Coypel, Children Playing at the Toilette, 1728 (Private Collection)

The Man Who Made the Weirdest Painting in 18th-Century France
Hannah Williams
In 1728, Charles-Antoine Coypel painted a truly bizarre and slightly disturbing image of Children Playing at the Toilette, where partially clothed (that is, semi-naked) children masquerade as adults engaged in this undeniably eroticizing practice of performative dressing and adornment. The article I wrote for immediations in 2007 looked for the meaning behind this perplexing painting in discourses of libertinage, tracing the work’s audiences and asking how, when viewed through different eyes, meanings could change or be re-interpreted. Turning now from reception to production, this current paper examines not viewer response to the painting, but rather the man behind it: Charles-Antoine Coypel. Drawing on research I have undertaken since on the history of the French Royal Academy and life in the artistic communities of eighteenth-century Paris, this is a study of an artist rather than an art work, but one in which art works (especially self-portraits) provide the primary sources for the inquiry. Delving into a backstory of family dramas, institutional machinations, and professional self-doubt, this paper offers an intimate encounter with the man who made the weirdest painting in 18th-century France.

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