Boucher’s Shells & Coypel’s Watch

Everyday lives and luxury objects:

Charles-Antoine Coypel’s watch and

François Boucher’s shells

Katie Scott & Hannah Williams

Artists produced luxury objects in their professional practices, but they also used and consumed luxury objects in their everyday lives. This paper is concerned with the artist as possessor of luxury. Relating most closely to the material and approaches described in the subsection ‘luxury markets, merchants and goods’, this paper will offer case studies, or micro-histories, of the relationships between specific individuals and luxury objects in early eighteenth-century France.

In particular it will explore on the one hand the ways in which novelties become commonplace, as luxury was democratized and fully integrated into the lives of those of a social class who previously did not have access to it, and on the other hand, with everyday objects which became luxuries by virtue of symbolic investment. In addition it will attend to the circulation of luxury objects in artists’ lives, examining the artist as collector, but also other ways in which objects changed hands and became owned, and the different meanings engendered by these alternative modes of accumulation where the object was ‘attached’ to something other than its own commodity status.

Two case studies of luxury objects owned by artists will provide the foci for this investigation. 1) Boucher’s shells: Shells were commonplace vessels used in the studio for holding pigment and glue from the Renaissance.  In the late seventeenth century natural history collectors raised shells from the ordinary to the height of luxury by virtue of their taste for rare species from the Pacific.  In the eighteenth century the shell emerged as a motif or sign for luxury in modern, so-called ‘picturesque’ design.  The second part of this paper will explore these relations and attend to the ways in which certain objects acquired and lost the value and status of luxury object over time. 2) Coypel’s watch: Among Coypel’s vast collection of luxury objects was a gold watch made by the horloger, Julien Leroy. Unlike the conventional biography of a luxury object (a commodity desired and acquired, bought and sold through commercial trade), this watch became Coypel’s through an alternative economy of exchange, as a token of payment for quasi-charitable work undertaken in a local parish church. The history of Coypel’s watch becomes a point of inquiry for exploring the everyday economies in which luxury objects circulated, how the context of acquisition affected the value of the object, and how luxury objects became personal possessions.

This paper will be presented at The Trade in Luxury and Luxury of Trade Conference in Lyon, 21-23 November. For the programme and more information about the conference, visit the conference website.