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A Delicate Matter: Art, Fragility and Consumption in 18th-Century France

From the publisher:

Eighteenth-century France witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of materially unstable art, from oil paintings that cracked within years of their creation to enormous pastel portraits vulnerable to the slightest touch or vibration. In A Delicate Matter, Oliver Wunsch traces these artistic practices to the economic and social conditions that enabled them: an ascendant class of art collectors who embraced fragile objects as a means of showcasing their disposable wealth.

While studies of Rococo art have traditionally focused on style and subject matter, this book reveals how the physical construction of paintings and sculptures was central to the period’s reconceptualization of art. Drawing on sources ranging from 18th-century artists’ writings to 21st-century laboratory analyses, Wunsch demonstrates how the technical practices of 18-century painters and sculptors provoked a broad transformation in the relationship between art, time and money. Delicacy, which began the 18th century as a commodified extension of courtly sociability, was by century’s end reimagined as the irreducible essence of art’s autonomous value.

Innovative and original, A Delicate Matter is an important intervention in the growing body of scholarship on durability and conservation in 18th-century French art. It challenges the art historical tendency to see decay as little more than an impediment to research, instead showing how physical instability played a critical role in establishing art’s meaning and purpose.

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