For the 18th century French elite, music was not only a social pleasure, but also an activity that equated a life of privilege, refinement, and wealth. An interest in music was “central to the concept and practice of artful living in the 18th century” (Hellman 45). An essential part of the daily pleasures of the rich, music evoked a way of life for the upper class that encouraged social interactions, created rules detailing the navigation of musical instruments, and resulted in specific societal attitudes towards music. This is especially seen in the musical instrument of the harp, which, because of its size and delicate sound, emphasized such notions (Figure 1).
The primary roles of music for the wealthy were for entertainment, enjoyment, and appreciation. Only the upper class could afford to study music for its own sake, and so they were usually the buyers of music and employers of musicians (Schulenberg 8). For the upper class, the presence of the harp created social situations—a performance or music lesson—that led to intimate exchanges. For Marie Antoinette, the harp was the perfect way to entertain and perhaps show off for her guests. It also allowed for a more intimate perspective on the Queen, as in the small scene of her in which she plays the harp (Figure 2). Not yet dressed in her full regalia, Marie Antoinette wears a morning gown while she elegantly holds herself in the center of the room—proving, despite her casual ensemble, she is still very much a Queen.
The harp was not only a musical instrument, but also a social prop that, if successfully used, could highlight the body to its advantage. A way to monitor the leisure acts of privileged society, objects “simultaneously scripted action and invited manipulation, and could be negotiated effortlessly only through great familiarity, attention, and mastery” (Hellman 422). The harp had the capacity to “witness and verbally represent human interactions” (Hellman 416). In L’Accord Parfait, the harp is the central focus of the scene because its prominent place results in intimacy, sensuality, and romance (Figure 3). The music teacher uses the harp as an excuse to stand close to the young woman, as he places his hand over hers. Their sensual eye contact is emphasized even more by the disbelief of the seated young man. The harp proves to be a powerful instrument of seduction and a sexual stimulant for harp players and spectators (Hellman 47). The young woman hugs her thighs suggestively around the harp, even revealing a popped ankle. This was a particular trait of the pedal harp, which could show off “a delicate foot and a well turned ankle” (Hellman 47). Though she might have been confined and immobilized by the bulk of the harp, the young woman successfully adjusts her body to communicate sensuality and elegance.
For the wealthy, musicality was a desirable trait associated with high status and taste. Musical aptitude was seen as a “sign of refined femininity, greatly enhancing a young woman’s marriage prospects” (Hellman 45). In Self Portrait with a Harp, the woman asserts her femininity through the symbolism of the harp, which she positions herself against to accentuate her figure and delicate hands. For women specifically, musical proficiency “was an essential component in the formation of elite social personal” (Hellman 45). More specifically, of all the musical instruments associated with women, “the harp was viewed as especially apposite for young women” (Hellman 45). As shown in Figure 4, the young woman successfully communicates her femininity, fashionability, and high status through this portrait.
Dagoty, Gautier Jean-Baptiste. Marie Antoinette Portrait with Harp. 1774. France.
Ducreu, Adélaïde Rose. Self Portrait with a Harp. 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, NY
Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, HARPE, Planche II, vol. 5 (1765).
Hellman, Mimi. “Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth- Century France.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 32, no. 4 (1999): 415-445.
Hellman, Mimi. “ Interior Motives: Seduction by Decoration in Eighteenth-Century France” in Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, Dangerous Liaisons : Fashion, Furniture in Eighteenth-Century France, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Moreau (Le Jeune), Jean-Michel. Monument du costume physique et morale de la fin du dix-huitième siècle. 1789. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.
Schulenberg, David. Music of the Baroque. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
Weber, William. “Learned And General Musical Taste In Eighteenth-Century France.” Past and Present 89.1 (1980): 58-89.