It was an excerpt from a letter written in 1671 by Madame de Sévigné to her then-pregnant daughter advising that she herself not consume chocolate as
” … the marquise de Coëtlogon took so much chocolate, being pregnant last year, that she produced a little boy who was as black as the devil who soon died.” *
This story seems so outlandish to our modern sensibilities. I still can’t decide if it’s demeaning, insulting, quaint, amusing, stupid, naïve, foreboding, or what. I did find it intriguing, and certainly it offers a different view of chocolate. It offered a good challenge, so I went with it. It’s been great fun too.
I posted earlier that my piece would be visually expressed as a cross between a Fragonard painting and a Harriet Powers-style story quilt. Helen asked “How???” so here’s my thought process:
First I thought about the basic elements of the story: chocolate (of course), 17th Century French aristocracy, gossip, sex and taboo, the unseen servant/love toy, the impropriety of having a child born of said servant, the intrigue (I don’t believe for a minute that the child died of natural causes), society and the class system.
Next I considered how these elements could be expressed visually. Fragonard came to mind first as his paintings, although 18th century, are the epitome of French aristocracy and erotic frivolity. Since our chosen medium chez 12×12 is quilts, I also considered what in the history of quilting might be appropriate. This is definitely a story, so something pictorial made sense. To base it on a style known to be used by marginalized Africans (even if they were in the US and not France) seemed appropriate since a marginalized African played a central role in the story even if no one would admit it at the time.
Then I had to figure out how to translate it to fabric. Toile, being French, made a perfectly “frou-frou” background and looks a bit like engravings of Fragonard’s paintings. I’m not much of a toile collector myself, but I managed to dig up just enough from my stash. Slave quilts are characterized by asymetry, improvisation, and multiple patterning, so I could use some or all of those aspects in my work. Using many printed fabrics suggests not only the improvisation and patterning, but the luxurious textiles of the aristocracy as well. Organza would not have been used in a slave quilt, but it’s sheer quality is perfect for expressing an invisible presence.
Now to put pencil to paper. The Marquise is the focus, with her child in arms. Her breasts are bared not just to nurse, but in a voluptuous show of her sexuality. If there is any doubt that she’s the aggressor, her skirt is hiked confidently up to show more than a little leg and she’s allowed her sleeves to slip off her shoulders. Her head is turned, not lovingly towards the child, but to the chocolate, which her out-stretched arm suggests she wants more of. To express her gross consumption, the chocolate pot is large in scale. Smaller, and barely there in his transparency, is the Moorish servant no one is talking about. He holds the aphrodisiac with hips thrust forward, ready to give her what she wants.
Although I felt that the picture told a narrative well, this particular one is not universally known and I did want to reference it specifically. To that end, I embroidered the excerpt from Madame de Sévigné’s letter.
* There's a few more pictures and links on my blog here.