The Morning after the Masquerade: The Rococo Revival as Subverter of the National Narrative

In my previous post, I attempted to show how the the 19th-century concept of a ‘national school of art’ created a set of expectations where national subject matter, as well as ways of representation conforming to widely accepted models of ‘Hungarianness’, were ranked higher in the canon. Critics were baffled by Viktor Madarász’ painting The Dream of the Fugitive because its Gothic imagery did not fit these expectations. Gothic terror was, however, not the only mode of representation that posed a challenge to the national narrative: the Rococo, which could perhaps be called its direct opposite, provides another case in point. The national narrative was just as easily scared by scantily-dressed, flirty 18th-century women, as it was by horrific ghosts. The Rococo revival of the 1840s and 1850s, as well as its afterlife in the Rococo-inspired salon paintings of the late 19th century, can be read as a counter-narrative. Recent art historical research – summarised in the excellent catalogue Rococo: The Continuing Curve – has defined the Rococo not so much as a style rooted in the 18th century, but rather as a form of expression that recurs time and time again in art history. It is sensual, curvy, frivolous, and free, and a pain in the neck to the proponents of ‘serious’ art in all ages and countries.

József Borsos: The Morning after the Masquerade, 1850 (Hungarian National Gallery)

In the 1830s and 1840s, a new vogue for the Rococo swept through Europe, and Austria was no exception. Some of the most affluent aristocratic families in Vienna refurbished their palaces in the Rococo style which came to be seen as the style of elegant salons. There were, however, other meanings associated with it, and they could not be eradicated so quickly. The ʻoriginal’ Rococo was not history yet; it was remembered by those who were old enough and its artefacts were still around in large numbers. Rather than an exciting rediscovery from ancient times, it was something that had just recently gone out of fashion. In the early 19th century, the term ‘Rococo’ was used to describe anything that was considered outdated and ridiculous, a residue of the 18th century. In magazine articles of the time, the word occurs in both senses. But even when talking about the elegance of the salons, the authors have their reservations. Salon culture – the refined balls and receptions given in the sumptiously furnished city palaces – was described as superficial and pretentious. Paintings that depicted this way of life, detailing the Rococo interiors as well as the frivolous pleasures and petty intrigue, risked the same labels.

The Morning after the Masquerade by the Hungarian painter József Borsos (1821-1883) is a good example.* Exhibited in Vienna in 1850 and in Pest, Hungary, in 1851, the painting shows a group of young women in a room lavishly furnished in the Rococo style. Borsos, who was already known as an excellent still-life and portrait painter, depicted all the expensive materials with meticulous care, so that they seem almost tangible. Critics who had praised his still lifes did not readily appreciate the same qualities in a genre painting. As one of them put it: “You can see that Borsos used to paint very good still-lifes because all the ornaments of a comfortable room are depicted here with such masterly detail that you couldn’t wish for any better. The clothes and the material of the furniture are so lifelike that they seem natural. But the faces were depicted with much less effort, and it seems that the clothes were painted first because all the artist’s strength is gathered in these and he wasn’t able to synchronise the faces with them.” This seems to be an aesthetic complaint but it masks a moral one: Borsos had neglected humans for the sake of things.

Mainstream art criticism of the time postulated a dualism between the content (substance, ’poetry’) and the ’surface’ (form) of the painting, and expected the former to rule over the latter. In the 1840s, critics had looked to the young Borsos with great hope, but in the 1850s something changed. Borsos was still an extremely skilled artist, but reviews of his work were reserved, even hostile. According to them, Borsos’ art had become superficial, he had lost himself in his sensual way of representation and neglected meaningful, ‘poetic’ subject matter, which had led to a decline in his art. Apart from The Morning after the Masquerade, this also applied to paintings like Curiosity, exhibited in Vienna and Pest in 1856.

József Borsos: Curiosity, 1856 (unknown location)

If we examine this painting closely, we will find that the critics had more to object to than the tangibly painted fabrics. Five young girls have sneaked into a young man’s room and are about to take a look at a painting covered by a curtain – probably for good reason. They are soon going to find out more about sexuality than what was deemed appropriate for young girls at the time. And they seem to be having fun. The artist did not try to extract a moral lesson from the scene. This was the real problem with ’superficiality’. In genre paintings of the time, it was possible to allude to sexuality and licentiousness, but it had to happen in a moral context so that – by opposition – it still reinforced the norms of society. With that missing, the painting was simply frivolous and meaningless – just like the Rococo, which was firmly associated with this type of subject matter.

The Morning after the Masquerade is another variation on the same theme. In this case, Borsos used widely known forms of representation to characterise the women as not conforming to the norms of polite society. Women reclining carelessly in dressing gowns or other revealing clothing, reading or just looking at themselves in the mirror, were common subjects of Rococo prints and 19th-century lithographs that imitated the Rococo. The fact that these women were idling around instead of tending to the household and doing something useful indicated to 18th- and 19th-century viewers that they were women of ‘loose morals’. Corrupted by licentious books (they were certainly licentious, otherwise why would their readers be so absorbed in them?), they were now living a life of vice and immorality.

In Borsos’ painting, the girls are looking at pictures, not reading, but the implication is the same. The painter not only used popular prints as models for his composition, but also incorporated such prints into the picture itself. One of the prints on the floor is one half of a pair of lithographs by Duriez, published by Goupil.** It shows an 18th-century lady flirting with a coyly blushing young page, while its counterpart (not seen in the painting) depicts an elderly gentleman making advances towards a maid. Their titles are: If youth knew and If old age could. It was evident to contemporary viewers that the picture the girls are examining with a know-it-all look on their faces is the other half of the pair. This unseen picture is a vital part of Borsos’ composition. It shows that the girls know all about the relationships between young women and rich elderly men. That must be why a number of critics interpreted the figures as “mistresses”.

Duriez, after Eugène Guérard: If youth knew! and If old age could! (pair of lithographs published by Goupil in Paris)

József Borsos: The Morning after the Masquerade, 1850 (Hungarian National Gallery), detail

Prints like these were produced in large numbers at the time. They often derived from the ’gallant’, erotic scenes of Rococo visual culture, and many of them were published in France – thus making the phrase ’French prints’ a synonym of pornography in polite circles. When the critics compared Borsos’ painting to French prints, they basically labelled it as obscene. This also conjured up the ethnic stereotypes current at the time: French culture was considered licentious, frivolous, and superficial, and the prints, as well as the Rococo, embodied all these qualities. Rococo-inspired salon culture was prone to the same accusations as Rococo painting, and they all boiled down to the charge of ’alien’ Frenchness. In Hungary, all this received another twist. Borsos was a Hungarian painter who had settled in Vienna and worked for an aristocratic clientele. In the 1840s critics had thought he had the potential to become one of the founders of the ’national school’, but it was obvious now that he had no inclination to do so. He became an Austrian painter; an alien in the eyes of Hungarian critics, and they made no secret of that even when they were praising him.

In the first half of the 19th century, Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire. In the revolution and War of Independence of 1848-1849, the Hungarian army was defeated by Austrian forces. The next years saw a period of severe absolutist rule. There was a lot of anti-Austrian sentiment in society, and the Hungarian reviews of Borsos’ paintings are good examples of this. The world seen in the painting and the world in which the painting was created – the world where Borsos himself lived – were conflated with each other. According to one critic: “If Borsos used his undeniable talent to paint pictures that are less lascivious, maybe he would not have a Prince as a patron, but he would surely benefit both morally and financially from giving up painting the pastimes of mistresses.” The text probably referred to Borsos’ patron, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. The immensely wealthy Esterházy family was known for its closeness to the Habsburg rulers; Paul himself had been the ambassador of the Austrian Empire in London after the Vienna congress. The Morning after the Masquerade was purchased by him in 1851. No wonder the contemporaries associated the rich Rococo interior with Esterházy’s palace in Vienna. One contemporary Hungarian artist, Ferenc Újházy even noted in his memoirs that it was considered common knowledge in 1851 that the girls depicted in the painting were in fact the real-life mistresses of Esterházy. There is no way to check whether the gossip was right, but it certainly tells us a lot about the attitude of the public. Seen in this light, when the critic talks of a princely patron and “the pastimes of mistresses”, he seems to be referring to Esterházy and the Viennese aristocracy. Even in the favourable reviews, the setting of The Morning after the Masquerade is described as alien and exotic; as a world of which we, the Hungarian public, are not part.

It was not uncommon at the time for a Hungarian artist to exhibit his pictures in Vienna, or even to settle there. Vienna was the capital of the empire, and its art world was connected in many ways to the art world in Pest. But in the case of Borsos, his sojourn in Vienna, his patron, his subject matter, his style all added up, and – in the eyes of the critics – turned him into a superficial, lewd artist who is only after the money. This stereotype tarnished the painter’s reputation throughout his career and hindered his success in his own home country. His art was only rediscovered in the 1910s, when his supporters styled him as a characteristically Hungarian painter, who stood out from among his Austrian contemporaries. They even tried to find references to the revolution of 1848 in his paintings. The Widow, for example, was interpreted as an allegory of the Hungarian grief over the lost War of Independence – even though the accessories behind her more probably belong to an Austrian army officer. (In fact, only one painting by Borsos can definitely be connected to the revolution: his magnificent portrait of a National Guard, now at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.) Art historians of the early 20th century went to great lengths to weave Borsos’ art into the national narrative they inherited from the 19th century, but they faced a difficult task. The Rococo evades the national narrative; the two are incompatible. But why?

József Borsos: The Widow, 1853 (Hungarian National Gallery)

I have already touched on some explanations. In Austria, the Rococo was regarded as a French style, even though at the same time it was also reminiscent of the glorious times of the Habsburg Empire in the 18th century. In Hungary, it was both French and Austrian – certainly not the distinctly national style they were looking for. What is more, national art was expected to carry serious content, to reflect on the great questions of the nation’s past and future, or at least to convey ’national character’. The Rococo did nothing of the sort – it just showed scenes of private pleasure. It embodied an alternative concept of art, which was just as viable, and appealed greatly to the public. The Morning after the Masquerade was very popular when it was exhibited, no matter how the critics objected to it.

Herein lies the subversive nature of the Rococo revival. To accept it into the canon would have meant to accept art that does not aim to instruct the beholder, but instead lets the eye wander on sensually painted textiles, sumptious interiors or vegetation, and frivolous scenes. Borsos was not the only Hungarian painter influenced by the Rococo revival, but the paintings they created do not feature prominently in the usual narratives of 19th-century Hungarian art history, even though some of them – like The Morning after the Masquerade – are very popular. Even in these cases, it is usually just the image, but not its interpretation, that is well known to the public. The Rococo revival, as a trend, has not been traced yet. Investigating it could give us a richer understanding of 19th-century Hungarian culture.

Alajos Györgyi Giergl: Woman in the Woods, 1853 (Hungarian National Gallery)

* I first wrote about Borsos’s painterly style and its sources in the catalogue of Borsos’ retrospective at the Hungarian National Gallery: “Virtuóz táncos az álarcosbálon. Borsos József stílusáról.”[A Virtuoso Dancer at the Masquerade: On József Borsos’ Style] Borsos József festő és fotográfus (1821-1883). [József Borsos, Painter and Photographer 1821-1883]. Exhibition catalogue, ed. Nóra Veszprémi, Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2009, pp. 30-51. (summary in English: pp. 52-54.) I went on to explore the phenomenon of the second Rococo in an article published in The Art Bulletin: “The Emptiness behind the Mask: The Second Rococo in Painting in Austria and Hungary,” The Art Bulletin 96.4 (2014): 441-462, which you can read here for free until 31 March!!!

** The prints in the picture were identified by Christa Pieske,  “Das Bild im Bilde: ‘Ein Morgen nach dem Maskenball'”, Annales de la Galerie Nationale Hongroise 1989–1990, Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 1993, pp. 7-32

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