Hermitage Rooms Archive

The Triumph of Eros:
Art and Seduction in 18th Century France

Photo: Karl Bulla (1854-1929) Self portrait, circa 1900
François Boucher
(1703-70) Pastoral Scene, 1740s

Photo: Winter Palace from the Neva, circa 1900
François Guérin
(1751-91) Venus and Nymphs, c.1780s

Photo: Monument to Peter the Great, 1909
Nicolas Lancret
(1690-1743) The Swing, 1730s

Photo: Medieval Rooms in the Old Hermitage
Pierre Subleyras
(1699-1749) A scene… 1732

Photo: Princess Orlova-Davydova in Masquerade Costume for the Ball of 1903
Antoine Watteau
(1684-1721) La Boudeuse (The Capricious Girl), c.1718

Photo: Peasant with samovar, 1860s
Pierre-Laurent Auvray (1736-?) after Fragonard Les Jets d'Eau, c.1779

Photo: Princess Orlova-Davydova in Masquerade Costume for the Ball of 1903
J. Mathieu
after Fragonard
Le Serment d'Amour,

Photo: Princess Orlova-Davydova in Masquerade Costume for the Ball of 1903
Etienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-91) Menacing Cupid, 1750s

Photo: Princess Orlova-Davydova in Masquerade Costume for the Ball of 1903
Inkwell and stand with figure of Cupid drumming, 1774

Photo: Princess Orlova-Davydova in Masquerade Costume for the Ball of 1903
Cup and saucer with scene of Cupid shooting an arrow,

4 November 2006 - 9 April

The Triumph of Eros: Art and Seduction in 18th Century France explores themes of love and eroticism in 18th century French art from the rich collections of The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The period setting of the Hermitage Rooms is the ideal backdrop for masterpieces of Rococo French painting by Boucher, Watteau, Natoire, Lancret, sculpture by Falconet, and a sumptuous array of French decorative arts.

The impetus for this exhibition, and at its core, is a recently discovered collection of rare French erotic engravings collected in the 19th century probably in secret by Tsar Nicolas I. The fascinating collection has never been seen outside St Petersburg, and so London will be a privileged venue for its first international display.

The French 18th century is familiar to us as the Age of Reason but it was also an age of passion, desire and seduction. The many aspects of erotic desire were explored by artists and devoured by connoisseurs, private collectors and the French public alike. The exhibition begins by examining the extraordinary resurgence of interest in the ancient Roman and Greek god of erotic passion Cupid, or Eros, in 18th century French visual culture. It shows how his image was depicted in different media, from virtuoso paintings by Boucher on the theme of Cupid as an allegory of the arts, to a playful inkstand by the Sèvres porcelain factory, depicting Cupid mischievously drumming on the inkwells.

A highlight of the exhibition will be the loan of one of the Hermitage's most beloved treasures, the marble sculpture Menacing Cupid, by Etienne-Maurice Falconet. This iconic work, produced by the artist for Madame de Pompadour, and copied for a Russian clientele (in this case Count Stroganoff), quickly became the most famous modern visual representation of Cupid in the 18th century. It will form a stunning centrepiece to the exhibition.

Further sections in the exhibition explore Cupid's ever-present influence upon different representations of love and seduction. These range from groups of works which deal with the popular subject of young women contemplating love and desire alone in their boudoirs, to images of erotic encounter, transgression and consummation. They include not only idealised visions of love's triumph, such as Boucher's famous Pastoral Scene, but also representations of frustrated and thwarted love, brilliantly depicted in Watteau's late masterpiece, Capricious Girl. In many of the engravings images of love and seduction are laced with moralising meanings about the dangers of unbridled passion, giving a certain licence to images that pushed the limits of decorum and taste.

However, the exhibition also probes the ways in which the erotic in 18th century French art could easily slip over into the pornographic, the decent into the indecent. Works of art by Lancret, Nattier and Fragonard, have been chosen to explore the nature of disorderly passion, voyeurism and sexual licence, pushing at the boundaries of what was, and perhaps still is, deemed aesthetically acceptable.

Among the erotic engravings on display are examples of rare, privately collected, so-called '1st state' prints showing figures before the inclusion of their drapery which were added later for the official published print editions.

The rapid expansion of popular print culture in the 18th century saw increasingly explicit erotic scenes more widely circulated, such as Fragonard's playful fantasy Les Jets d'Eau. The exhibition also includes two small private cabinet paintings by Subleyras showing scenes from tales by La Fontaine, which were made for Duc d'Enghien in 1732. Due to their risqué subject matter, they have never been publicly displayed in the Hermitage, let alone outside of it, and will be exhibited for the very first time in London.

The Triumph of Eros will throw fresh light on how French 18th century artists expressed the complex nature of erotic desire in its varied manifestations. By bringing together artworks of different media and status, from works for private consumption to major public statements, the exhibition offers a wide visual spectrum of approaches to the erotic in French art and culture. In doing so it seeks to demonstrate that Eros' 'triumph' is not simply the power of love to conquer all but rather his ever-present and often disruptive influence on human affairs in the age of rationalism and enlightenment.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated colour catalogue published by Fontanka with essays by scholars and curators from The State Hermitage Museum and the Courtauld Institute of Art.

This exhibition has been jointly organised by the Courtauld Institute of Art and The State Hermitage Museum.

Supported by:
The Hermitage Rooms are supported by the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, The Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation and the Founding Members of the Walpole Circle.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Dmitri Ozerkov, Curator of Prints, The State Hermitage Museum, and Dr Satish Padiyar, Visiting Lecturer, Courtauld Institute of Art, London.