01 Feb

The Marquise de Coëtlogon

My first thought after Françoise announced our 12 x 12 theme as Chocolate, was of something I had read on my last visit to the chocolate museum in Köln (Cologne).

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.

* The placard that I read was in German, but I found information in English online and the story was essentially the same. Here’s a few excerpts and links for the curious. (Oh, and be sure to go check out all the other 12 x 12 Chocolate quilts.)
This one pretty much says it all:

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Madame de Sévigné was a seventeenth century French aristocrat. For many years she kept up a prolific correspondence with her married daughter, and her letters are a wonderfully witty glimpse into life at the top of the food chain at that time and in that place.
She frequently mentions chocolate in her letters of the early 1670’s when it was very new, very expensive, and very fashionable. Like most newly introduced foods, its qualities were the subject of much debate: was it suitable for periods of fasting, being a mere drink? Did it have medicinal value? Was it addictive? Was it an aphrodisiac?
On this day in 1671 Mme. de Sévigné delivered a juicy piece of gossip disguised as advice to her daughter, who was pregnant at the time:
” … the marquise de Coëtlogon took so much chocolate, being pregnant last year, that she was brought to bed of a little boy who was as black as the devil who died.”
Mme. de Sévigné did not need to mention to her daughter that one of the other fashionable household items at the time was a handsome, black, Moorish servingman. It seems that the mother of the unfortunate infant did indeed have one of these fashion accessories, and part of his job description was to take her her evening chocolate drink. But I stoop to repeat gossip myself now, which is not seemly at this distance of centuries.

via: The Old Foodie

Another source via BodyScience and The Chocolate Health Book

More quotes from the Madame and a chocolate shop in her namesake:

…Madame de Sévigné, who famously recommended chocolate to her daughter (“if you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you”) but who rather more famously retracted her advice in a panic (“chocolate is the source of vapours and palpitations, it flatters you for a while and then suddenly lights a fever in you that carries you to the grave”, and furthermore “the Marquise de Coëtlogon took so much chocolate during her pregnancy last year that she produced a small boy as black as the devil, who died”).
via Several Bees