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Lockdown leisures: how the eighteenth-century Parisian lady would have kept herself busy

Thursday, 23 July, 2020
Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame
François-Hubert Drouais, ‘Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame’, 1763-1764. (The National Gallery, London)

Removed from the ceremony and allegory of much court portraiture, Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame by François-Hubert Drouais depicts a more intimate and naturalistic moment in the Marquise’s day. The painting was begun in April 1763 and completed in May 1764, a month after Madame de Pompadour’s death. As the sitter’s head, shoulders, and right forearm are rendered on a smaller rectangular canvas which has been inserted into the larger work, this section was likely sketched from life, with the body and background added later in the artist’s studio – not an uncommon practice for important clients. Around the room are scattered objects related to a variety of pursuits enjoyed by the cultured (and fashionable) royal favourite: the tambour embroidery she works at, a bookcase filled with books, and, resting against the elaborate table with Sèvres porcelain plaques, a folio of drawings or engravings and a mandolin.

Although these last two items are no doubt a nod to the Marquise’s strong interests in the arts and her patronage of artists and musicians, the mandolin was in any case immensely popular in Paris in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Neapolitan instrument became a fashionable pastime, especially amongst ladies. Indeed, one of the earliest published tutorials was marketed especially to women: Giovanni Battista Gervasio’s Méthode très facile Pour apprendre à jouer de la Mandoline à quatre Cordes Instrument fait pour les Dames [‘Very Easy Method to Learn How to Play the Four String Mandolin Instrument Made for Ladies’] (Paris, 1767). The mandolin of the mid-eighteenth century differed from earlier versions, which more closely resembled a lute, was tuned in fourths, and had its strings plucked with the player’s fingers. By contrast, the newer instrument was plucked with a plectrum (made of a hen, ostrich, or even raven feather), and was tuned in fifths like a violin. This meant that the repertoire could also be played on the violin – a more popular instrument for the professional musician – and publications could therefore interest a wider market. Publications like Gabriele Leone’s Méthode Raisonnée Pour passer du Violon à la Mandoline (1768) also taught the violinist how to transfer their technique to the mandolin.

Illustrations from the frontispiece of Gabriele Leone’s Méthode

Illustrations from the frontispiece of Gabriele Leone’s ‘Méthode’, showing the correct playing position for ladies on the left. Engraved by Mme Vendôme.

Despite the instrument’s southern Italian roots, the repertoire of the mandolin was most fully developed and widely printed in France. Paris was the epicentre of music publishing in the eighteenth century, and composers working there developed a distinct musical style for the mandolin, lighter and more melodic than anything heard previously (a wonderful playlist is available to listen to here). In the period 1761 to 1783, around eighty-five volumes of music for mandolin were published in Paris (a complete list can be found in Appendix III of The Early Mandolin by James Tyler and Paul Sparks, which also offers a comprehensive history of the instrument). With many free options for sheet music and original facsimiles of the eighteenth-century méthodes available online, as well as nineteenth-century versions of the instrument often easy to purchase, if you have been looking for a new pastime to stay occupied it may be the mandolin’s time for a revival. If not, you may simply enjoy listening to some beguiling music by eighteenth-century composers like Gabriele Leone, Giovanni Fouchetti or Pietro Denis.

– Natasha Shoory

Natasha is a first-year PhD student in History at Durham University, fully funded by the Durham Doctoral Studentship.

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