What if you lived in France during the 1600s and 1700s?
If you were a kid in the 17th or 18th centuries, everything about your life – from your clothes to what you eat – would have been very different.
Mmmm ... nothing like a steaming mug of hot chocolate after you've been outside playing in the cold!
Can you imagine that once upon a time in Western societies, chocolate in any form was a luxury? Only royalty could afford it.
You would know that if you'd visited the Denver Art Museum recently. From now through Jan. 6, it's showing an exhibition called "Artisans and Kings: Selected Treasures From the Louvre."
The exhibit is meant to teach us as much about the society and culture of old France as it does about the art of a special period in history. It has brought art and artifacts from the famous Louvre Museum in Paris to illustrate how French aristocrats lived during the 17th and 18th centuries under the reigns of kings Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI.
Everything was different from how it is today. Of course, there were no telephones, no TV or movies, no Internet, no central heating, no fast food, no microwave ovens or refrigerators, no cars, and no electricity. So life could be difficult, and information was hard to share and slow to get where it needed to go.
Food had to be prepared from scratch. That means, for instance, that you had to grow the wheat and grind it into flour (or buy it ground from the miller). Only then could you even mix it into a batter, knead dough, and bake bread in a fire-fueled oven. No food came in frozen packages or from fast-food restaurants. Every piece of clothing had to be made by hand and washed by hand in homemade soap.
If you were rich, servants did all the housework for you. But even then, life was not as comfortable for anybody – even the French aristocrats – as it is for most Europeans (and other Westerners) now.
For one thing, most people during this time hardly ever bathed! Taking a bath (there were no showers then) was not considered good for people. Consequently, there was a real problem with lice and bugs infesting clothes. And, as you might imagine, the palace was really smelly! So, many of the beautiful artifacts in the show were made to hold a fragrant mixture of dried herbs and flowers called potpourri (pronounced poe-poo-REE).
You can see pretty porcelain pots that are decorated with small, delicate flowers and tiny, perfectly painted landscapes. Also shown is a set of "firedogs" (also called andirons). It was made to hold potpourri or incense that would burn slowly in the fireplace to cover a multitude of unpleasant odors. Ew!
Clothing from 17th- and 18th-century Europe looks really beautiful because it is made of fine silks, satins, lace, furs, and even jewels. (Among the rich, jewels were a must – even for men.) Dressing up in such finery might sound like fun for a party – but what if that's the way you had to dress everywhere you went? It wouldn't be nearly as comfortable as jeans and T-shirts!
Even very small children wore fancy clothes. "The Infanta Margarita" is one of the greatest paintings in the art show. It was painted by the famous Spanish painter Diego Velásquez in 1654. Margarita, a 3-year-old princess, has great, sad eyes, golden hair, and a gorgeous satin and lace gown. In spite of its beauty, an outfit like that would have been heavy and uncomfortable for a little girl – or even a grown-up – to wear.
Margarita is actually wearing a corset – an undergarment that cinches in the waist and can make it difficult to breathe. Corsets were worn not only to make the waist smaller but, because it was so tight and stiff, to make a woman's or girl's back straighter. Corsets were made from heavy cloth, whale bones, and laces that tied tightly down the back. Imagine a 3-year-old trying to toddle around the palace in clothes like that! Maybe that's why the princess looks sad.
Another portrait, "Child With A Top," by French painter Jean-Siméon Chardin, shows a 9-year-old boy with powdered hair (maybe a wig?). He's also wearing a fancy coat, vest, and shirt. And these are just regular, everyday clothes. The boy is standing before a desk that holds formidable-looking books, a quill pen, ink, and rolled-up paper. The painting seems to indicate that he didn't get to play outside much. His mother may have been mad if he got those clothes dirty!
Just think how much more comfortable clothes are today. We're also much more comfortable because many of us have air conditioning in summer, and in winter, our houses are much more snug than any palace used to be.
Back to that hot chocolate treat: Chocolate came from the New World and was hard to obtain in Europe. So when Queen Marie Leczinska's son was born, she received a most unusual and dainty gift. It was called a necessaire.
It was a kind of royal picnic set that was used to serve the queen and her guests that rare and expensive treat she adored – hot chocolate from Mexico.
Not only was chocolate rare, sugar was, too. And one way of showing off how rich you were was to have lots of sugar added to your sweet treats. The richer you were, the more sugar you could afford! The queen's tiny china cups must have held very sweet beverages indeed!
Marie Antoinette was queen of France from 1775 to 1793. When she was in her early teens, she became the wife of the man who was to become the French king Louis XVI and moved from her native Austria to his country.
There's a marble bust of her in the exhibit (see opposite page). It shows her trademark "big hair" and her fashion sense. Marie Antoinette changed fashion in France: She refused to wear a corset (read more in the main article), she invented the styles of shoes known as pumps and mules, and she made simpler, more comfortable clothing fashionable.
She was also a bathing trailblazer! She bathed in tubs of milk and rose petals. This made bathing more popular at the royal court.
But Marie Antoinette wasn't well-liked in France. She was accused of excessive spending and extravagant living, as well as promotion of Austria's interests. A popular – but untrue – story has her saying, when told that the peasants had no bread, "Let them eat cake." But it turns out that she actually gave bread to the poor and was known for acts of charity.
Yet, the tide of public opinion was against her. And this ultimately helped fuel the French Revolution and led to her execution in 1793.