Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager
Today’s treasure presents us with a bit of a mystery. Not only is the title of this watercolor Unknown, we also know little about its maker Louis-Robert de Cuvillon. So, what must we do to start picking apart this unknown piece? With works like this we have to combine what knowledge we do know with our most important tool: our eyes.
First off, we know that Cuvillon was a French artist who lived from 1848-1931. He’s well-known for paintings of women in “exotic dress”, using the term “exotic” loosely, as in the 19th and early 20th centuries meaning literally anything that wasn’t structured and European. This definition encompassed every type of clothing from Northern Africa all the way to Asia – early modern Europeans were fans of broad, sweeping terms to categorize the unknown. This makes up essentially all we know about Cuvillon – he was a Frenchman who typically painted women in fancy dress. So, what are we to make of our fancy man?
Let’s begin by simply examining his outfit. Our gentleman is standing against a bare background with a confident air, leaning on a walking stick. He has a plain black hat adorned with what’s likely an ostrich feather atop his head, making a statement right from the start. Underneath his confidently cocked head we have a high, stiff collar pluming out over a gorget (the metal neckpiece you see underneath the collar, typically worn with armor). We see the velvet blue sleeves of his waistcoat protruding from his gold vest, which is then topped with a light blue sash that gathers just above the hilt of his sword on his left hip. He also holds gold and lace-trimmed gloves in a clasped hand on this hip. Next, we have plumed, gold embroidered pantaloons, white stockings, and, finally, white shoes affixed with matching blue bows. It’s a look for sure.
Our main question now is, why would Cuvillon depict a man wearing such an outfit? Could he be a soldier, an actor, or just practice? We’ll examine all three of these possibilities.
An argument could be made that this man depicts a soldier, as we see the sword at his hip and gorget at his neck. However, the rest of his outfit is unlike any known uniform that I’m aware of or could find – he’s too much of a dandy to do any soldiering. Just look at all of his lace! Blood and mud would destroy such finery.
This brings us to our final two options, actor or practice, which we’ll discuss together. By the time Cuvillon painted this in 1890, men’s fashion had become streamlined and tailored – think narrow, fitted pants with a trim waistcoat and jacket and a narrow stovetop hat on their heads. This is clearly different from what we see before us. His hat is similar to Dutch hats of the 17th century, as is his wide, stiff collar. The rest seems to be an odd (if flamboyant) hodgepodge of clothing items. Why would anyone dress like this in 1890? Well, to put it simply, they wouldn’t. It’s likely that this man is either an actor playing a part for Cuvillon, who himself may have wanted to experiment with texture and characters, or he could be a study for a larger history piece. We have no notes on whether or not Cuvillon created a complex work containing a man like this, but studies were popular at the time.
While we can’t know for sure what or who this character is supposed to be, this skill of visual analysis is a common tool for art historians. We don’t always have detailed notes or histories of artists and their work, and there are many talented individuals out there who were prolific and talented yet not famous in their own right. In order to try and discern their work we must use peripheral knowledge of their life and culture with what we can see before us, and then come to possible conclusions – and these conclusions could be numerous.
You could practice this yourself the next time you’re at a museum! Simply stand before any work of art (without looking at the label first) and let your eyes absorb what’s in front of you. Before you know it you’ll find yourself picking up on clues and drawing on historical references that you didn’t know you had. You’ll start creating narratives for the figures before you. Think of it as art historical people watching, but with paintings and sculptures. It’ll make any visit to an art museum not only engaging and enriching, but fun along the way!