The Enlightenment Precursor of the Social Media "Wife Guy"Roundup
tags: social media, art, portraiture, marriage, French history, cultural history, love
Meghan Roberts is associate professor of history at Bowdoin College and the author of Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France.
The existence of “wife guys”—men prone to a constant display of heterosexual marital bliss—might well seem like a modern phenomenon, one that only blossomed thanks to photography and then went supernova with the advent of the internet. In fact, when Slate ran a chat about fallen wife guys last year, one participant theorized that the wife guy “couldn’t exist without social media.” But while wife guys certainly thrive in our era of Facebook, their history stretches deep into the past. They first flourished in the second half of the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment. To really understand why so many men are eager to play this part, we have to go back to the beginning and see how ambitious men took advantage of new media to showcase their seemingly flawless domestic lives—all for their own benefit.
Enlightenment wife guys didn’t have social media, and the world’s first photograph was still decades away. But they did have portraits, and this is where 18th century wife guys took center stage. They were not the first men to love their wives—of course not—but they developed new and very public ways to perform that love. In an engrossing study of British family portraits over the whole of the 18th century, art historian Kate Retford notes an important shift. Earlier 18th century portraits look stiff to our eyes: a patriarch, his wife, and their children tidily arranged into neat lines, intended to convey order and respectability. But then, in the last decades of the century, things eased up: Children looked relaxed and playful, couples gazed into each other’s eyes, all in a perfectly polished “spontaneous” moment of domestic bliss—a scene that will surely feel familiar to anyone with an Instagram feed. And it wasn’t just that families in general started to look cuddly, loving, and perfectly imperfect. The married couple in particular took center stage, and the ideal couple appeared both affectionate and collaborative. They were supposed to look like a good team, blissfully working together toward a common goal.
One of the most stunning expressions of this new ideal was Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier. Everyone involved in this portrait was a rock star in their own way: David was one of France’s most brilliant and sought-after painters, while the Lavoisiers were fabulously wealthy and famous for their work in chemistry. Like many ambitious men today, Lavoisier used his wife to improve his reputation—or, we might say, his brand. He was a well-established man of science, with prestigious appointments and a large network of collaborators. But his meticulous analyses made his work difficult to follow, and potentially off-putting, at least for the general public. Paulze Lavoisier, by contrast, was a famously charming host and her husband’s most significant collaborator: She wrote translations, sketched illustrations, and, most importantly, ran an extensive campaign to boost her husband’s research over that of his rivals. Her intelligence, wit, and charm helped her husband immeasurably, and that is reflected in their portrait. David captured the two at work in their study: Lavoisier writing a treatise, while Paulze Lavoisier’s drawing board is perched in the corner. They look affectionate, content, and productive. Putting his wife in the spotlight and portraying himself as her affectionate partner was a savvy PR move designed to boost Lavoisier’s reputation, and one that the couple was willing to pay a hefty price to realize—this portrait was David’s most expensive commission.
Images like the Lavoisier portrait may have depicted intimate scenes, but they were not just for private consumption. People could view such art on display or purchase affordable copies of portraits or charming domestic scenes. These images were public performances, and the public just kept getting bigger thanks to rising literacy rates, the birth of a slew of new newspapers, and lower prices for all kinds of media. Biographies and novels became huge bestsellers, encouraging readers to take a deep interest in the intimate lives of ordinary people—and, eventually, celebrities. As Antoine Lilti argues in his book about the invention of celebrity in the 18th century, this media revolution helped bring about a nascent celebrity culture. Eager fans acquired images of and gobbled up stories about their favorite authors, actors, and any other well-known figures; even criminals could take a star turn.
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