Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

Luxury After the Terror by Iris Moon

Reviewed by Delanie J. Linden

Iris Moon,
Luxury After the Terror.
Philadelphia: Penn State University Press, 2022.
272 pp.; 30 color and 65 b&w illus.; notes; bibliography; index.
$104.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–0–271–09161–7

Why do objects survive? This question undergirds Iris Moon’s Luxury After the Terror. This book is a major work that centers on the critical significance of “dispersal” during the tumultuous period of Revolutionary France. Just as the French nobility were dispossessed of their tea sets, furniture, and other luxury goods, so, too, were luxury artisans stripped of their business, livelihood, and production of art. In step with the material turn in Anglophone art history, Moon places objects and materiality at the center of her research. But she integrates object-based studies with accounts of their makers—the life of a goldsmith, the rise of an arabesque paper designer, the resiliency of a wood carver, and the adaptability of a scientist-turned-ceramicist—after the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Moon argues for the centrality of the decorative arts in the understanding of the French Revolution. Her aim is to highlight “the fractured forms of individual subjectivity that emerged against (and sometimes alongside) narratives of collective experience” (15).

Moon situates her approach within larger shifts in art historical scholarship on post-Revolutionary material culture. Scholars of the discipline have recently moved beyond the academic and institutional milieu of painting to consider a wider field of production. Moon cites art historian Susan Siegfried’s examination of postrevolutionary female subjects and the symbolic capital of costume, textiles, and accessories, which evacuated the body as a site of power after the Thermidorian reaction.‍[1] For Moon, Richard Taws’s The Politics of the Provisional: Art and Ephemera in Revolutionary France (2013) was instrumental in showing the radical politics of ephemeral material culture in Revolutionary France. Taws’s work shaped Moon’s consideration of the instability of objects and the ruptured forms of subjectivity which characterized the Revolutionary period (3). In dialogue with Siegfried and Taws, among numerous other scholars, Moon argues that just as painting and aesthetics channeled the turbulent culture of the Revolution, so, too, did luxury occupy a central position in modern political culture.

The book is divided into five chapters, encompassing an expansive material field: gold, silk, wood, and porcelain. Moon’s first chapter attends to the historical conditions of dispersal, disinheritance, and dispossession of objects in the immediate aftermath of French king Louis XVI’s death by guillotine on January 21, 1793. She traces the removal and transfer of objects from noble hands to those of the French state. Moon focuses on the importance of the auction house as a site that destabilized the conception of “luxury.” Moon’s central argument is that the conception of “luxury” took on new meanings in the Revolutionary period, as formerly “exclusive” objects became possessions of the citizens of France. The weaponization of “luxury” during the violent period of the Terror altered the perception of objects, transforming them into “palpable threats” (7). The authority of citizens to control the afterlives of formerly aristocratic possessions—through acts of dispossession and dispersal—bolstered the legitimacy and power of the new French state. And the ability to choose an object’s price for sale within the art market affirmed the state’s jurisdiction over luxury goods.

Liquidation as an act of power, as Moon highlights, was not a novel act. Indeed, before the Revolution, Louis XIV (1638–1715) had utilized auctions to disinherit rivals and consolidate power (28). Auctions occupied a core position in the realm of French courtly material culture. The sale and re-sale of luxury during the ancien régime paralleled what Moon cleverly analogizes as a museum’s “deaccessioning policy” today (29). Yet, after the fall of the monarchy, liquidation served different institutional purposes. For example, the selection and de-selection of objects for the newly established Muséum Centrale des Arts (the present day Musée du Louvre) recast conceptual hierarchies within the decorative arts. As Moon demonstrates, not all material possessions were chosen for the museum. For example, the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun (1748–1813) set aside a Sèvres porcelain garniture to be displayed at the museum, yet it was ultimately sold by the state to recuperate financial losses (31).

As an expert in museology and provenance, Moon is at her best when dealing with the critical question of “survival”: how did luxury goods and their makers survive the Terror? And how can exposing these histories permit a more nuanced understanding of current museum collections and the complex history of object provenance? The morphology of the decorative arts market fundamentally altered the business of luxury makers. In each of her four other chapters, Moon studies the life of a specific luxury-goods maker to illuminate the use of a particular material. Moon deliberately concentrates on creators of luxury rather than their consumers, because, in part, extant literature has already productively examined the history of consumption during this period. For Moon, the perspective of the makers provides insights into the effects of the Revolution on artisanal innovation. Survival of an artisan’s art hinged on the ability to adapt and pivot one’s subject matter and technique to meet the shifting political terrains of Revolutionary France.

Moon’s first case study examines the history of Parisian goldsmith Henri Auguste (1759–1816) during the Terror. As Moon demonstrates, metal—and specifically gold—became a capricious medium for artists. After 1789, the king’s silver and gold were melted down into bullion and used to replenish the nation’s dwindling coffers (41). In this context, the changing function of metal transformed its ontological status, from a luxury to a utilitarian object. The repurposing of metal altered the artisanal identity of those skilled in working with it.

Moon’s next chapter traces the rise of designer Jean-Démosthène Dugourc (1749–1825). Formerly patronized by the nobility, Dugourc transformed his successful business of arabesque designs into a new second career as a creator of paper ephemera. His designs could be found on countless types of papered objects, from letterheads to wallpaper and republican playing cards. In the aftermath of 1789, Moon argues that Dugourc capitalized upon his goût étrusque drawings to negotiate his place in the Revolution. Design was liberated by new intellectual property laws. Dugourc no longer was beholden to elite patrons and could claim authorship over his designs. Interestingly, Moon highlights the materiality of paper as fundamental to the survival of Dugourc’s design business. The abolishment of the guilds promised Dugourc greater legal protections over his drawings, lending the possibility of controlling the creation of them on paper (96).

In her third example, Moon examines the career of woodcarver Aubert-Henri-Joseph Parent (1753–1835). The design and carving of precious types of wood were long associated with expensive furniture made for elite patrons. But in the changing circumstances of the Revolution, Moon argues that “Nature” via materials such as wood adopted new significance. Wood became emblematic of ideal citizenry and embodied nature’s moral authority. As Moon shows, Parent took advantage of his medium’s changing symbolic capital to increase business and create new modes of art production with wood (121). For Moon, what is especially important is Parent’s resiliency as a woodcarver during a period in which he lost many elite patrons.

Her last example charts the unusual path of Alexandre Brogniart (1770–1847), a scientist who was appointed director of the Sèvres porcelain manufactory in 1800. This case study is particularly rich in its demonstration of institutional “survival.” While focusing on Brogniart, Moon uses his example to demonstrate the extent to which the Revolution upended or eradicated institutions that governed material culture. Yet, such upheaval created opportunities for regeneration and renewal. As the new Muséum Centrale des Arts absorbed former assets of the aristocracy, luxury factories such as the Gobelins and Sèvres were compelled to recast the significance of objects they produced. Design and politics worked in tandem. Tapestries and porcelain objects registered the anxious politics of the period. In particular, the materiality of porcelain—a material strongly tied to the ancien régime—became a site of experimentation and contestation. Bringing to the directorship expertise in mineralogy, invertebrates, botany, and geology, Brogniart’s appointment as director of Sèvres signaled institutional desires for change. Brogniart transformed an elite material into a substance at the center of scientific innovations and new conceptions of nature.

In Luxury After the Terror, Moon addresses the rapidly changing political and economic climate within which makers of “luxury” were compelled to adapt their art in order to survive. The robust history of artisans provides new vantage points from which to understand the French Revolution. Moon encourages her readers to adopt a critical lens on “survival”: not only of artisans in a changing economy, but also of physical objects in a new world of collecting and museums. As Moon states, “dispersal and disinheritance were not only the inevitable parts of a tragedy but also a vital aspect of the dialectics of revolutionary culture; ultimately, this complex period of history has lasting ties to our own world” (171). The survival of objects today can be crucially linked to the resiliency of artisans as well as the dynamics of disinheritance which characterized the Revolutionary period.


[1] Susan Siegfried, “The Visual Culture of Fashion and the Classical Ideal in Post-Revolutionary France,” Art Bulletin 97, no. 1 (2015): 77–99.