Pets and their Couples

Chardin, Charrière, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and Marivaux

by Servanne Woodward (Author)
©2016 Monographs 236 Pages


Baroque novels focus on the psychology of love, while love in the context of nature is the subject of the pastoral genre. Introducing animals to such texts proves unexpectedly challenging. The inclusion of pets in the artistic representation involves a reversal of scale and various modes of comedy, including socio-political satire. At a time when some writers fantasize that children can be born of a human-animal couple, or question the degree of free will and physiological determinism influencing human or animal actions, scientific and philosophical enquiries threaten to reduce the whole animated world to a physiology akin to one of automatons. It is a criticism levied by the sentimentaires against the libertines. Eventually, the study must be initiated with the monitoring of the modulated and variable conceptions of the persons constituting a «couple» and the status of the «pet».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One
  • 1. “The Bird-Organ” (“La Serinette”) 1751–1753, by Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699–1779)
  • 2. A repetitive theme – a singular scene
  • 3. Comedic couples
  • 4. Serinettes, flutes and birds
  • 5. Mechanical anatomy revealed: the automaton
  • Chapter Two
  • 1. “It’s not the cat!” The subject of Mr. and Mistriss Henley’s fight
  • 2. Rejecting each other’s pets
  • 3. The rejected suitor
  • 4. “To Mr. Henley he was no handsomer than any other cat”
  • 5. Pets
  • Chapter Three
  • 1. “Caress Fidele for me” Paul et Virginie by Jacques Bernardin Henri de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814)
  • 2. From whips to caresses: a scientific pastoral
  • 3. A pastoral without marriage
  • 4. Fidèle as faithful
  • 5. The Minotaur in the cathedral
  • 6. The third person I: narrator and dog
  • 7. “Si vous ne m’honorez pas de votre présence sur cette même natte […] je sors à l’instant […]”
  • Chapter Four
  • 1. “Are you a person?”: libertines and sentimentaires according to Pierre Carlet Chamblain de Marivaux (1688–1763)
  • 2. “La Dispute” (sc. v): “Eglé. – […] J’ai fait l’acquisition d’un objet qui me tenait la main tout à l’heure […] Carise: – […] cet objet s’appelle un homme”
  • 3. “Il n’y a que les gentilshommes qui soyont son prochain, le reste est quasiment de la formi pour elle”
  • 4. “Non mon petit rat; vous serez à moi, et j’aurai soin de vous”
  • 5. “Très personne, je vous assure”
  • Conclusion
  • 1. Comedies for tragedy
  • 2. Pets and animals in literature
  • 3. The Objects of Home
  • A. Chardin: domestic objects
  • B. Charrière and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
  • C. The science of subjects and objects
  • D. Marivaux: from the pet’s cage
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


A woman’s body is central to the three works studied in this volume, “La Serinette”, a painting by Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Lettres de Mistriss Henley by Isabelle de Charrière, and Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. At the time those selections were made, I found the reports on medicine and the literary treatment of “sensibility” by Anne C. Vila most inspiring.1 It is tempting to assume that Charrière toys with Tissot’s Essai sur les maladies des gens du monde (1770) when Mrs. Henley faints, not from the whirlwinds and “sensory overload associated with civilized life”, but from ascetic life in agreement with his “ ‘back to the country’ campaign” and cure.2 The London socialite experiences “vapors” upon hearing the news that her husband declined the position that would have freed her from her botanical contemplative stupor: she would have exchanged the company of her garden’s insects for a life at court. Otherwise, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s charming Virginie is practically as healthy and robust as Paul in her youth, and both seem to follow a Tissot-Rousseau “moral hygiene of sensibility”. As detailed by Wolmar, their frugal diet consists of milk products and vegetables grown from their own little homestead.3 Virginie becomes subject to the frailties of women at puberty, and she is unfit for her former life after her three years of education in a Parisian convent. The narrator exposes these scientific facts the author must have gleaned from female anatomy treatises dating up to 1789. According to Vila, they begin with Joseph Raulin’s Traité des affections vaporeuses du sexe (1758) or Pierre Hunauld’s Dissertation sur les vapeurs et les pertes de sang (1757).4 And if he does not, such treatises lend an allure of scientific legitimacy to the story. At any rate, it allows development on the topic of the intimate anatomy of women more fully exploited by the novels of Sade. Chardin’s composition may credit “the body as a reactive animal economy” in stimuli which amounts to a benign kind of “irritation” by the melodious means of “the bird-organ”. The lady irritates the bird’s ears (and her husband’s who paints ← 9 | 10 → the scene); she may expect the bird to produce a song, and her spouse, a painting.5 Her position would then parody aspects of the performance of vivisections in a harmless comical mode.

It is extremely rare to find a couple and their pets in a French painting, although Nicolas Lancret (1690–1743) painted a few families with their pets (dogs mostly and a parrot). Pets are common in portraits of English couples by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788). Louis XV is portrayed with two dogs (possibly by Pierre Gobert, 1662–1744), and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805) painted a magnificent portrait of a child with a white bonnet hugging her dog (c. 1757). Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766) often depicts ladies (sometimes men) with their pets. Very few couples appear accompanied by their dog at social occasions and in group-paintings such as “Une Fête champêtre” by Jean-Baptiste Pater (1695–1736), a student of Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) portrayed the dogs of Louis XV with their names clearly written at their feet in capital letters: “MISSE”, “TVRLU”, “LVTTINE”, “MIGNONNE”, “SYLVIE”. Alexandre-François Desportes (1661–1743) also painted the King’s dogs: Pompée and Florissant. Although poodles were the favorite pets of Versailles under Louis XV, the Queen favored white Angora cats. Marie-Antoinette liked Papillon dogs. Mme du Barry and the Duchesse du Maine loved parrots. The court provided many examples of pet keeping and they were obviously imitated. Dogs appear in official portraits, including in the coronation of Queen Marie Leszczynska with a King Charles Spaniel by her feet. In those portraits, the pets either stand close to their charges, or they are just present, as free agents. They fill a space and animate it as an anecdotal detail – the family owns such an animal.

Compared to English paintings by Gainsborough, there is little reflection in this open intimacy of the couple including a third party to their companionship. Instead, in French portraiture with pets, the animal may be mostly decorative in principle while enhancing a contrast with the flesh tones of beautiful fingers, or giving the sitter something to do with their hands, and perhaps improving the facial expressions from bored and tense to peaceful while sitting for the artist. Regardless of the reasons for the inclusion of the pets at the time of sitting, the visual impact of the pairing of a lady holding her pet is that it bears testimony to their intertwined life and to their bond that can only be disrupted by added companionship. Of the four artists studied in this volume, only two of them represent the pet as paramount to the ties uniting them in emotional receptivity. Family portraits with children and pets are suspect because they potentially lead to the dismissal of children’s love for animals as misguided, or as proof of their general propensity to love indiscriminately. In examining couples with their pets the object was to observe a sympathetic vision of animals included in a concept of “humanity” and of gender roles in the couple, with the hope that hierarchies ← 10 | 11 → would be made visible and a new insight about the century’s intimate aspirations might be formed. The century that purported the idea that animals were essentially living machines to the point that human beings could also be considered automatons was striving to found a new concept of human interaction based on emotions and mutual respect extending through castes and inclusive of animals – most flagrantly inclusive of pets.

The interaction of a couple and a pet focuses on the effect of domesticity as a feminine space in the three first works under analysis. With Chardin, natural and artificial reproductions converge. His wife expects her bird to imitate a song she produces by grinding her little machine, hoping that the bird will be prompted into imagining a female bird or a live bird companion in nature; Chardin imitates the scene by means of his representational “box” – the painting; the scene acts like the musical box on the bird for the human viewer who restitutes the proper space, the sounds, and the presence of a lady in her home where there is instead a canvas of colored threads. Chardin’s work leads to philosophical and physiological reflection on the human ability to interact with the world, from inanimate to live “subjects”. The Descartes and Newton debate and La Mettrie’s influence come to mind.6 Chardin suggests that all matter is so perfectly attuned that haphazard associations of sounds and color mean something to somebody: a mating song to a bird; a wife to the painter; a lady’s interior welcoming the spectator. But although the impact of painting is obviously caused by external stimuli such as visual perception, it involves internal reflection, and inner-life. Sight and analysis are only superficially engaged on the behalf of the spectators who must also solicit their memory, their experience, their imagination, their creativity, and their emotions.

Manifestly, Mme Chardin is the centerpiece of the painting, and she makes a spectacle of herself in this comical piece. It eventually provokes a reflection on the domestic sphere where the lady, her caged bird, and her husband are circumscribed. As a painter “of genre”, Chardin is destined to exert his art on a small-scale canvas because the larger paintings are reserved for important topics: history or mythology. Nevertheless, Chardin is engaged in a dialogue with the greater artistic composition insofar as his painting constitutes an “answer” to a large mythological painting in the background of his scene. He echoes its theme and statement with his tiny yellow bird in the foreground and the center of attention of the lady who encourages us to look from deep into the room toward him. The canary initiates a series of reversals in scale. For instance, the background mythological paintings are still larger than the bird in the cage, but they are stamp ← 11 | 12 → sized compared to the little painting of Chardin in which they fit. This relativity is plainly due to perspective, but then perspective invites a reevaluation of what we select as an object of attention, our focus on what holds our interest and our desires in the foreground.

Painting in “[…] the Age of La Mettrie” yields a fluid or transformational conception of materiality from plants to animal, male to female, as Hal Gladfelder also explains Denis Diderot, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, John Cleland and Sade:

We can perceive this view of humanity, animals, and machines in Chardin’s scene with his wife and their pet bird as sublime comedy because mediated by the bird-organ apparatus, all sense of hierarchic classification disappears.

Likewise, Marie-Paule Laden convincingly outlines the plot of Charrière’s anecdote as comical: “[…] it would move the most stoic of philosophers to helpless laughter”.8 Mr. Henley might simply be projecting “an aloof and uncaring insensitivity to others”, requiring that his wife be less cumbersome or “lively” as Laden assumes.9 His view of disputes is based on the principle that people will self-regulate and relent rather than enforce their willfully passionate decrees. Everything will fall into place like clockwork. Thus the farmer threatening to disown his son if he marries the chambermaid from London would not be able to live by his decree. In time, people’s emotions will wane and be regulated. He would eventually come to terms with his daughter-in-law if per chance his son marries her anyways. The reasoning is emotionally sound but it seems based on external form: a father must eventually accept his son, his grandchildren, and the daughter-in-law that comes along with them. Following this precept, Mr. Henley continues his course of action unperturbed however upset his wife becomes. Just as the narrator goes insane in the “The Sandman” (E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1817) once he finds that he married an automaton, it appears that Mrs. Henley makes the same type of shocking discovery. Her husband simply pursues his own program. ← 12 | 13 → In some regards, Mr. Henley shares common features with the Master in Jacques le fataliste as described by the narration:

And indeed, it seems that unless Mrs. Henley creates a functional disturbance inside his home – such as moving furniture around, her husband does not appear to act except through pre-established motions similar to a machine’s movement. He resembles Mrs. Henley’s cat because both dislike commotion. He is not overly disturbed by his head-servant’s defection until he notes that the house and the meals are not running as smoothly as when she was present, and he tasks his wife with getting her back. Mr. Henley employs the people of his household, wife included, at the service of the austere but comfortable management of the estate. Even his horse and his dog perform labor, unlike his wife’s cat.

Chardin’s painting invites the viewer to partake in the flights of fancy as practiced by Mme Chardin, thereby demonstrating an acceptance of her feminine eccentricity, her playfulness, and her vitality. Contrarily, Mr. Henley rejects these qualities in Mrs. Henley. He invites his wife to join him in an estate she cannot live in without creating a series of disorders and accidents with increasingly tragic consequences. There is no room in her new home for her, not even in her own bedroom filled with her mother-in-law’s needlework and her predecessor’s painted portrait. Charrière’s countryside estate is centered and regulated according to patterns of plant and insect life, matching stitches, and cyclical revolutions. They are the cumbersome motions imparted by a lineage of the deceased Mrs. Henley. They are the true organizing principle of Mr. Henley’s domestic space. At the center of the clockwork organization of his home are women’s corpses. The new Mrs. Henley feels that she may soon join them in death.

The three artists introduce pets in their family portraits at a time when scientists, moralists, and sentimental ethics clash or dovetail on their concepts of humanity. All seem to consider that human beings are animals. The question of the animal soul remains open to debate. Theories abound: neither humans nor animals have a soul and this possibility may lead to atheism, materialism, and perhaps libertine behavior; only humanity has a soul – and perhaps it can be located in one of our organs; language can be attributed to animals though it is often ← 13 | 14 → described as a distinctive trait of humanity allowing access to reason;11 reason can be attributed to animals but humans are able to exert the reality or illusion of their free will to control their destiny, etc. Chardin is interesting because as a painter he must be acutely aware of our limited means of perceiving anything at all. His painting depicts greater interest in sensory representation – for instance, music is performed in his composition – and physiological response than in emotion per se. His philosophical conundrums are resolved in laughter and optimism. So are his potential occasions for mourning (his first wife or his aspirations to public success). Public displays of sensitivity call upon comedy.

In Lettres de Mistriss Henley and in Paul et Virginie, tears are part of the narration as a demonstration of emotion hitherto seldom displayed. In Charrière’s anecdote, Mrs. Henley does not seem to be in control of her sensitivity, which explains her transformation from tears to joy when her husband criticizes her dress and her make-up, and then he relents. His inconsequential attitude makes her react to his moody stimuli. He tells her to reapply her “rouge” washed away by her crying, thus causing her joy because he apparently has retracted his criticism. Mrs. Henley is so dependent on her husband’s judgment that eventually he finds her emotionally unstable. Tracing The History of Tears, Anne Vincent-Buffault helps decipher how contemporary readers imagined Mrs. Henley might be perceived by her husband:

In the eighteenth-century, weeping might be popular, but it was not without discernment. A balance was sought between cold lucidity, apathy and the convulsive movements of an unstable temperament. It was important that the constitution of the fibers of the body should not determine its sensitivity.12

In other words, Mrs. Henley’s tears may be seductive and cause her husband to relent, but he also seems to think that they are mechanical or constitutional, due to the disposition of her organs. He finds her inherently unbalanced. Consequently, his friend, a physician, advises him not to let her breast-feed her own child. On the other hand, Mrs. Henley’s tears could testify to her distress of being too far away from London. If the dresses worn in the capital of the nation are inappropriate for social occasions in the countryside and her husband’s praise of simple attire indicates that her domestic situation has permanently excluded her from salon circles, then her tears signify anguish. In this case, her tears are closer to ← 14 | 15 → “the model of Rousseau, connected with an experience of “[…] an uprooting and retreat from culture”.13 Those are similar to Mme de la Tour’s tears upon realizing that she is now in exile in her fields of Ile de France, and that her aunt will not help. But the tears shed by the visitor and the old neighbor sharing Paul and Virginie’s story are closer to “[…] the contagion of the emotions, of compassion, of a feeling of humanity [which] led to a form of tenderness […and] evoked the dream of a new social bond”.14 The lavish caresses of the dog given to Paul and Virginie, who had been lost in the forest, contribute to this lachrymal emotion of solidarity, bringing together the runaway slaves, the children, and the pet, thereby bridging species and socioeconomic conditions in mutual support: “A l’arrivée de ce bon noir, qui pleurait de joie, ils se mirent aussi à pleurer sans pouvoir lui dire un mot”; “[…] et Virginie […] sentit son visage mouillé des larmes de sa mère”.15 It is closer to the revolutionary tears of solidarity identified by Buffault as paradoxical in political terms: “Curiously these feasts of tears came about at the moment when the political system became based on the individual”.16 Thus, in Paul et Virginie, the communal spirit of the family embraces emotional beings, including the pet, or the visitor, but the sentiment of togetherness emanates from gregarious solitudes and misanthropic withdrawal from society.

In comparison, Chardin’s retreat to domestic life is socially assigned. The laconic painter is highly gregarious, but he truly expresses himself in his paintings, which are publicly exhibited. His professional involvement finds its source in the recess of his home, from the exemplary singularity of his familiar objects and our relation to it. His solitude is relative. He retracts to better observe from the public perspective what is given to see, what we see and how we relate to each other and to the objective world, how we perceive fleeting matter, how we consume it cyclically, how we repeat and rehearse our interaction with our domestic circle consisting of people, animals, and objects. In his long study of solitude, Pierre Naudin chose to illustrate the space of freedom secured by retreat in the privacy of the home with a painting by Chardin, “Les Amusements de la vie privée” ← 15 | 16 → (1746) currently at the Stockholm National Museum.17 It is an active, studious, and intellectual sphere that is apparently fulfilling.

Charrière, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and Marivaux broach the topic of solitude. For Marivaux, it refers to a mental exercise to imagine what pre-social times could have been (in “La Dispute”). It is also a space of social experimentation with new rules exerted on rarefied population. It is often a far away fictitious island. Solitude is relational with Chardin and Marivaux. It involves a reflection on domestic institutions. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s island is less abstract, and to set the idyllic childhood of Paul and Virginie, he isolates his characters in a remote area of a colonial island. Their destitute isolation is caused by loss of social status. Charrière introduces colonial economy to her anecdote as well, and it augments her couple’s disunity.

Eighteenth-Century English studies offer a clearer echo of the dissent colonial economy created in social circles. For instance, Ruth Scobie evaluates the costs of “cosmopolitan fashionable sociability” in the bird and feather trade in “ ‘To dress a room for Montagu’: Pacific Cosmopolitanism and Elizabeth Montagu’s Feather Hangings”:

Feathers could be associated with luxury and cosmopolitanism, but also with the presence of death and sacrifice. They could be the by-product of sport, farming, scientific research or the keeping of exotic pets but most birds were trapped and slaughtered. Indeed, the display of these objects in Portland Square was an early manifestation of a fashion for exotic feathers, which would culminate in one of the first popular animal conservation campaigns.18

Montagu herself felt remorse upon her father killing a kingfisher for his feathers while her project required plumes – preferably peacock plumes –, showing some of “the anxieties and contradictions of […] cosmopolitanism”.19 Mrs. Henley is unduly attached to her feathers according to her husband who favors anything home-made and local over imports – from London or from overseas. He assesses his wife as an irrational being “aussi légère que ses plumes” while Mrs. Henley observes that on the head-piece of her sister-in-law: “[…] c’étoit bien d’autres plumes que les miennes!”20 These feather details impart a strong colonial per ← 16 | 17 → spective to the feminine “modernism” supported by Mrs. Henley when she insists on “dressing” her bedroom with Indian wallpaper and brocaded muslin curtains. Even Chardin’s canary participates in this cosmopolitan fashion and exotic trade hosted in his living-room. They question the part that personal individual love, sensation, sensitivity, and sentimental categories play in our moral engagement to the family and to society, to humanity, and to the animate world. Chardin’s “family” is offered to the King and to the institution regulating his profession and social recognition, at least nationally, and both Charrière and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre calculate the impact of colonial economy over the viability of their fictive couples. Even the pets are included in domestic and colonial trade.

The harmony of the couple can evoke its opposite: cacophony, division and solitude. The latter can remain sociable (the din in Chardin’s living room). As for Mrs. Henley, she seems to experiment with diverse types of solitude. She experienced some constructive misanthropy, causing her to retreat to the countryside in the hope of regaining social approval.21 She planned on participating in an idyllic family circle as a spouse and a stepmother, but she finds herself increasingly alienated from human company. She even lost her pet. She does not appear ready to undertake the eternal retreat from society in pleasurable austere solitude inspired by Montaigne,22 as Mme de Lambert welcomed in her old age. In the end, she will learn to be happy in the perfection of her husband’s clockwork surroundings, and she will be able to forget the tenets of natural sociability that Diderot, Voltaire and Enlightenment philosophers held as desirable and healthy, lest one’s mind dissolves in some nervous disorder such as monomania, melancholia, hysteria, or perhaps vapors.23 Mrs. Henley’s alienation shares the characteristics Naudin attributes to Rousseau’s isolation in exile,24 and like the Swiss philosopher, she finds solace in writing. On the one hand, for her, marriage alleviates her economic worries for the future. On the other hand, she withdrew from the cosmopolitan circles of London.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Baroque novel Psychology of love Pastoral genre Couple Status of pets in baroque novels
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 236 pp., 3 b/w ill., 2 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Servanne Woodward (Author)

Dr. Servanne Woodward teaches eighteenth-century literature at the University of Western Ontario after obtaining her degrees from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has published on Chardin, Vigée-Lebrun, Marivaux, Rousseau, Diderot, and women educators. She studied history of arts at the Université d’Aix-en-Provence.


Title: Pets and their Couples
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