A French Auricular? A Brief History of a Style: an abstract by Dr Marika Knowles

by The Frame Blog

Marika Knowles Image sm

Denis Boutemie, Plate from Ouvrage Rare et Nouveau Contenant plusieurs desseins de merveilleuse recreation sous diverses caprices et gentillesses representees en l’industrieuse decoupure d’un chappeau, Paris 1636, engraving, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This paper offers a brief history of the Auricular style in France. While the Auricular did not enjoy the same success in France as in other European nations, its manifestations offer a distinct variation on the style. The key moment of the French Auricular lies in Parisian ornament prints of the 1630s, when Melchior Tavernier, Daniel Rabel, and D. Boutemie designed cartouches and ornaments using animated scrollwork which reflects the influence of German and Dutch practitioners of the style, including Lucas Kilian, Wendel Dietterlin the younger, and Gottfried Müller. Boutemie, in particular, offers an extraordinary example of the style in his series of designs for the cutting out of a ‘hat’, a conceit that yields 19 plates of ornamental headdresses and breast-plates. In addition to Northern examples, the French designers absorbed the influence of the French ornamental motif of the peapod (cosse de pois), which flourished in France in the 1620s. I will show how the French Auricular of the 1630s fuses the vegetal cosse de pois with the molten scrollwork of the Northern Auricular. While the French Auricular was rarely realized as architectural ornament, it did see a material incarnation in the exquisite, bejewelled ewers of Pierre Delabarre, which anticipate the encrustations of the French Rococo.

Through these examples, I will argue that the distinctive characteristic of the French Auricular is a resistance to the uncanny bodily effects of Northern and Italian models, in which scrollwork often takes on the character and weight of flayed human skin. While the French style includes the human body in its designs, it insists upon maintaining the boundaries between flesh, organic elements, and architectural framework, a distinction that was first manifested in the stucco frames of the Galerie François I at Fontainebleau. The ascendance of Classicism is often credited with the failure of the Auricular to flourish in France. I will nuance this theory through an examination of the relationship between Classical aesthetics and bodily decorum. Classicism was not only a visual and literary aesthetic, but a culture of the body, which insisted upon a self-contained, ‘closed’ body, as opposed to the extroverted, ‘eloquent’ body of the Baroque aesthetic. The Northern and Italian iterations of the Auricular dissolve bodies into the flexible material of ornament, a transgressing of bodily integrity that French classicism rejects. While wrestling with this restraint, French practitioners of the Auricular produced their own, delicate variations on an exuberant style.


Marika T. Knowles is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows where she studies French art, culture, and literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Upon receiving her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2013, she was awarded the Department of Art History’s Frances Blanshard Fellowship Fund prize for her dissertation, Pierrot’s Costume: Theater, Curiosity, and the Subject of Art in France, 1665-1860. Between 2013 and 2015, she was Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Grinnell College. Her article on popular theatre and photography in 19th century France, ‘Lost Ground: Nadar and Adrien Tournachon’s Photographs of Charles Deburau as Pierrot’, appeared in Oxford Art Journal in December 2015. She is currently at work on a book about French painting, decorative art, and prints during the reign of Louis XIII.