Chocolate in French Art: How 18th c. French Paintings Reveal the Cultural and Social Significance of Chocolate in 17-18th c. France

Although scholars are uncertain about how and when chocolate reached France, chocolate’s immediate success in France is undeniable (Coe and Coe, 150).  Chocolate was a part of daily life for many French men and women during the 17-18th century, so much so that chocolate appeared in several French paintings of the time.  In analyzing two of these “chocolate containing” paintings, this post’s purpose is to explain how each painting can be used to uncover the cultural and social importance of chocolate in 17-18th century France.

Figure 1. “La tasse de chocolat” (1768) by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier
Figure 1. La tasse de chocolat (1768) by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier

The first painting to be discussed is La tasse de chocolat (1768) by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier (Figure 1 above).  The painting is of the family of the Duke of Penthièvre drinking chocolate and communicates the significance of chocolate in early France in several ways.  First, the Duke of Penthièvre was of the French court and known for his wealth, meaning he and his family were of the elite class in society (Poore, 2).  This distinction is important because when chocolate was first introduced to France, it was mainly a commodity of the elite or those who could afford it (Coe and Coe, 125).  Second, in this painting the family is enjoying chocolate together demonstrating the social aspect of chocolate.  At this time, chocolate was often consumed with company, at banquets, and at other social functions, allowing hosts to show off their sophistication and prestige (Grivetti and Shapiro).  Therefore, the presence of chocolate in this painting signifies the family’s wealth and status and highlights the social element of chocolate.

Figure 2. “The Proposal” (1736-93) by Louis Marin Bonnet
Figure 2. The Proposal (1736-93) by Louis Marin Bonnet

The second painting of interest is The Proposal (1736-93) by Louis Marin Bonnet (Figure 2 above).  In the painting, a man is proposing to a women in an elegant room full of columns, flowers, a statue, and a chocolatière (chocolate pot).  A chocolatière is an instrument used to froth up chocolate drinks and is believed to be a late 17th century French invention (Coe and Coe, 156-157).  Since nobility were the most common consumers of chocolate in 17-18th century France, chocolatières were mainly composed of silver or gold, and one can see that the chocolatière in the painting is silver revealing the elite status of the couple (Aaron and Bearden, 67) (Figure 3 below).  Moreover, it is hypothesized that the chocolatière appears in this painting because chocolate was associated with love and sex in France (Bush).  It was well known throughout Europe that chocolate was an aphrodisiac, and both men and women often gifted chocolate to their lovers for this reason (Doughty).  So perhaps in this painting the chocolatière represents the couple’s love, or it could be a proposal gift or dowry.  Regardless of why the chocolatière is featured in this painting, the fact that the French created their own chocolate frothing device supports the popularity of chocolate in 17-18th century France.

Figure 3. A close up example of a silver chocolatière
Figure 3. A close up example of a silver chocolatière

When looking at both paintings, it is important to note that the women take center stage.  This is because aristocratic women were large consumers of chocolate in 17-18th century France (Coe and Coe, 155).  Chocolate popularity amongst aristocratic women can be partially attributed to the marriage between Maria Teresa of Spain and King Louis XIV of France in 1660.  Maria Teresa was a chocolate drinker before she wed King Louis XIV, so when she came to France she encouraged and inspired aristocratic women to enjoy chocolate (Aaron and Bearden, 67).  Moreover, at the time of the marriage, “decent” women were not allowed to consume chocolate in public.  Therefore, the new queen and the aristocratic women of the court often drank chocolate together in private and in secret (Coe and Coe, 154).  However, ten years after the marriage, aristocratic women were allowed to consume chocolate more openly (Coe and Coe, 154).  Another reason chocolate may have been desired by French women was for its proposed medicinal properties.  For example, around 1631, Dr. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma claimed that chocolate increased fertility and eased delivery in his A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate (Grivetti).  Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma even created his own famous recipe for a hot chocolate beverage which included chilies, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and other spices, and it can be imagined that this was a popular drink among women (Coe and Coe, 133).  Furthermore, since chocolate was an aphrodisiac and often a gift from a lover, French women most likely appreciated chocolate since it increased their sex drives and reminded them of love.  Whatever the reason for why women desired chocolate so much, the fact that the paintings above (and several other paintings of the era) portray women with chocolate reveals that chocolate was a crucial part of their lifestyle and demonstrates that there was a gender component to chocolate consumption in early France.

Overall, although only two paintings were analyzed in this post, they reveal a great deal about the social and cultural role chocolate played in 17-18th century France.  Socially, the paintings demonstrate that chocolate was primarily the drink of nobility and the wealthy, was often consumed at social functions or shared with guests, and was often given as a gift to a lover because it was an aphrodisiac and associated with love.  In addition, chocolate was enjoyed by both men and women, but women were noticeably large consumers of chocolate for various reasons.  Culturally, the French enjoyed chocolate to the extent they created the chocolatière to froth their chocolate drinks and even depicted chocolate and the chocolatière in their artwork (ex. the paintings described).  Overall, chocolate was a popular commodity in 17-18th century France and was an integral part of cultural and social life as depicted in the artwork of the time.

If you are interested in seeing more examples of 18th century European paintings featuring chocolate check out: https://www.pinterest.com/Masterweaver/tea-coffee-and-chocolate-in-the-18-century/

If you are interested in learning more about chocolate in 17th century France, check out this lecture, “Enslaved to Chocolate: Culture, Commerce, and Gender in 17th Century France”, by Domna Stanton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7JZSA5P2Xs

Works Cited:

Aaron, Shara, and Monica Bearden. Chocolate: A Healthy Passion. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2008. Print.

Bush, Barbara. “Review No. 1099.” Rev. of Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Reviews in History, June 2011. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1099>.

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Doughty, Michele. “Chocolate: Aphrodisiac or Euphamism?” Serendip, 2002. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f02/web2/mdoughty.html>.

Grivetti, Louis E. “From Aphrodisiac to Health Food: A Cultural History of Chocolate.” Karger Gazette, No. 68 Chocolate. Karger Gazette. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://misc.karger.com/gazette/68/grivetti/art_1.htm>.

Grivetti, Louis E., and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.

Poore, Benjamin Perley. The Rise and Fall of Louis Philippe, Ex-king of the French; Giving a History of the French Revolution, from Its Commencement, in 1789. Boston: W.D. Ticknor, 1848. Print.

Image Links:

Figure 1. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_famille_du_Duc_de_Penthi%C3%A8vre_dit_la_tasse_de_chocolat.jpg>

Figure 2. <https://www.pinterest.com/pin/241646336231165727/>

Figure 3. <http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/chocolatiere-en-argent-par-joseph-theodore-vancombert-paris-5602061-details.aspx>

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