Unmasking the Bourgeoise

Romantic Love in Its Ideal?

A Love Story




Real Life

 Plans for the Future, Gelhay, 1897: Perrot, 572.

Much of the nineteenth century was marked by a sense of society's control over the individual. And whether young couples knew it or not, they were influenced by the ideas surrounding this period--romantic love and its procedures of deliberation. Underlying the notions of romantic love, however, lurked two fears:

  • fear of allowing the body to express itself, and
  • "fear that an indiscretion might give away to one's most intimate secrets"
    (Corbin, 491).

From these fears stemmed the preservation of modesty, which formed a prominent part of the edification of young girls. Furthermore, were the underlying theories of romantic love. There was an overwhelming sense of the impossible among the relations of men and women--the incompatibility between male desire and the portrayal of women as angels. These ideas affected the role of confession, heightened the sense of shame and introduced new forms of judgment (Corbin, 571). In short, romantic love ceased to exist as a consistent model, although popular literature continued to reflect this idealistic image.

Unlike the realities of romance in the nineteenth century, popular literature illustrated a great deal about the imagery of love. In situations where the words exchanged between a man and a woman would have been scandalous, glances, smiles, and sometimes, light caresses of the hand took their place.

In his 1890 plate entitled Plans for the Future, French painter Edouard Gelhay depicts this idea of romantic love. In the central fragment of this painting, a couple is seated at a table in this very simple tavern in a garden. (At a time in which young girls were not allowed to go out without being accompanied, this would have been scandalous.)

The impact of sunlight is largely limited to the young bourgeoise and to the patterned areas on the ground, with only a few flecks of light on the young man's right leg. Here light only exists in relation to shade, and here the light that is cast across the young bourgeoisie takes on a vital function. Its diagonal accent, as well as the young man's gaze, calls our attention to her. (Unlike the man and the environment, which can be easily read as one shape, conveniently set off by the bourgeoise who because of her dress tends to float to the picture's surface.) The symmetry of her appearance, and lack of expression in the young girl's face is appropriate for this period. Her costume is the leading example of how women subjected themselves to a rigorous routine of dress. She represents the figure of fragility and beauty of her day, as her sex should suggest. Yet in almost another instance, she can be viewed as succumbing to sin which is evidenced by the tender caress she shares with the young man.