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Picturing a World

Lamplight and table linen

Three things about this picture of a dinner party by Jules Alexandre Grun interest me (besides the artist’s being a younger contemporary of Jeanette). The first is the illumination from the lamps on the table. Gas? oil? candles? I’m always trying to imagine how

rooms and people looked in rooms lit before electricity.

Second, notice that men and women are still gathered together at the table. The custom of having ladies withdraw while the men drink brandy and smoke cigars was not universal. It’s the kind of custom the historical novelist has to check up on for her setting.

Third, what really caught my eye were the folds in the tablecloth. I was taught to iron linen tablecloths for dinner parties, and a lot of trouble it was, too. Imagine how interesting I found it to read in the catalogue for a recent exhibition at Boston's MFA, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, that crisp folds in the tablecloth were proof of good housekeeping in 17th C Holland. For Esaias van de Velde’s 1619 painting of a banqueting table with a tablecloth showing those crisp folds, click here. For Pieter de Hooch’s 1665 painting of Dutch women putting away linens, click here.

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