Patrimoine mobilier: entre colonialisme et orientalisme

Dobie, Madeleine

In the seventeenth century, France established plantation colonies in the islands of the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. Within fifty years these had become important sites of commerce that supplied valuable raw materials and agricultural commodities. But despite their economic and strategic importance the colonial world was sparsely represented in public discourses and debates. Sustained representation of the colonies would have entailed depiction of the regime of slavery and meant taking a position for or against an institution that was considered economically advantageous but which was also morally suspect. Only the closing decades of the eighteenth century when an abolitionist discourse supported by economic arguments gained momentum, did the colonies and slavery became subjects of representation in domains such as literature, philosophy and material culture. The silence that enveloped the colonial world had several dimensions. Besides silence in the strict sense of the term we can identify processes of shifting toward subjects related to colonialism yet far more visible, notably oriental exoticism and the theme of the ‘noble savage’. These transfers took place, not only in literature and political debates but also in visual and material culture. They occurred, for example, in the sphere of furniture. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries French furniture underwent radical transformations as a result of the import of precious hardwoods and other tropical commodities from the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. But these transformations did not give rise to a tropical or colonial brand of exoticism. Rather, it is possible to trace patterns of substitution by which colonial raw materials – mahogany and ebony, tortoiseshell and rosewood – were transformed into merchandise that appealed to the orientalist tastes of the period: sofas and ottomans, chests decorated with Asian lacquer, chairs with Egyptian motifs. In the eighteenth century, as today, consumers’ attention was drawn to the cultural origins of merchandise rather than to the geography of production or the conditions of labor in “offshore” centers of production.

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Also Published In

In Situ, Revue des Patrimoines

More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Published Here
May 23, 2014