March 17, 2021 – Alicia Caticha

Assistant Professor
Department of Art History
Northwestern University

“Sculpting Whiteness on the Eighteenth-Century Dining Table”

With the emergence of material culture studies, the eighteenth-century aristocratic dining table has become an important locus for understanding the history of porcelain, French culinary practices, and modes of elite sociability, yet little has been written on the intermingling materials used to create these elaborate tablescapes. With the advent of biscuit soft-paste porcelain at the Sèvres Royal Porcelain Manufactory, matte white unglazed statuettes were placed side by side expensive sugar sculptures as the centerpieces of elite dining tables. The replication of whiteness—the primary characteristic aesthetically linking porcelain and sugar—has been read as evidence of the prevailing importance of Academic sculpture and the explicit antique connotations of marble. However, the eighteenth century’s fetishization of porcelain and the violent conditions of sugar’s production must be put in dialogue with the white forms adorning the dinner tables of the aristocratic elite. In doing so, this paper argues that the replication of whiteness in materials with colonial and imperialist histories alludes to a deeper political and social ideology of a society attempting to assert ideas of racial difference and hierarchy while simultaneously representing the expanding global purview of eighteenth-century Europe.

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