The value of frugality in 18th century cooking.

What objects were found in the kitchens of the well-to-do in the 18th century? What was the daily routine of preparing food? Here are the answers to our questions: the engraving La cuisine bourgeoise (the bourgeois kitchen), based on the painting by landscape artist Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, now housed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, comes to our aid.

The author

Jean Baptiste Lallemand (1716-1803), from Dijon, was the son of a tailor who wanted him to take up the same trade. The young Jean Baptiste set to work with needle and thread, at least until 1739 when he was asked to paint four pictures to decorate a client’s country house and… not only did he get paid well, he understood that pencil and brush were his true calling. Thus he stopped designing the coquettish garments typical of the 18th-century wardrobe and moved on to the creation of pleasant landscapes and genre scenes.

He was successful as a painter and draftsman, and after a stay in England and Italy Jean-Baptiste decided to settle in Paris, where he became a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc.

The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon houses many of his works, but a great number of his drawings and paintings are also included in the collections of the Musée Carnavalet and of the Prints department of the Bibliothèque Nationale, both in Paris.

The engraver

The Parisian Pierre-François Basan (1723–1797) started off as a burin engraver and aquafortist of great skill, following his training under his uncle, the famous engraver Étienne Fessard, and his collaboration with Michel Odieuvre, who in the first half of the 18th century was a leading publisher and seller of prints in Europe.

Pierre-François had a lively character and lacked the patience and perseverance needed for engraving, so to that when he turned 30 he left his job as engraver to become a print seller.

Through the company he founded with his son-in-law, Basan et Poignant, he ended up monopolizing the engravings market first in Paris, then in France, and finally throughout Europe, after curating the catalogues of a number of estate auctions of famous people, such as that of the Marquis of Marigny, brother of the Marquise of Pompadour.

Basan published one of the most beautiful illustrated books of the 18th century, Les Métamorphoses d’Ovide illustrées par Le Mire (Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrated by Le Mire) (1767-1771) and Raccolta (Collection), which bears his name and presents the prints of a number of original copper plates engraved by Rembrandt.

Basan also edited the monumental work Dictionnaire des graveurs anciens et modernes depuis l’origine de la gravure; avec une notice des principales estampes qu’ils ont graveés (Dictionary of ancient and modern engravers from the beginning of engraving; with a note on the main prints they have engraved), published for the first time in 1767 and reissued in 1789. It was a must have for book and print sellers and experts all over the world.

The work

The engraving La cuisine bourgeoise (The bourgeois kitchen), made using aqua fortis and burin, depicts the interior of an 18th-century bourgeois kitchen with a wealth of details and furnishings. We see the mistress of the house sitting with a cat on her next to the fireplace, where a pot is hanging over the fire: the lady is watching her little girl playing on the floor. Next to the little girl, a puppy is watching the scene, while a servant is getting the meal ready and looks, perhaps flirtatiously, in full 18th-century spirit, at the shop boy who can be glimpsed walking by the high kitchen window. On the kitchen table there is a head of salad.

As can be read in the inscription on the print, the new bourgeoisie valued frugality and rejected lavishness and ostentation at the dining table. Health was the best reward of this sobriety.

This painting seems to anticipate the so-called Piccolo Vialardi (Small Vialardi), that is, the book entitled Cucina borghese, semplice ed economica (Simple and economic bourgeois cooking) first published in Turin in 1863 and written by Giovanni Vialardi, chef to the Royal House of Savoy.

This book was the abridged version of the Great VialardiTrattato di cucina, pasticceria moderna, credenza e relativa confettureria (Treatise on cooking, modern patisserie, sweets and related confectionery) published in 1854 – and contains healthy recipes of quality that require simple ingredients and methods of preparation and are, first of all, budget conscious. Even though she did not cook herself because she had servants, the mistress of the house had the important role of overseeing the family’s kitchen activities.

The bourgeois lady that we see in this print cannot know it, but she is the kind of reader whom Vialardi will address, almost a century later, in his “small treatise”.