At the dining table of an 18-thcentury aristocratic family.

What were the dining customs of an 18th-century aristocratic French family? And what was their dining room like? We can find out by studying the print Le gateau des roys (The cake of kings), made from a drawing by Philippe Canot and dating to around 1760.

The author

Philippe Canot or Caneau (ca. 1715 – 1783) was a French draftsman and painter in the rococo style that in 18th-century art and architecture left behind the imposing plasticism of the baroque period in favour of decorative elements, characterized by compositional lightness and luminosity of colours.

Little is known about him. He was the younger brother of the famous engraver Pierre-Charles and, starting in 1740, he painted numerous genre scenes in the style of Jean Siméon Chardin.

He was a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc and worked full time as decorator in the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi: within the organization of the French royal house under the Ancient Régime , this was the department responsible for the King’s “minor pleasures”, namely all the preparations of ceremonies, events and celebrations.

Many of Philippe Canot’s works – scenes of family life in the gallant style, that is, painted with a gentle, delicate, loving and intimate hand – were engraved by Jacques-Philippe Le Bas, Charles Iron and Jean-Joseph Balechou.

The engraver

Le gateaux des roys (The cake of kings) was the work of the famous engraver Jacques-Philippe Le Bas or Lebas (1707 – 1783), head of the workshop that trained most of the engravers making up the golden age of this art in 18th-century France.

The Parisian engraver and draftsman knew how to perfectly convey the masters’ style and brushwork in his prints and in 1782 earned the title of “the King’s engraver”. He successfully produced over five hundred engravings, including many great portraits by Vernet and several works by van de Velde, Parrocel, Berchem, Ruysdaël, Watteau, Oudry and Lancret.

Le Bas’ favourite technique was the oldest one, burin engraving, which takes its name from the tool used to engrave the metal.

This engraving process dates back to the first half of the 15th century and comes from the technique employed by goldsmiths on metals since the Middle Ages: they used the burin to engrave thin layers of metal, usually silver, and then filled the carved lines with a black mixture called nigellum to bring out the design.

Le Bas was also the first, after Rembrandt, to also use the drypoint technique, which would later be further refined by some of his workshop students.

In drypoint, the plate is incised directly with a hard-pointed needle which creates lines that have metal filaments, called burrs. The latter hold the ink, thus giving the first run of prints a characteristic velvety line.

The work

Le gateaux des roys (The cake of kings) shows a family scene in an 18th-century aristocratic home.

The family is having lunch or dinner around a table, while the servant is carrying a steaming soup tureen. A little girl is offering a slice of cake to her father and, on the right, the open cupboard reveals rather refined dishes and accessories.

It is a genre scene that evokes the spirit of Chardin’s paintings, whose protagonists are often domestic figures or the children of the French bourgeoisie or aristocracy, portrayed in the performance of simple everyday activities.

It is a minor painting compared to the great historical subjects that in the 18th century were considered the highest and noblest genre, but one that reveals a touch of rococo hedonism as it lingers on the elegant folds of the lady’s dress and, above all, chooses postures and gestures of innate elegance for the protagonists of the scene, as if sharing a meal was a dance rather than a need.

Small fun fact: in France the gateau de roys is the cake of the Three Kings, the traditional Epiphany dessert. In the past, cooks used to place a broad bean between the soft layers of this aromatic frangipane cake (usually accompanied by a glass of cider), while nowadays they hide a figurine inside it. The one who finds the so-called fève is elected king or queen of the day and receives a shiny paper crown.

In the 18th century, the gateau des roys tradition was already four hundred years old, as it became popular in the 14th century. But do you know how ancient its origins are? It dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, the celebrations in honour of the god Saturn, when the king of the festival was chosen through a bean hidden in a walnut, date and fig cake.