Rococo Aesthetics: Women, Lapdogs and Sexual Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Art

29 May 2014

Painting: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Young Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance, c1768 (Munich, Alte Pinakothek)
Painting: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Young Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance, c1768 (Munich, Alte Pinakothek)

Professor Jennifer Milam will consider how Rococo art is connected with Enlightenment thought processes that sought to push the accepted boundaries of human sexuality in an effort to argue the merits of a life of pleasure in this 5 June Insights Lecture.

"During the second half of the eighteenth century, popular and widespread engagement with philosophical ideas that used the animal to understand the human and mind/body debates ranged from numerous entries about dogs and Parisian society in Louis-Sébastien Mercier's Tableau de Paris, to a rise in the portrayal of intimate relationships between women and their lapdogs in both fictional texts and images," Professor Milam said.

"One of the most affective versions of this theme in painting is Jean-Honoré Fragonard's Young Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance."
Focusing on this painting, Professor Milam will explore the ways in which feelings of attachment and companionship between humans and animals were communicated visually.

"Situated in a private enclosed space, contained within a circular flow of pose and gesture, interconnected through tactile conflations of painterly flesh and fur, the intimate relationship between a woman and her pet is presented as mutually determined by a shared experience of interspecies sensuality," Professor Milam said.

"Analysing how these feelings of care and affection—love—between the human and non-human animal were communicated, evaluated and received in fictional texts and images is part of the purpose of this lecture.

"While widely considered to be one of Fragonard's most masterful works, this painting is rarely discussed in any meaningful way.

"It is as if the sexual intensity of the image, conveyed through the tactility of paint and suggestion of bestial transgression, has silenced art historical critique.

"Yet these very features—materiality and overt sexuality—serve to guide interpretation."
Professor Milam's lecture intends to show that Fragonard's painting is not only a corollary of a philosophies of happiness expounded by radical materialists Julien Offray de La Mettrie and the Marquis de Sade, but also a provocation to visual experiences that expose Enlightenment anxieties about gender differences and the subjectivity of response.

Event details


5.30pm - 7.00pm


5.30pm -Refreshments will be served in the Nicholson Museum, Quadrangle, the University of Sydney.
6.00pm - Lecture will be held in the General Lecture Theatre 1, Quadrangle, the University of Sydney


$10 per lecture


Bookings are essential as places are limited.



Kate Macfarlane, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Alumni Relations Manager
T 93517454 E

Speaker/ Performer:

Professor Jennifer Milam, Professor of Art History and Eighteenth - Century Studies