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The Movings

Louis-Leopold Boilly

at the Art Institute of Chicago

By Mark Swartz

We all become anthropologists when we enter someone's home for the first time. As soon as we walk in the door we ask for a tour. What's in there, we inquire innocently, another bedroom? Where did you get this lamp? Who are you?

Artists, who at some basic level are in the business of creating possessions, must be especially sensitive to the association between possessions and identity. Christian Boltanski has mounted exhibits based on the clothes and other belongings of real or composite children who may or may not have been killed by the Nazis. Peter Menzel's photographic essay The Material World: A Global Family Portrait, published in 1995 by Sierra Club Books, shows statistically average families from 30 nations posed outside their homes but surrounded by all their stuff; meant to revel in the assortment of objects that can be owned, the book also highlights the disparity in wealth between nations and asks whether the earth can continue to produce enough stuff to meet the desires of everybody living on it. (A surprise publishing hit, the book spawned a CD-ROM and a sequel devoted to women's possessions.) Jerry Seinfeld's American Express ads--displaying on the street one day's shopping purchases, which far exceed the lifetime accumulation of a family in Bhutan--represent a horrifying if witty perversion of Menzel's anthropological approach.

Louis-Leopold Boilly, a French painter who was a favorite of the bourgeoisie in the years after the revolution, also saw that material possessions offer tantalizing if not always reliable clues to identity, ideology, and social position. Then as now the difference between the rich and the poor was that the rich had more and better stuff. Boilly lived in Paris during an opportune period for studying both classes. Shortly after he arrived in the French capital in 1785 the treasures of the monarchy fell into the hands of the people. An auction held at Versailles a few years after the revolution lasted from August 25, 1793, to August 20 of the next year; the 17,182 lots included jewels, paintings, Sevres porcelain, ormolu clocks, tapestries, and lacquered furniture. The middle class bought up much of this bounty, and in his career as a society painter Boilly often incorporated such opulent and ostentatious stuff in his portraits, although historians have found that articles, lands, and even pets included in such pictures often did not belong to the sitter.

Bourgeois tastes changed, and rather than enjoying scenes taken from lives similar to their own, people wanted art that gave the lives of the poor an allegorical or "philosophical" bent; Boilly was happy to meet their demands. His oil painting of 1822, Les demenagements sur le Port au Ble ("The Movings," also known as "Moving Day"), captures a crowd of 25 working-class Parisians in a vulnerable moment. While not exactly homeless, they lack shelter for the time being--which is to say they lack a basic human need. "That's all you need in life," George Carlin used to say, "a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is, a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time."

The people in the picture wander the streets enduring the indignity of having their stuff exposed and in total disorder (eventually artistic and historical factors beyond their control landed them at 111 S. Michigan). Invading their privacy, Boilly invites the world to observe and judge them. The subject should be a familiar one to anyone who's been in Wrigleyville around the first of October, when U-Hauls stop traffic in every alley, their emergency lights blinking, the murals on their sides celebrating Wyoming or New Orleans. The people moving in Boilly's painting lack rented trucks, so they carry their belongings on their backs or transport them in overloaded carts, searching for lodging just vacated by somebody now out looking for an apartment just vacated by somebody else. If they're lucky, the previous occupant left behind a piece of furniture in lieu of the last month's rent. Inevitably there will be flights of stairs to climb; in the days before elevators, the upper floors were the most affordable.

Boilly's picture, painted for the Louvre's 1822 Salon, was praised for its philosophical characterization of the poor, although it is now clear that the artist subscribed to a sentimentalized and idealized stereotype complete with doggies and a baby. The figures and background come not from Boilly's close anthropological observation of the poor but from the paintings and prints of others. The artist probably never saw this district with his own eyes. In fact, the Port au Ble was inaccessible during the time the picture was painted. Nor did Boilly set up his easel on the street to paint the church that dominates the left part of the background. It isn't even a Parisian structure--it's one of the churches of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, and Boilly never once left Paris during his adult years. No wonder the travelers are lost, with such an unfamiliar landmark on the horizon.

The artist painted this scene to satisfy middle-class curiosity about how the other half lived in the City of Light. The people look phony, but the scene is vivid thanks to the accumulation of their stuff: the dismantled furniture, the mattresses leaking hay, the patterned blankets, the simple ceramic pitcher, and--for that personal touch--the artist's easel. "Its subject is literally the exteriorization of private life: it shows the insides of people's dwellings thrown out onto the street," according to Susan Siegfried, author of The Art of Louis-Leopold Boilly and organizer of last year's show devoted to the artist (for which The Movings moved temporarily to Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas).

Owing to his skill at giving the middle class what they wanted, Boilly enjoyed a profitable career, but he came to regard art as a job rather than a lifelong calling. Shortly after painting The Movings he retired to become an investor in mortgage loans: the painter of stuff began trading in purely symbolic stuff, credit, and in the only stuff that never loses its value, real estate. Unlike most stuff, however, real estate isn't portable.

In 1829 Boilly held a sale of all his paintings as well as his personal collection of precious objects and works of art. According to Siegfried, "he systematically sold nearly everything of value that he owned." Besides making him a small fortune, the sale enabled him to live out his years as something of an urban nomad: he changed residences at least seven times afterward. Although he didn't belong to the class portrayed in The Movings, perhaps he connected with his subjects psychologically. When you move, you move your stuff to someplace different, and maybe something different happens. What the poor do of necessity the rich do out of longing.

Fittingly, this painting of stuff turned into stuff. According to records at the Art Institute, the Comte de Pourtales-Gorgier first purchased The Movings, and it changed hands three times before the Art Institute acquired it in 1982. With no second touring exhibition of Boilly's art in the works anytime soon, it looks as if the painting is stuck. Once, the 25 figures had 25 separate destinations--for can even a mother and child be said to have the same destination, despite parallel journeys? Now, the travelers cling together as they continue on a journey of another dimension, a journey through history.

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