Singerie: 18th Century Arts Depicting Monkeys Aping Human Behavior

Antoine Watteau’s “The Monkey Sculpture.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Singerie is a French word for “Monkey Trick” and is the name given to arts depicting monkeys aping human behavior. The Singerie was popular as far back as Ancient Egypt, and, in medieval times, scribes frequently drew monkeys in the margins of manuscripts to mimic man and his foibles. Flemish engraver Pieter van der Borcht introduced the singerie around 1575 in a series of prints and this encouraged other Flemish artists to begin depicting monkeys dressed in human attire. By the 18th century, singeries found their way to France where they became extremely popular.

Singerie was not necessarily an art form to be taken seriously. It was “employed for the enjoyment of the court or the diversion of the royal children.” This meant that singeries were often whimsical, humorous, or comical as they made fun of people. Moreover, singeries made real monkeys popular because in the early 1700s, aristocrats and nobles kept them as pets. They dressed their monkeys in fashionable costumes and taught them tricks, such as how to pickpocket in and around the grounds of Versailles.

“The Circus Wagon.” Courtesy of Museum of Art Boston.

Among the French artists that embraced singeries was the great royal ébéniste André Charles Boulle. Boulle’s fame in marquetry led to his name being given to the fashion he perfected of inlaying brass and tortoiseshell, known as Boulle. One singerie created by Boulle is called “The Circus Wagon.” This template was an engraved metal plate used in a design for a table top. It depicted a birdcage being driven by a monkey coachmen with other monkeys aboard. One twentieth-century writer described the template as follows:

“This whimsical coach is intentionally difficult to decipher, and dissolves into a scrollwork of wagon springs in one vision, while at the same it is pulled by four barbary apes in costume, whose fifth companion on a sled tilts at a bucket of water. Musicians, acrobats and tightrope walkers complete the decoration and the bust of wise Athena is placed atop the carriage as a foil.”

“The Triumphal Car.” Courtesy of Museum of Art Boston.

The second singerie template is also from Boulle. Like the first template, it is also likely from the first quarter of the eighteenth century. This template is known as “The Triumphal Car.” It was also used for a table top design. This time the elaborate carriage has a putto (sometimes called putti) swinging under an arbor surrounded by other puttoes. A further description follows:

“It [the carriage] seems driven by a series of mechanisms — birds pulling at garlands, a coachman monkey whipping his team of bees, and a pair of ox-like goats harnessed underneath. It is a creation for the enjoyment of the eye, rather than for the deductions of the encyclopedists.”

Chardin’s Painting on Left, Deshays Painting on Right. Public Domain.

Boulle wasn’t the only Frenchmen to embrace the idea of singeries. Several eighteenth-century artists painted monkeys performing artistic activities just like humans. For instance, French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau painted a singerie in 1710 called “The Monkey Sculptor” (shown at top of this post). The painting shows a monkey creating a bust. Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin also chose a monkey as his subject in his 1740 painting titled, “Monkey Painter.” In this case, the monkey is holding a palette in one hand and the brush in the other and may be about to paint a self-portrait. Another painting that also “aped” nature was titled, “The Monkey Painter.” This painting was produced by Jean-Baptiste Deshays, and his monkey was shown getting ready to paint a real life nude human model. 

Singerie Porcelain Sweetmeat Dishes with Monkeys. Courtesy of masterart.com.

Singeries were popular enough that Frenchmen wanted to decorate their homes with them. Therefore, monkey figurines became popular and singeries were created by the Meissen factory. The Meissen factory made a hard paste porcelain that was developed near Dresden, Germany, and, in the 18th century, the modeler Johann Joachim Kändler created a slew of twenty monkey figurines that formed an orchestra. These monkey figurines did everything any orchestra member might do. They played instruments, sang, and conducted. The 18th century monkey figurines were popular enough that in the late 1800s/early 1900s the Meissen factory re-struck them.

Other pieces of singerie porcelain include a pair of monkeys created in the form of sweetmeat dishes in 1758. These monkeys were supported on an asymmetrical base that was covered in a variety of pastel flowers of honeysuckle and roses. Both monkeys sit sideways, and the female monkey is singing and holding her sheet music. The male monkey is playing a flute-like instrument and wearing a tricorne hat, a cravat, and striped pantaloons. 

Example of a Singerie by Christopher Huet. Courtesy of Georgian Gent.

The popularity of monkeys in the 18th century also resulted in singerie rooms. This was the case with the Château de Chantilly in Chantilly, France, about 30 miles from Paris. The château was owned by the Bourbon Condé family, and, during the rococo period, Christophe Huet painted two rooms, Le Grande Singerie and La Petite Singerie. Between garlands and sprays of flowers, monkeys covered nearly every surface in a palette that was often pastel or light. Huet depicted monkeys in vignettes performing all sorts of human activities such as bathing, riding, dressing, playing, and hunting. One nineteenth magazine described the rooms as follows:

“The great and little ‘Singeries’ are two rooms decorated with grotesque panels, in which monkeys are represented in all the circumstance of French elegant life in the eighteenth century, playing at pastoral life like Madame de Pompadour, paying court to fair coquettes, and exhibiting all the foibles of frivolous humanity.”

If you are interested in see more singeries, Stefan Wulf published a catalog of 33 singeries for the Antiquarian Book Fair in Leipzig in spring 2017. He approved my sharing of this, so click here.

References:

  • “An Extremely Rare and High Important Pair of Bow Monkey, Singerie Sweetmeat Dishes,” in Brian Haughton Gallery
  • Child, Theodore, Art and Criticism, 1892
  • Moonan, Wendy, “Chateau’s Monkey Room is Lovingly Restored,” in New York Times, 20 May 2008
  • Randall, Jr., Richard “Templates for Boulle Singerie,” in The Burlington Magazine, September 1969
  • Satz, Aura and Jon Wood, Articulate Objects, 2009

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