Backstage after The Duchess of Malfi, Moreland takes Nick to meet Matilda in her dressing room. “The scene was a little like those depicted in French eighteenth-century engravings where propriety is archly threatened in the presence of an amorous abbé or two —powdered hair would have suited Matilda, I thought; Moreland, perhaps, too.” [CCR 52/48]
In eighteenth-century France engraved images occupied a place somewhere between so-called high and low art. Many engravings were skillful copies of famous paintings, the originals of which were only to be seen in the palaces of the aristocracy. Engraved copies could be printed in the hundreds and sold at prices that allowed the haute-bourgeoisie to benefit from familiarity with the cultural icons thus depicted, and also display their cultural literacy to visitors. At the same time, other, less exalted images were created just for the engraving distribution network. These images, drawn, engraved and printed with equal technical finesse, tended toward the didactic and sentimental, and with equal frequency, toward the risqué. In this way, popular engravings were the forerunner of television programming in their ability to entertain, educate, and titillate a middle-brow audience.
Archly suggestive scenes of the sort Nick alludes to abound in eighteenth-century French engravings, but we were unable to locate any with the requisite “amorous abbe´ or two.”
Nevertheless, the Widener Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has plenty on hand to flesh out our imagination of Matilda’s dressing room, and we reproduce four of them here.