metropolitan vanities

The History Of The Vanity At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art In New York

Saida Santana

Metropolitan Vanities reflects historical changes in social habits and popular taste over the centuries.

Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table depicts the history and transformation of the piece of furniture we know today as the vanity, from ancient Egyptian boxes where beauty treasures were kept, to the most avant-garde furniture of the 21st century devoted to grooming and beauty. This interesting retrospective is on view until April 13, 2014, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Metropolitan Vanities
GEORGE BARBIER (1882–1932). Le Bonheur du jour; ou, Les Graces à la mode, 1924.

Furniture, as the central focus of the places we inhabit, plays a unique role in the history of mankind. In this context, the vanity may be considered the piece that best reflects changes in social customs, leisure activities and general taste over the past centuries. With this in mind, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has organized an exhibition around the vanity, which takes us on a historical journey, reflected in some 50 objects, paintings and drawings selected primarily from their own collection.

But when did we decide to have a cabinet dedicated exclusively to our care and embellishment? It all started with a box. The ancient Egyptians created beautifully decorated boxes to hold the necessary paraphernalia for daily beauty rituals: cosmetics, bottles for exquisite fragrances and exotic oils, makeup and mirrors. Its inspiration may lie in the distant past, but the vanity, or dressing table, as we know it today, dates back to 17th century Europe, specifically France and England, where the upper classes of society commissioned luxurious furnishings from artisans and skilled furniture manufacturers.

On view at the MET, some intimate examples of this peculiar item, including French poudreuse vanities and English shaving tables. There is also a mechanical table by Jean-François Oeben and Roger Vandercruse (1761-1763), artfully engineered so that the top slides back as the front moves forward to reveal the vanity mirror and additional compartments. This sublime object of beauty was likely designed for the chateaux of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour. It features some of the symbols associated with the marquise, including the tower, which is the main emblem on her coat of arms, artfully depicted at the top of the gilt-bronze mounts at each corner.

Metropolitan Vanities
1. Armand-Albert Rateau (French, 1882-1938). Dressing Table ca.1925.
2. Raymond Loewy (American, born France, 1893–1986) Valet 2000/50 dressing cabinet (DF2000 series) 1969.

Vanity designs were less prodigious in America with the Chippendale style among the most popular. According to the curators, “During the 19th century, dressing tables were made in many revivalist styles including the Gothic, Elizabethan, Rococo, Renaissance, and Colonial revivals, to name a few. Eventually, in the later 19th century, the dressing table—like other cabinet furniture—became a matching part of the bedroom suite”.

But it was not until the early 20th century, during the Art Deco period that both in Europe and in America, the vanity became a symbol of modernity, luxury and glamour. If we look at Hollywood films from the 1920s and 1930s, we’ll find the recurrent image of the femme fatale shown as a troubled heroine sitting at her wonderfully elegant vanity table in the penthouse of a New York skyscraper. Norman Bel Geddes’ enamel and chrome-plated steel dressing table (1932) is also part of this show.

Metropolitan Vanities
1. Mechanical table. Jean-François Oeben (1721–1763) and Roger Vandercruse, called Lacroix (French, 1728–1799), ca. 1761–63.
2. French, Third quarter of the 18th century. Shagreen on wood, with fittings of gold, porcelain, glass, and steel.

The display also includes more recent pieces that reflect a diversity of new styles, from plastic models by Raymond Loewy (1969), to a postmodernist Plaza vanity by Michael Graves (1981) and the minimalist dressing table created by the Korean contemporary designer Choi Byung Hoon (2013).

Salves, ointments, oils, perfumes, makeup … and a mirror in front, the history of the vanity is the story of our unexplained devotion to personal beauty. This intimate piece also says a lot about the moments we dedicate to our care. Metropolitan Vanities allows us to imagine the tales of those who sat in front of the pieces on view. It is also a reflection on the leisure time we have lost in our convoluted 21st century lives.

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