In this canvas, François André Vincent—an artist who was able to shift from ancien régime cultural politics to those of the French Revolution—captures the new revolutionary emphasis on emotion and intellectual effort. The portrait depicts the actor, dramatist, and man of letters Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Choudard, known as Desforges, which was his stage and pen name. In sympathy with the fashionable trend toward the casual, Vincent focused on the slight, elegant disarray of Desforges’s attire: his capacious white linen shirt open at the neck with pleated cuffs undone and his ecru-colored gilet (a sleeveless waistcoat) of sturdy cotton. Here is a man at work, neither a courtier nor a fashion victim.
From the middle of the eighteenth century in France, philosophers and others voiced growing discontent toward the status quo and in particular the outrageous cost of the court, as symbolized by the extravagance and artifice of the clothes worn there. Beginning in the 1780s, many young men, particularly from the upper classes, began to adopt informal fashions in sober colors: dark suits and coachmen’s collared coats of wool, waistcoats of linen or cotton, leather breeches, and so on. Such clothing, linked to “democracy” and the supposed simplicities of nature, was taken up by men who wished to reform French society on more egalitarian English principles and by those who generally thought clothing should be more practical and comfortable.
Aileen Ribeiro, “The Mirror of History: The Art of Dress in Late Eighteenth-Century France," in “French Art of the Eighteenth Century: The Michael L. Rosenberg Lecture Series at the Dallas Museum of Art,” ed. Heather MacDonald (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art and the Michael L. Rosenberg Foundation, 2016), 143–44.