Popular France



When it was founded in 1937, the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions – the Mucem’s predecessor – wanted to bring those who had no voice in other major national collections to the forefront: laborers and, even more so, peasant farmers. As a result, the art inherited by the museum from that era reflects the material living and working conditions, as well as the celebrations and beliefs, of modern French people at the turn of the 20th century, primarily in the rural world. Today, the Mucem still has a collection that serves as a reference in the field of popular French arts and traditions.

A collection of carefully chosen, tried and tested remedies for all diseases that afflict horses, cows and sheep, with a dictionary of plants and their properties
1747, Pierre Druon Helle

This anthology presents the remedies to prescribe against the illnesses suffered by horses, cows and sheep, as well as a dictionary of plants that references their virtues. It was written by Pierre Druon Helle in 1747 as a contribution to the movement of thought and progress in knowledge of animal medicine.

Blacksmith’s sign
First half of the 20th century

The “St. Eligius bouquets”, the name given to this type of object in reference to the patron saint of metalworkers, are assemblies of smaller versions of different irons, instruments and tools. These were a real demonstration of expertise and served as the blacksmith’s shop sign.

Wedding cabinet
Circa 1800

This wardrobe’s quality and exuberant decoration make it an extraordinary example of rural French furniture. It testifies to the enrichment of a segment of the peasantry in the late 18th century and the 19th century, especially in Normandy, which profited from its proximity to Paris.

The trophy designs, sculpted with slight relief in the medallions in the middle of the doors, provided the opportunity to order a more personal piece from the woodworker; adding agricultural tools, wine or harvest related items, or even a depiction of the newlyweds.

This example mixes elements of Louis XV (flowering basket and curved feet) and Louis XVI (symmetry, garland, fluting and beaded patterns) styles.

A wedding cabinet was often part of the wife’s dowry, which is why they were frequently adorned with symbols of marital bliss and prosperity for the home. Here, doves are shown kissing each other, surrounded by a wreath and a garland of flowers. This image is very common on this type of furniture, although here its relief is incredibly pronounced and it appears to be overflowing copiously from the pediment onto the doors.

Gourd of Glazed terracotta

Since its creation in 1936, one of the main lines of the policy for enriching the collections of the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions was to collect ceramics made in the different regions of France, as seen in this object, acquired just two years later.

Latter half of the 19th century - early 20th century

Used by milliners and hairdressers to create or display their models, a marotte is a mannequin made of wood, cardboard, wax or other materials. They are designed to look like a woman’s head so hats, wigs and other headgear can be placed on top.

The Cradle
1805 - 1808

This drawing by Olivier Perrin (1761-1832) is part of a series published in 1808 under the title of « Galerie des mœurs, usages et coutumes des Bretons de l’Armorique » (Gallery of Manners, Customs and Costumes of the Bretons of Armorica), better known as the Galerie Bretonne.

This interior Breton scene depicts a swaddled child, held down by straps passed through the sides of the cradle, as was frequently done in 19th century France. This system ensured that the child would not be ejected from the bed by overly powerful rocking.

In the 1808 publication of the Galerie Bretonne, this scene’s commentator harshly criticized the habit of letting swine roam about the house. He cautioned against those animals which, according to him, were guilty of “devouring the hands, faces and sometimes the entire heads of infants in their cradles”.

This warning, although condescending toward Breton peasants, was characteristic of the intellectual elite of the 19th century, who sought to promote better living conditions for the French population.

Cross pendant set with pentacrinites fossils
19th century

The fossils of pentacrinites (an animal from the same family as sea urchins and sea stars) are shaped like five-pointed stars. This appearance, which is both very geometrical and poetic, earned them a longstanding reputation as protective amulets, particularly against lightning.


Typically installed on rooftops, weathervanes are devices that comprise a rotating component mounted on a fixed vertical axle and whose purpose is to show the direction of the wind, as well as its cardinal point of origin. They are often decorated with an image of a cockerel, typically made of wrought iron openwork, that pivots to point into the wind.

The cockerel was said to have been the bird of light, the emblem of Christ and of the intelligence of God, announcing the day and calling all souls to a Christian way of life.

L’Arbre de Mai (May Tree)
1830 - 1895

This large painting depicts villagers planting a tree to which ribbons and flowers have been affixed. This is the May Tree, whose planting has celebrated throughout Europe for many centuries now. Beginning as a rite of fertility linked to the springtime return of foliage and rebirth of nature since Ancient times, it became a celebration of lovers during the Middle Ages.

As the centuries went by, the May Tree would become an opportunity for a community to pay tribute to a lord or notable, a meaning which it still retains in France today.

You can see the French flag in the upper right corner of the canvas. In some parts of France, the custom persists of planting a tree decorated with a flag in honor of newly elected town officials. This practice also stems from that of the Liberty Tree.

Heart-shaped Padlock

Many objects, sometimes simple, sometimes finely worked, are dear to those who keep them, because they are signs of affection, gifts, or symbols of a union that can survive separation. As the organ that controls our blood flow, the heart has long been considered to be the centre of our passions and our feelings. While it may represent the impulse that brings mankind to God or, on the contrary, divine love in depictions of the Sacred Heart, it symbolizes romantic love in many different objects given as tokens of desire or affection.

Fodder press
Circa 1897

This fodder press was designed to produce bales of hay. Technically speaking, it marks the beginnings of the mechanization of certain agricultural tasks, the transitional stage between completely manual haymaking, when the hay was stored loose in lofts or in stacks, to a time when bales of hay are made directly in the fields using a tractor-drawn baler.

The Great Lake of Barbary
Circa 1730-1775, Jean-François Daumont

A perspective view is a form of print specifically designed to be viewed through a series of mirrors and lenses, set up to create an impression of depth. Typically etched into a copper plate, the perspective view presents subjects whose setting is architecture or a landscape with especially straight lines.

Perspective views were a real societal phenomenon in Europe beginning in the first quarter of the 18th century, where they were produced in large numbers and disseminated for nearly a century.

Credits: Story

© Mucem 2017

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