Nearly ten years ago (omg), we published a blog post featuring mules in 18th century art for the first release of Antoinette Mules. Now that spring has arrived, Fêtes Galantes is coming up, and mules are making more and more appearances as the weather warms, we figured it’s a good time to revisit mule spotting in art history!
Backless slippers have been worn for hundreds of years, by people from cultures all around the world. In the 18th century, mules were especially popular. They were made in all manner of materials, from silk to leather to wool; they were made for indoor and outdoor wear, and they were worn by women from all social classes. Fast forward to the late 19th century, and mules experienced a resurgence as 18th century aesthetics trended in women’s footwear.
The enduring popularity of mules means that they make appearances in several paintings. Let’s dive into some of the most interesting 18th-century paintings where mules can be found!
Though it now hangs in a museum in Spain, this Boucher painting is quintessential French Rococo. Painted during Boucher’s most accomplished decade, La Toilette emphasizes lightness, grace, happiness, and intimacy. Far from formal and posed, these ladies are depicted in a charmingly cluttered interior, which I think proves that cleaning one’s room has always been overhyped. This painting is like a little game of I-Spy! Besides two beautiful pairs of mules, you can spot all sorts of things in this picture. Notice the sewing bag hanging from the fire-screen, and the ball of string trailing from the bag to the cat’s paws. The seated lady is tying her garter on, adding to that distinctly Rococo air of intimacy and sexuality. As she ties her garter, her ladies’ made is presenting her with a potential cap option to wear. She, too, is wearing mules, which are a perfect match for 1740s ensembles.
This painting hardly needs an introduction. Les Hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, a.k.a L’Escarpolette or The Swing, is a Rococo masterpiece, and Fragonard’s best-known painting. Today, L’Escarpolette is emblematic of 18th-century French art. A young woman bedecked in pink silk sits on a cushion swing hanging from an oak tree, positioned between two men. According to the curators at the Wallace Collection, the rightmost man (hidden in the shadows) is her elderly husband, while the young man on the left is her lover. As she swings, one of her matching pink mules flies off her foot, offering a very scandalous view to her lover!
Dr. Yuriko Jackall, Head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of French Paintings at the Wallace Collection, gives a wonderful talk about the history of this painting and the artist in the video below. It’s so interesting, give it a watch!
As long as we are discussing emblematic Rococo paintings with mules, we have to mention Madame de Pompadour! Historical costumers will likely have seen this painting all over the place, as this gown is a community favorite (for good reason!). Madame de Pompadour was King Louis XV’s chief mistress for 6 years, and remained a fixture at court afterwards. She was also a patron of Boucher, who painted this portrait of her. It would take an entire separate blog post to go into detail about Madame de Pompadour herself, so we’re just going to focus on this painting for now!
Madame de Pompadour is wearing a stunning silk robe a la Française in this paintings, bedecked with rosettes, gigantic sleeve flounces, a ribbon choker, and lots of jewelry. Her mules have pink silk and lace uppers, with a leather-wrapped French heels.
If you look at the fixtures around Madame de Pompadour, you will notice lots of references to her intelligence and activities. Letter writing materials for correspondences, flowers, sheet music, a bookshelf, a book in her lap…all these features were meant to allude to the type of person that Madame de Pompadour was. Back in the 18th century, some critics found the painting to be “too much”, but I think it’s just right.
We made a Dress Analytics video about this painting a few years ago. Check it out below:
The Laundress depicts a more working-class mule-wearer than the Boucher paintings discussed above. This painting is particularly interesting because it blends the cheeky sensuality of Rococo art with the figure of a washerwoman, who were often associated with virtue and humility through hard work. This laundress fixes her gaze on the viewer as she wrings out an article of clothing, her stocking and slipper *gasp!* exposed. Her mules appear to be smooth leather, with red uppers and an ivory heel, paired with white stockings.
La Mauvaise Nouvelle, or “Bad News”, by Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, demonstrates the 18th century artistic trend of depicting the happiness and sorrows of love, and the emotions of the human soul. Though we can’t read what the letter this woman is holding says, it is implied to be bad news, as she dabs tears away from her eyes. The sadness on her face is contrasted starkly by her voluminous and bright yellow gown, which extends nearly to the edges of the canvas. Her mules are centered in the lower third of the painting, and we can see that they are blue (likely blue silk), with yellow trim to match her gown.