The Monkey Aristocracy
These monkeys were once a scathing critique on French aristocracy. There is a monkey on a early sort of bicycle called a velocipede, a monkey harpist, a monkey violinist, two small monkey musicians, and an incredible monkey dandy under a large glass dome. All are dressed in fine silks with hair done up in the style of French Royalty. These automata were a post-French-revolution joke on the former rulers and current dandies of France. So popular was the theme of foolish aristocratic monkeys that it was common in French homes, and whole rooms were decorated around the theme.
One such room is the Chateau de Chantilly’s Monkey Room in Paris, France. In the mid-1730s the artist Christophe Huet was commissioned by Louis-Henri, the duke of Bourbon, to paint scenes with monkey vignettes on the walls of an elegant white Rococo salon with gilded stucco ornaments. By 1737, Huet had decorated nearly every surface with a complex allegorical design in which monkeys, fashionably dressed, are depicted in aristocratic pursuits: boar hunting, drinking chocolate, doing their hair, dancing and singing. While the monkeys are charming, they also gently mocked the nobles they represented.
The use of monkeys to poke fun at the rich wasn’t always restricted to art, and often the rich joined in on the fun. “In the early 1700s it was fashionable for aristocrats to keep monkeys as pets. They dressed the monkeys in fancy outfits for comic effect and taught them human tricks, like pickpocketing, that they would display on leisurely walks around Versailles.” Little dressed up versions of humans, stealing treats from the lavish banquet spreads.