Auguste Toulmouche: The Kiss
Twenty years after The Reluctant Bride and only 4 years before his death Toulmouche painted The Kiss, another work which for me shows some “grit” in the ideology of the licked surface of French academic painting. Once again the painter creates his trademark- an elaborate and opulent interior in which to enact the work’s narrative.
The scene occurs in a private dining salon... In the center of the room is a small square dining table covered with a creamy white tablecloth with long fringe and a cutwork inset. The table is laden with a gorgeous still-life of fruit in a china compote. There are crystal glasses, other china dishes and a large bottle of champagne. A second bottle in a silver ice bucket sits on the rug next to the table leg. Two typically French upholstered gilt wood chairs are also partially visible.
And who are the players on this beautiful stage? They both wear costumes rather than the everyday clothes of the 1880’s. Perhaps they have attended a costume ball and have now slipped away from the crowd for a private dessert tête-à-tête. The man on the left wears the white satin outfit of a French Pierrot, a character from the French Commedia dell’ Arte. But this is no sad clown pining for love. This clown is kissing the object of his desire. He wins his Columbine.
She is a beautiful object with dark hair and porcelain skin. She wears a pale pink silk dress with a fitted bodice and a tiered ruffled skirt in a slightly deeper pink. The skirt has an overlay of tulle-like fabric embroidered with shiny silver flowers. A bouquet of pink roses appears to fasten and gather the tulle creating a sort of bustle. She completes her coquettish look with delicate pink shoes and a jaunty white hat with a white feather.
I do not recognize her costume. Is she a courtesan, a prostitute, a mistress? A courtesan like Zola’s Nana? But, this painting is many years after Napoleon III though Nana set in the Second Empire was written in 1880, so perhaps there is a connection. Otherwise, it is unclear.
What is evident is the passion of their kiss. The painting captures a fevered moment. It is as if suddenly seized by desire in this private space, the man and woman push back their chairs and take the shortest route to each others' lips - across the table, leaning forward on their palms. They kiss above the compote overflowing with colorful fruit. There is a visual (oral) slippage between the fruit - ripe, juicy, ready to be eaten, ready to satiate the eater and give him/her pleasure and the kiss - the touching of moist lips, mouths wet with saliva, mouths and tongues ready to enjoy and be enjoyed, the pleasure of a physical connection with a desired individual in a darkened, intimate and private room.
The Kiss is a passionate painting devoid of sentimentality but brimming with the desire that all of us experience and have experienced being in a room alone with someone we fancy, sharing a glass of champagne with him and some good food and delighting in that first kiss, that first touch. This painting is unlike the sappiness of other Toulmouche works like The Love Letter or the type of academic painting that verged on soft core pornography such as Love on the Lookout by William-Adolphe Bouguereau from 1890. (In the Bouguereau, idealization ends and creepiness begins.) In this way, therefore, The Kiss disrupts the ideology of the licked surface and its notion of the ideal and the thought- represent LOVE not love. Though the figures in the Toulmouche are costumed, they are grounded in a reality of passion and desire and not an evocation of an abstract idea through a mythical or historical subject. [The Great Within]