In a Reddit post I wrote, I talked about the surtout de table and its prominence on grand European tables in the late 18th to 19th centuries. Aside from being beautiful, surtouts de table were known to be extra opulent and over-the-top—partly as a show of political influence and wealth.
Aside from the astronomical cost of commissioning such a piece (the famous surtout de table in display at the White House State Room cost around 6600 francs at the time), the surtout de table emerged as a political piece in the world after the French Revolution in 1789.
The death of Louis XIV in 1715 changed the way the aristocrats ate—preferring the intimate dining rooms of Paris instead of Versailles, small oval tables often came “bare” with food as the main décor, and with ornaments, sculptures, and various candelabra scattered around for effect.
With the advent of the French Revolution, intimate dining spaces (which were negatively associated with the wealthy and aristocratic) were tossed over in favor of the old style of dining which included very long and rectangular tables.
In particular, the style of dining called service à la russe, which involves staggered courses, gained popularity and enabled tabletops to have more free space for decorative purposes. The large surtout de table, with its elegant gilded ornaments and mirrored surfaces, was the perfect centerpiece to complement the richness of these grand dining affairs.
In April, the Cooper Hewitt had a particularly interesting exhibit featuring a French surtout de table from its collection. In case you missed it, the surtout de table is the one I featured above, but here are the other images in the collection. Accompanying it is a wonderful short read about the politics of the surtout de table, which inspired me to write this article.
Aside from gilded bronze, surtouts de table could also be made from different (and equally costly) materials such as silver, porcelain, and glass. The grandest houses in Europe commissioned the best goldsmiths to create dazzling ornaments and centerpieces to complement their vast dining rooms. Aside from inspiration from the Antiquity (Greek and Roman figurines were very popular), garden scenes, architectural objects, and even dogs (molded to fit grand old hunting lodges), were made in the fashionable Rococo and Baroque styles.
Today, with the advent of the more informal and less grand dining situation, the surtout de table is all but phased out from modern dining. Notable examples still in existence would be the beautiful plateau featured in the White House State Room, as well as the surtouts de table in dining rooms across old estates in Europe such as the one displayed in Chatsworth House.
In America, the popularity of the surtout de table never made it past the upper echelons of society. One of the first ever examples of an American plateau was bought by George Washington a month after the news of the storming of the Bastille.
In selecting the surtout de table, Washington directed Gouverneur Morris— who was on France for business since early 1789—to “avoid extravagance”, as it “would not comport with my own inclination, nor with the example which ought to be set.” Instead of following orders, Morris sent over a surtout de table with seven sections that totalled around twelve feet long. This is still in display in the Tudor House in Washington D.C. today.
Morris defended the cost of the grand centerpiece by appealing to Washington’s inclinations to legitimize the republic. A cheap centerpiece, he argued, would be laughed at in the grand houses in Europe. It wouldn’t be fit for someone of Washington’s stature to be seen with an insignificant plateau, and worse, he would be compared to a petite-maîtresse—a young woman known for affected manners and poor taste.
In this excellent article by Nicole Mahoney, she writes about the political line toed by Washington and Morris. On one hand, the president wanted to impress his guests (and thus give the air of legitimacy to his presidency), but on the other, he strived to avoid the ostentatious display of wealth that was commonly seen in Europe at the time. But one thing was certain, Washington’s view solidified the influence of French polite society, mannerisms, and taste across America’s elite dining rooms, which then trickled down to the rest of the population.
As with all forms of art, tablescaping reflects and evolves along with the times. This rise and fall of the popularity (and politicking) of over-the-top dining, and subsequently the use of surtouts de table, mimics fashion’s everchanging styles, to some extent.
Right now, what’s very on trend (or rather, what’s splashed all over my Pinterest board) is all very minimalist, Marie Kondo-esque/Scandinavian designs. This goes for both my table and the fashion I see around me, but every few seasons, I see Baroque (and not too often Rococo) come back in style.
Scandinavian minimalist fashion has always intrigued me, as it always seemed marketed towards a very specific brand of people. The glorification of minimalism in general has always rubbed me the wrong way, and this opinion piece explains it better than I ever could. In essence, minimalist lifestyles pretend to take the moral and economical high ground, while being another form of conspicuous consumption that thrives on the exclusivity that only money can buy.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have over-the-top Baroque art that toes the line between fine taste and gaudiness. And as much as the crazy opulence of the Baroque style puts me off, there’s just something so intriguing about items that unashamedly scream rich. Both are equally as exorbitant but one is more authentic, don’t you think?
A few years ago, Prada brought Baroque back into fashion with these sunglasses. Other fashion houses, such as Balmain, Versace, and to a lesser extent Hermès, seem to thrive on the Baroque style and manage to bring it back every few seasons (as per my Google search, it seems the last time it was heavily in fashion was in 2012). Much like the fashions in tablescaping, it’s interesting to see the style trickle down to the high street shops like Zara and H&M before it goes out of out of vogue—and it keeps me guessing as to what the next “it” style in fashion will be.
Of course, tablescaping styles don’t go out of fashion as fast as clothing does, but if we’re using high fashion as markers for what will be in style for the next year, I’m seeing a resurgence in over-the-top decor. Personally, I’m hoping for a reiteration of the Baroque theme, and I’m ready to go all out with the gilded gold and jewel tones. To help me in my quest, I’ve created a Pinterest board for more inspiration.
If we’re going over-the-top, then a girl can dream… right?