Like or not, the holiday gift-giving season is upon us, the time of year we begin making a list and checking it twice. It’s a good thing that Christmas and Hanukkah only come around once a year, what with all the stress gift selection causes. In 17th- and 18th-century France, however, the fine art of gift giving was a yearlong endeavor. Many objects on display at the Legion of Honor in the special exhibition Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette are representative of the highly developed gift-giving culture utilized by the monarchy to solidify its rule.
This year, it has been widely reported that gift cards, perhaps an impersonal expression of the Christmas spirit, are the most popular gift requested. But if you think a gift card is impersonal, imagine receiving a gift emblazoned with the giver’s portrait. Louis XIV elevated the French tradition of diplomatic gift giving to new heights with his love of precious gems, which he used to embellish boîte à portraits. A miniature portrait of the monarch, boîte à portraits were packaged in a silk-lined leather box (hence the name, which means portrait box), and comprised of a piece of silver decorated with diamonds encircling a portrait of the king. This stunning example contains a whopping 92 diamonds. Louis XIV’s love of diamonds sadly resulted in the destruction of most boîte à portraits as later generations dismantled them to sell piecemeal.
When Louis XV ascended to the throne in 1715, he continued in his predecessor’s penchant for gifting his own likeness, but specialized in snuffboxes instead. Used throughout the highest echelons of European society, snuffboxes came to symbolize a lifestyle à la française.
Re-gifting has come to represent all that is gauche in holiday culture, but even Marie-Antoinette was guilty of the practice. As the monarchy came under increasing scrutiny at the end of the 18th century, France’s aristocracy resorted to conducting themselves more discreetly, oftentimes incognito. In one incident, a 300-piece Sèvres dinner service commissioned by Marie-Antoinette had to be gifted to a surprise visitor traveling under an assumed name. Ever attentive to etiquette, the queen re-commissioned the service in the same pattern and presented the gift to its original recipient later that year.
Wondering what to give your loved ones for the holidays? We suggest a non-stressful, satisfaction-guaranteed visit to Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette, on view at the Legion of Honor through March 31, 2013. And while you’re there, be sure to visit the Museum Store, where you just might pick up a holiday gift or two.