Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
City University of New York (CUNY) / Graduate Center
From Allegory to Revolution: the Inca Empire in the Eighteenth-Century French Imagination

My dissertation examines French portrayals of the Inca and their transatlantic impact. It is an interdisciplinary project with strong literary, sociological, and anthropological dimensions, but grounded in a rich visual culture. French prints and paintings, stage sets and costumes, porcelain figures, and panoramic wallpapers promulgated the image of an exotic land inhabited by primitives of “natural” nobility, who presented an alternative to European autocrats. “Péruvienophilie” was a politically-charged exoticism that occupied a liminal space between Rococo whimsy and the Enlightenment rationalism of France’s philosophes. These imagined Incas were introduced to French audiences by Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera, Les Indes Galantes (1735), and Voltaire’s tragedy, Alzire (1736). A decade later, Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747) cemented the Inca Princess’s prominence in discourses of race, gender, and governance; written under the influence of Alzire and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Graffigny’s epistolary novel satirized French society — particularly the expectations and strictures placed on French women. That characterization was echoed by Jean François Marmontel’s Les Incas ou le destruction de l’Empire du Pérou (1777). Marmontel presented the most detailed 18th-century French account of Inca society but did so through a sensationalist fiction that featured its own exotic princess. Taking cues from exotic stage costumes and the illustrations produced for Graffigny’s and Marmontel’s novels, artists including Jean-Jacques François le Barbier, Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen, Jean Michel Moreau le Jeune, Achille Devéria and Louis Hersent elaborated a vision of Inca society that emphasized its difference from the violent Spaniards that overwhelmed it and foregrounded the Inca Princess, a feminine embodiment of savage nobility. In the early 19th century, fantasies of pre-Hispanic Peru found their way into decorative arts in the form of wallpapers, porcelain figures, and printed fabrics, wherein colonial subjects and subjugation were romanticized and domesticated.