L’honnête homme is a man who embodies the manners and social graces of his time. He is courteous and cultivated. His emotions are tempered by reason. He does everything well and with seemingly little effort. He is knowledgeable but never pedantic.
So what gives me the nerve to call my blog l’Honnête Homme?
The term appeared in seventeenth-century France, a time when the ranks of the aristocracy were being infiltrated by new money (and the ‘vulgar’ manners that accompany it). The idea of l’honnete homme (pronounced: own-et uhm) set standards of social comportment. It was both a means of social climbing for the bourgeoisie and a means of social exclusion for the aristocracy. It wasn’t all strife. There was detente. Most importantly, this mixing of social classes allowed impoverished aristocrats to marry new money, and new money to acquire the luster and privileges of aristocratic titles. It was perhaps the first budding of meritocracy in European history; granted, this social ascendancy was really open to only a precious few.
I come from humble beginnings, what – were ours not a classless society – we would call the working class. I have pulled myself up…
…to a state of genteel poverty. I might have gone into banking or law, as the socially ascendant did in seventeenth-century France, but I came to Chapel Hill to pursue a Ph.D. in Art History. I know a Manet from a Monet. Yet I resemble the aristocrat of old more than the bourgeois in that my mind is full (though you may question the utility of my thoughts) and my bank account is relatively empty.
So, please, forgive me if I console myself by musing as l’honnête homme. You might call me a fop, a dandy, a bohemian, a hipster (though I was born a little too late for that), but my interests lie in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (before these terms came into vogue), so I’ll call myself l’honnête homme.
In these posts I’ll discuss antiques and art in all styles from all times and places, from antiquity to mid-century modern, but I’ll begin with a few posts on seventeenth and eighteenth century styles and techniques of furniture making. Next post: What is a Bombay chest versus a Bombé chest?