On January 27, the Barry Art Museum opened its latest temporary exhibition in the Doll Gallery, The Great Exhibition: Bébés at the Barry. Spotlighting dolls from the permanent collection, I started working on this show as soon as Rhonda Holy Bear: Artist and Story-Keeper opened. For the past few months, when I haven’t been working on my dissertation or teaching, I’ve been learning about the complex and fascinating world of bébés, bisque dolls that remain renowned for their quality today. Let’s take a look at this new show!
First off, let’s define the bébé (if you really want to get into this topic, check out the work of Florence Theriault, the expert on 19th-century dolls). A bébé is an articulated bisque doll representing a young child, and they were first popularized in France during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Bébés encouraged imaginative play through articulated bodies, enabling their owners to move them through different positions. Featuring large glass eyes, hand-painted facial features, and a variety of costumes and accessories, bébés offered a striking and decidedly affluent interpretation of contemporary European childhood. Many French dollmakers produced bébés, as no single company held copyright over the term. While many dollmakers produced bébés, the most famous was arguably Jumeau (thanks in large part to its aggressive marketing tactics). Other prominent bébé makers included Bru, Steiner, and Gaultier, among many others.
As historical objects, bébés reflect a variety of cultural, technological, and economic influences, especially in regard to the significance of middle-class children in nineteenth-century Europe. Declining infant mortality rates through improved sanitation and other public health measures encouraged adults to deepen bonds with their children. As part of an overall secularization of European society, philosophers, writers, and educators challenged beliefs that children were sinful, instead interpreting childhood as a period defined by innocence and play. Industrialization and the production of consumer products in ever-increasing quantities created new markets, with children’s toys and accessories expanding rapidly. Bébés reflected decidedly middle-class aspirations in their appearance and materials, with their refined costumes and delicate bisque faces emphasizing their quality and relative expense. As historical objects, bébés embodied many of the social and economic developments transforming nineteenth-century France and other European nations.
In terms of exhibit theme, I considered a variety of angles for this show. I was especially interested in the actual construction process for the dolls. I saw a lot of parallels between doll production and printmaking, as they’re both processes that produce multiples while also enabling significant variety within an edition. I also became interested in the role of women’s labor in the production of bébés, as women were involved in just about every aspect of their creation, from the pouring of bisque to the making of mohair wigs. The costumes these dolls wear in particular attest to the importance of women to their image, as women both designed and produced them, using both the highest-quality materials and quoting the latest Parisian fashions. Among the most recognized of these doll couturiers is Ernestine Jumeau, who oversaw the entire costume department of the Jumeau firm.
After consulting with the rest of the Barry staff, however, we decided to focus on the bébé as an international icon, as a major reason why it remains so influential and desirable as a doll is its ability to impart its image on a global level. In particular, we decided to focus on two angles: the appearance of bébés at World’s Fairs, and the use of savvy advertising to promote the bébé to audiences globally.
Popular from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, World’s Fairs were international expositions intended to showcase the industrial, cultural, and economic achievements of different countries. While European nations had been hosting industrial expositions since the early nineteenth century, the first truly global World’s Fair took place in 1851 in England. Subsequent fairs such as the 1889 Paris Exposition and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago cemented the World’s Fair as a defining experience in the late nineteenth century. As commercial phenomena, World’s Fairs were products of colonialism as well as industrialization; the wares and cultures they showcased reflected the transit and manufacturing infrastructures that colonizing nations had imposed on countries in Africa, Asia, and beyond.
Bébés were regularly exhibited at World’s Fairs, most often appearing with toys and other children’s products in the Novelties section, or Bimbeloteries. The fairs allowed dollmakers to exhibit their wares on an international stage, with visitors attending from around the world. These international spectacles also shaped the bébé’s development by enabling French dollmakers to encounter traditions from other countries, including the daki-ningyo, a childlike Japanese doll intended to be held. World’s Fairs also enhanced the respectability of various doll companies through awards and prizes, with Jumeau, Bru, and other French dollmakers regularly winning medals. This exposure and prestige made attending World’s Fairs a worthwhile venture. As such, they took the curation of their bébés seriously, often staging them in elaborate displays to attract visitor attention.
The other angle we highlighted with this show was the role of advertising to the bébé’s initial acclaim and ongoing legacy. While the popularity of bébés among middle-class consumers undoubtedly reflected their quality as dolls, savvy marketing also contributed to their appeal. At a time when color lithography and other printing techniques made it more affordable to print and circulate advertisements, bébé makers recognized the potential of advertising to increase sales.
Although many dollmakers advertised their products, none was arguably more aggressive than Jumeau. Founded by Pierre-Francois Jumeau in 1845, the company took its advertising to new levels when Pierre-Francois’s son, Emile-Louis, assumed company leadership in 1874. In addition to colorful advertisements in magazines and periodicals, Jumeau marketed bébés with children’s books and games. He also encouraged scientists and other experts to visit his factory and publish their findings in technical journals and other publications to emphasize the company’s prestige as a modern, industrial endeavor. Indeed, one could argue that a major reason for Jumeau’s enduring popularity as a collectible is because the younger Jumeau’s advertising fundamentally shaped doll culture, ensuring that their products would endure in public memory.
When it came to the actual curation of this show, I took a slightly different approach. Rather than write extensive object labels for each of the bébés on view, I opted to write a series of longer panels discussing different aspects of bébés more generally, using simple tombstones for the actual objects. This let me talk about the other ideas I’d encountered in my research that I found interesting, from materials to women’s labor. In addition to giving myself the space to delve into the histories and processes of these objects more deeply, I opted for larger labels so that we could include historical images ranging from photographs of women at work on the dolls to vintage advertisements.
Beyond highlighting the Barry’s impressive collection, this exhibit also features two new dolls, a promised gift from Carolyn Barry. Featuring their original costumes, this rare pair of bébés was likely intended to appear at the 1899 Paris International Exposition. These dolls also highlight the relationships between Jumeau and other prominent toymakers of the late nineteenth century. Léopold Lambert, one of the most prominent automaton makers in Paris, commissioned Jumeau to create a series of doll heads with strong emotional expressions, including crying and laughing (and yes, the Crying Girl featured in Motion/Emotion belongs to this series). In addition to supplying Lambert, Jumeau began using these more emotive heads in his own dolls. Known as character dolls, these innovative bébés proved polarizing among consumers and remain rare today. While the girl doll in this pair has a serene face typical of the traditional bébé, her male companion features a broad, striking grin, indicating his status as a character doll.
This show was a lot of fun to research. As someone who didn’t grow up immersed in doll culture, not least bébés, I really came to appreciate both the construction of these dolls and their engagement with larger historical questions and issues. As you start to research them, you realize that, far from disconnected from the world at large on account of being children’s toys, they are deeply enmeshed in it. From the materials used to construct them, to the particular image of childhood they espouse, these dolls embody broader social, economic, and cultural interests. I came away from this show with a lot more respect for them as a form, and see a lot of potential for future research and other projects.
The Great Exhibition is on view through July 30th. If you’re in town, be sure to check it out!