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Enchanted Islands

Picturing the Allure of Conquest in Eighteenth-Century France

In Enchanted Islands, renowned art historian Mary D. Sheriff explores the legendary, fictional, and real islands that filled the French imagination during the ancien regime as they appeared in royal ballets and festivals, epic literature, paintings, engravings, book illustrations, and other objects. Some of the islands were mythical and found in the most popular literary texts of the day—islands featured prominently, for instance, in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso,Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, and Fénelon’s, Telemachus. Other islands—real ones, such as Tahiti and St. Domingue—the French learned about from the writings of travelers and colonists. All of them were imagined to be the home of enchantresses who used magic to conquer heroes by promising sensual and sexual pleasure. As Sheriff shows, the theme of the enchanted island was put to many uses. Kings deployed enchanted-island mythology to strengthen monarchical authority, as Louis XIV did in his famous Versailles festival Les Plaisirs de l’île enchantée. Writers such as Fénelon used it to tell morality tales that taught virtue, duty, and the need for male strength to triumph over female weakness and seduction. Yet at the same time, artists like Boucher painted enchanted islands to portray art’s purpose as the giving of pleasure. In all these ways and more, Sheriff demonstrates for the first time the centrality of enchanted islands to ancient regime culture in a book that will enchant all readers interested in the art, literature, and history of the time.

416 pages | 14 color plates, 43 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Art: European Art

Folklore and Mythology

Gender and Sexuality

History: European History

Travel and Tourism: Tourism and History


"This playful but challenging study is a testament to the wide-ranging intellect of the late Mary Sheriff (a professor of art at Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), whose scholarship was formative in the field of 18th-century art history. . . . In each chapter, Sheriff’s characteristically dazzling play between texts and images and her virtuoso readings of single artworks reinforce her argument that islands condense the era’s thinking about pleasure, politics, and gender. Sheriff’s sophisticated but accessible study is indispensable for students and scholars of 18th-century art and culture. . . . Summing Up: Essential."


“Sheriff is at her best when analysing eighteenth-century pictorial representations of enchanted island narratives, most of them reproduced in this beautifully illustrated volume. . . . Melissa Hyde and Keith Luria are to be commended for bringing this rich, wide-ranging and erudite book to publication.”

Times Literary Supplement

"There is much to discover in Sheriff’s book. Her light touch with sources, the careful weaving together of explication with critical examination, and her skill at exploring and describing paintings and visual culture more broadly, means that although the book is just over 200 pages it is a challenge to sum up....Sheriff’s early death is an inestimable loss to the scholarship of this period. Yet, as a final testament to Sheriff’s scholarship, this is an important book with potential to inform a range of research and ideas well beyond the art history of eighteenth-century France."

H-France Review

"Sheriff’s presentation of Tahiti and Saint-Domingue make the concerns of early modern court ballets and paintings remarkably contemporary. Alcina, Armida and Calypso are a long way from us, but there is a clear line of filiation between the images of their islands and TV commercials inviting us to escape to tropical resorts. Examining their Old Regime roots makes it clear that our escapist fantasies that play on possession and self-possession are descendants of eighteenth-century concerns about gender and sovereignty."

French History

"In this appealing book, Sheriff ingeniously synthesized analyses of disparate texts and visual representations to enrich our understanding of what was clearly an enduring theme in French culture. . . . This is an inventive study, a fitting capstone, and—in many respects—a seductive book."

Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

Preface, by Keith P. Luria

Introduction: Called to Islands

1          Thinking with Islands
2          Domains of Enchantment
3          Royal Power, National Sentiment, and the Sorceress Undone
4          Calypso in the Regency
5          The Transformations of Armida
6          On the Persistence and Limits of the Enchanted Island


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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