"Le Maitre de la Boite a Chocolats." What does this French want to say?
June 8, 2021 5:57 AM   Subscribe

In chapter 18 of The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham writes " The master of the box of chocolates." I'd like to know the source of this phrase if it's a kind of idiomatic expression. And why does he say"la (boite) " here? I only know "la" means "the" and "une" means "a" though .Thank you for helping my English and now, French!
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure, but I've found a copy of the text here if people answering the question would like to see the phrase in context to try to give some insight: http://www.literaturepage.com/read/moonandsixpence-69.html
posted by mdonley at 6:28 AM on June 8, 2021

Best answer: A "Chocolate Box" picture, or scene, means an image that you might see printed on an old-fashioned chocolate box. So a "master of the chocolate box" would be a term describing someone who is excels in creating paintings that are very twee. An modern example of someone fitting this description would be Thomas Kinkade. In other words, not a 'serious' artist to someone like Maugham.

I think the use of "Boite a Chocolats' is similar to the English "chocolate box" (i.e. the box itself), as distinct from "Boite de Chocolats", which is the whole "box of chocolates", including the contents. But that might be incorrect, as it's many years since I studied French.
posted by pipeski at 6:29 AM on June 8, 2021 [20 favorites]

As pipeski said, Vera Brittain writes in Testament of Youth: “I was never posted to a British officers’ ward for longer than a few hours at a time. Apparently my youth and childish chocolate-box prettiness gave every Matron under whom I served the impression that if I were sent to nurse officers I should improve the occasion in ways not officially recognized by the military authorities.”
posted by Hypatia at 6:38 AM on June 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

"Le Maître de..." or "The Master Of..." (usually followed by a place name) is a phrase often used to describe anonymous artists. It's possible that Maugham is playing with this convention here - and what pipeski said about chocolate-box art :)
posted by altolinguistic at 6:42 AM on June 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My interpretation:

It's an insult.

There are many "Masters" in art. The Master of the Playing Cards; the Master of the Drapery Studies; the Master of the Embroidered Foliage; and many more.

This painter is being described disparagingly as the Master of the Box of Chocolates... implying that his work is of the style and calibre that you'd find decorating a chocolate box. Chocolate box art. The next line is "To look at his pictures you would have thought that Monet, Manet, and the rest of the Impressionists had never been". His paintings are old-fashioned and probably sentimental in tone.

Why is it in French? Not sure, honestly. For me, reading it 100 years after it was written, the use of French makes it clearer that the speaker is being insulting - putting the words in French makes them posher, so it's a bigger contrast with what's actually being said. But I don't know if a reader in 1920 would have thought the same.

Why does he say "la boite"? Because the pattern being followed is "the master of the X", and here X is box/boite. Boxes are feminine in French, so it's "de la" not "du".
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:44 AM on June 8, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, "chocolate box" is a term that has been used to denigrate art that is romantic, populist and bourgeois. The "maitre de" is a joke based on art historical conventions of referring to artists whose names are not known. There are "anonymous masters" such as the Master of the Bamberg Altar and the Master of the Embroidered Foliage. In the Maugham book, the painters at the Villa Medici -- the French Academy in Rome -- are making fun of Stroeve. (I assume the painters are meant to be French, which is why the phrase is in French.)
posted by neroli at 6:46 AM on June 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

OK. As an American reading this I wasn't quite sure at first glance, but now upon reading the text and seeing pipeski's explanation and remembering that Somerset Maugham was British, this seems like what is meant:

- the narrator is describing the artworks of a second character, Dirk Stroeve

- Stroeve is a painter whose art the narrator doesn't like

- a third character, who is a painter "at the Villa Medici", the site of the French Academy in Rome, and therefore someone whose artistic knowledge or talent the narrator is implying is better than Stroeve's (and the reason he's saying it in French), describes his art as "chocolate box" in order to insult it as too twee or cutesy. "Chocolate box" as a descriptor for this kind of art seems like a British term - perhaps other British MeFites can provide a little more detail on this.

For reference, here's the paragraph in which the phrase appears:

Dirk Stroeve was one of those persons whom, according to your character, you cannot think of without derisive laughter or an embarrassed shrug of the shoulders. Nature had made him a buffoon. He was a painter, but a very bad one, whom I had met in Rome, and I still remembered his pictures. He had a genuine enthusiasm for the commonplace. His soul palpitating with love of art, he painted the models who hung about the stairway of Bernini in the Piazza de Spagna, undaunted by their obvious picturesqueness; and his studio was full of canvases on which were portrayed moustachioed, large-eyed peasants in peaked hats, urchins in becoming rags, and women in bright petticoats. Sometimes they lounged at the steps of a church, and sometimes dallied among cypresses against a cloudless sky; sometimes they made love by a Renaissance well-head, and sometimes they wandered through the Campagna by the side of an ox-waggon. They were carefully drawn and carefully painted. A photograph could not have been more exact. One of the painters at the Villa Medici had called him Le Maitre de la Boite a Chocolats. To look at his pictures you would have thought that Monet, Manet, and the rest of the Impressionists had never been.
posted by mdonley at 6:47 AM on June 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Aha! I didn't know the Villa Medici / French Academy connection. That explains why it's in French - please ignore that paragraph in my answer.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:49 AM on June 8, 2021

I found this blog post useful in understanding why Stroeve, in contrast to Strickland, would be insulted as a kind of twee chocolate box illustrator.

Also the French aspect becomes clearer.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:07 AM on June 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Pretty pictures on chocolate boxes were an innovation by the second generation chocolate-company Cadbury, Wikipedia says.
posted by clew at 9:37 AM on June 8, 2021

Also, French used to be a culturally dominant global language a little like English is today; it might have been the most-taught foreign language in schools, and educated English speakers liked to sprinkle in French for various effects the way people today all over the world like to sprinkle in English. Maugham could have taken it for granted that many of his readers would have known enough French to understand that short phrase without difficulty, and maybe felt it would add a sense of place, or of sarcasm. French phrases and even entire conversations or passages in French feature in a lot of books featuring upper class or upper middle class British society written in the times before, I guess, American English began to take over the world in a serious way.
posted by trig at 11:51 AM on June 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's sarcasm. To a certain class of Englishman of Maugham's era, a phrase in French was fancypants. This painter seems to be the Edwardian equivalent of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light (TM). So to describe this very pedestrian, inauthentic art in French sounds impressive, but the actual words mean very little. Much like the guy's painting itself.

My reading of the boîte à vs boîte de phrasing is exactly like pipeski's -- more sarcasm. It's just the outer shell of art, nothing of substance/nothing you'd actually desire.

This is a great passage that really rewards a close reading!
posted by basalganglia at 6:41 PM on June 8, 2021

Auto-quote alert but it relates to the difference between "true" art and "chocolate box" art.
A few years ago we went to visit a painter-pal who had escaped the drizzly isles and settled his family in Southern Spain where he pursued a hard-tack existence for his Art. He earned a few shillings as a jobbing journalist for an English language newspaper in Malaga but that was just for food (for his kids - he didn't rate food much). The extraordinary thing for me was that he able to paint lovely landscapes, lively streetscapes and photo-realistic portraits which he could sell for better money than writing obituaries of ex-pats for ex-pats. He just couldn't bear to prostitute his art unless the family was, if not starving, at least fed up with bread and garlic soup again.

All he wanted to do, when we met him, was paint market women. Fat, black-clad, with expressive hands and loud voices, these ladies would never appear on a chocolate-box but their vitality fascinated him. He'd been working for several years trying to render on canvas, or on paper, or the inside of cardboard packing cartons the essence of the commercial transaction. He would start awake in the middle of the night wrenched from a creative dream to take up a brush. As he described it, he said that he was close to resolving the task the gods had set him so long before. Japanese culture was wholly alien to him - his native archipelago was on the other side of that world - but I had this image of a zen-master making (after years of trying too hard) the perfect brush stroke and embracing satori. He'd been there before and he knew that once he'd knobbled his crones and their fantastical hands, he'd sink back exhausted until weeks or months later something else would drive him to the edge of madness.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:24 AM on June 9, 2021

Very late to this question, but Luxury assortment: the British artists behind Cadbury's chocolate boxes provides this bit of history:

"Cadbury's saw an opportunity to become a leading light in product design, at a time when it had been in the doldrums in Britain for over a decade.

"In 1923, the Royal Society of Arts had tried to address the crisis with a competition for textile, furniture, book covers, pottery and glass design. The event was sponsored by leading manufacturers of the time.

"J. S. Fry & Sons, a subsidiary of Cadbury's, suggested adding a category for chocolate box designs, for which Cadbury offered a travel scholarship of £50, with Fry offering smaller prizes for box lid designs.

"But not everyone was happy. The Times art critic noted sceptically:

"'Time was when "chocolate box" was a term of artistic reproach; nowadays we invite the flower of our art schools to apply their talents and training to chocolate box decoration.'"
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:48 AM on August 19, 2021

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