The existence of “wife guys”—men prone to a constant display of heterosexual marital bliss—might well seem like a modern phenomenon, one that only blossomed thanks to photography and then went supernova with the advent of the internet. In fact, when Slate ran a chat about fallen wife guys last year, one participant theorized that the wife guy “couldn’t exist without social media.” But while wife guys certainly thrive in our era of Facebook, their history stretches deep into the past. They first flourished in the second half of the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment. To really understand why so many men are eager to play this part, we have to go back to the beginning and see how ambitious men took advantage of new media to showcase their seemingly flawless domestic lives—all for their own benefit.
Enlightenment wife guys didn’t have social media, and the world’s first photograph was still decades away. But they did have portraits, and this is where 18th century wife guys took center stage. They were not the first men to love their wives—of course not—but they developed new and very public ways to perform that love. In an engrossing study of British family portraits over the whole of the 18th century, art historian Kate Retford notes an important shift. Earlier 18th century portraits look stiff to our eyes: a patriarch, his wife, and their children tidily arranged into neat lines, intended to convey order and respectability. But then, in the last decades of the century, things eased up: Children looked relaxed and playful, couples gazed into each other’s eyes, all in a perfectly polished “spontaneous” moment of domestic bliss—a scene that will surely feel familiar to anyone with an Instagram feed. And it wasn’t just that families in general started to look cuddly, loving, and perfectly imperfect. The married couple in particular took center stage, and the ideal couple appeared both affectionate and collaborative. They were supposed to look like a good team, blissfully working together toward a common goal.
One of the most stunning expressions of this new ideal was Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier. Everyone involved in this portrait was a rock star in their own way: David was one of France’s most brilliant and sought-after painters, while the Lavoisiers were fabulously wealthy and famous for their work in chemistry. Like many ambitious men today, Lavoisier used his wife to improve his reputation—or, we might say, his brand. He was a well-established man of science, with prestigious appointments and a large network of collaborators. But his meticulous analyses made his work difficult to follow, and potentially off-putting, at least for the general public. Paulze Lavoisier, by contrast, was a famously charming host and her husband’s most significant collaborator: She wrote translations, sketched illustrations, and, most importantly, ran an extensive campaign to boost her husband’s research over that of his rivals. Her intelligence, wit, and charm helped her husband immeasurably, and that is reflected in their portrait. David captured the two at work in their study: Lavoisier writing a treatise, while Paulze Lavoisier’s drawing board is perched in the corner. They look affectionate, content, and productive. Putting his wife in the spotlight and portraying himself as her affectionate partner was a savvy PR move designed to boost Lavoisier’s reputation, and one that the couple was willing to pay a hefty price to realize—this portrait was David’s most expensive commission.
Images like the Lavoisier portrait may have depicted intimate scenes, but they were not just for private consumption. People could view such art on display or purchase affordable copies of portraits or charming domestic scenes. These images were public performances, and the public just kept getting bigger thanks to rising literacy rates, the birth of a slew of new newspapers, and lower prices for all kinds of media. Biographies and novels became huge bestsellers, encouraging readers to take a deep interest in the intimate lives of ordinary people—and, eventually, celebrities. As Antoine Lilti argues in his book about the invention of celebrity in the 18th century, this media revolution helped bring about a nascent celebrity culture. Eager fans acquired images of and gobbled up stories about their favorite authors, actors, and any other well-known figures; even criminals could take a star turn.
And the public’s curiosity was especially piqued by anything intimate; although the technology might have been different, the basic culture of selfies and sprawling fandoms was alive and well. Artists were very savvy about enticing the public with a glimpse behind the curtains, just enough to pull them in and leave them wanting more. A case in point is Augustin de Saint-Aubin’s miniature portraits of himself and his wife, Louise-Nicole Godeau—you can see them at the top of this page. The couple are pictured in a tender, seemingly private moment. Godeau’s dress is undone, flashing her left breast; she pleads with her husband to “at least be discreet” while he blows her a kiss and assures her “you may count on me.” Performative PDA did not have to wait for Instagram to be invented; here the public is invited to peek into, even be tantalized by, this intimate, seemingly spontaneous, but clearly very staged moment between a husband and wife.
Portraits were expensive and out of reach for most people, and it’s true that these historical wife guys, at least the ones who left visual evidence behind, were usually to be found in middle- and upper-class social circles. But letters made the phenomenon more accessible—and here, too, the wife guy thrived. The philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius laid it on especially thick: “I am the happiest man in the world because I am loved by such a lovable woman,” he wrote in one missive. “You know how much I love you, how dear you are to me, how touched I am by all the signs of friendship you have given me, how sure I am of your tenderness and of your love, and how this certainty fills my life with happiness; it flows through my veins like milk,” he crooned in another. Love letters were more private than portraits, but they were still shared and admired by friends, says the historian Sally Holloway, drawing our attention to an engraving of two women walking arm in arm, gossiping about a love letter one of them has received. And of course, couples didn’t just write letters; they took strolls together while courting and then, after marriage, socialized and generally played the part of the happy, seamless couple.
Some people might call the 18th century the “Age of Reason,” but that title hides how much it was important, even fashionable, for social elites to wear their hearts on their sleeves. They wept at theatrical productions, sobbed over novels, generally tried to show themselves to be sensitive and easily moved. Think of the emotionally intense character Marianne Dashwood from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility minus the satire. Readers identified intensely with the period’s treacly sentimental novels, growing deeply attached to the characters and their authors. When characters suffered, readers suffered, weeping and grieving; when characters rejoiced, so did their fans—and because these books were bestsellers, readers didn’t cry alone, but were carried along in a public outburst of feeling. Millions of people today get caught up in shows like The Bachelor, and the 18th century was no different. They read the same books, devoured the same news stories, and experienced it all together. This was the backdrop against which the wife guy made his debut, trying to copy the heroes from the era’s favorite novels. Riffing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s bestselling novel Julie, the philosopher and novelist Choderlos de Laclos wrote to his wife, “I would have said with Rousseau and like Saint Preux [Julie’s lover], ‘Julie, Julie, our hearts will never be deaf to the other’s.’ ” Sentimental novels were how-to manuals for would-be Wife Guys.
Why go to all this trouble? Because it made these men look good—sensitive, virtuous, and relatable—while at the same time reinforcing patriarchal authority and facilitating power grabs. Some of the period’s most ambitious men were also its peak wife guys. Being a “family man” or “wife guy” was especially important for men who wanted to be public figures, such as politicians or men of letters. Having a close and publicly cuddly relationship with their wives worked as a kind of shorthand, “proof” that they were good people and therefore trustworthy. And it’s a shorthand we still use today. Take a peek at any politician’s social media, and you’re virtually guaranteed to see glossy domestic shots made from this same mold. Because, at the end of the day, wife guys were really in it for themselves: Look at me, I’m such a great husband, I have this great wife, she loves me so much. The pictures they painted weren’t necessarily accurate; Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier was having an extramarital affair at the time her portrait with her husband was painted, while Helvétius’ unending love for his wife didn’t stop him from visiting prostitutes. Like the wife guys of our time, these 18th century ancestors walked a tightrope, publicly flaunting their relationships as perfect, worthy of attention and admiration, even as no marriage could possibly live up to that hype.