Paris, je t’aime!—the Legion closes out 2012 with “Royal Treasures from the Louvre,” a show that re-introduces the glory days of the French court
The Louvre is at top of almost everyone’s Paris-to-do list, but once there, it can be overwhelming with its 35,000 paintings, sculptures, furnishings and objects. A must-see exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette, has brought some of the Louvre’s most exquisite treasures, those of the French monarchy from the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715) until the Revolution of 1789, right to our doorstep. As Louis XIV was building his spectacular palace at Versailles, he called on his court workshops at the Gobelins Manufactory to furnish his new building. As many as 800 artisans worked to create mosaic tabletops, sumptuous wool and silk tapestries and carpets, silver goods, furniture and other luxury goods, representing France’s finest workmanship. A sampling of these spectacular objects’d art and furnishings have been lent to the Legion of Honor while the Louvre renovates its 18th century galleries in preparation for their 2013 re-opening.
On display are Louis XIV’s personal collection of hard-stone vases, the “Gemmes de la Couronne,” which represent the pinnacle of French royal collecting, one of Louvre’s greatest treasures. They have only left France once before—in 2004, when they were exhibited at the Kremlin. Also included are several Gobelins masterworks including a mosaic tabletop of semiprecious stones, several large and detailed tapestries, and a pair of painted doors from Queen Marie-Thérèse’s (1638-83) bedroom. Other precious items include a rare complete “boite à portrait” (box portrait) of Louis XIV surrounded by large diamonds; personal items made for Louis XV and his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry; Sèvres porcelain pieces gifted to foreign rulers; royal silver; and precious personal objects collected by Queen Marie-Antoinette that she kept in her private apartments at Versailles. Due to their status, many of these objects have never left France before and are on display at the Legion, the only U.S. venue, through March 17, 2013.
Adding icing to the cake, the Louvre and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco signed a major accord on November 15, 2012, which puts the two museums in a partnership that paves the way for a series of exhibitions, collaborations on publications, art conservation projects, and public education programs. The accord is the culmination of a series of discussions and exchanges that began two years ago when John Buchanan, the late director of the FAMSF and Diane Wilsey, president, FAMSF Board of Trustees, went to Paris and met with Henri Loyrette, director of the Musée du Louvre and put together a plan to bring Royal Treasures from the Louvre to San Francisco. Another major art exhibition from the Louvre is expected to open in San Francisco by 2017 and, likewise, works of art from FAMSF will be exhibited at the Louvre.
Exhibition Overview: Allow about two hours to fully take in this exhibition which includes roughly 90 objects. ( Pairs of items—plates, lamps, painted doors, etc.,are counted as a single item.) The exhibition is divided into eight major sections which conveniently correspond to chapters in the exhibition catalogue —the Gobelins Manufactory; the French Crown Collection of Hardstones (“Gemmes de la Couronne”); Royal Gifts of Gold and Diamonds; Royal Silversmiths’ works; Sèvres Porcelain Diplomatic Gifts; the Marchand-Merciers as Purveyors of Luxury Goods; Louis XVI as Patron of the Arts; and the Private Collection of Marie Antoinette.
Royal Patronage: The story of French royal patronage and collecting begins in 1662 with Louis XIV’s purchase of the Gobelins Manufactory (or factory) which had been run by the Gobelins, a family of prestigious dyer-maker and tapestry weavers, since the 15th century. With Gobelins’ entire production at his disposal, the king went to town. The firm was renamed Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Furniture to the Crown) and it was transformed into a luxury goods factory charged with supplying tapestries, carpets, hardstone tables, cabinets furniture, and silver exclusively for Louis XIV’s royal residences and for ambassadorial gifts. Under the direction of artist Charles Le Brun from 1663 until his death in 1690, Gobelins came to epitomize the standard of excellence the rest of the world sought to match. Louis XIV’s war campaigns in the late 1680’s nearly bankrupted the country and put the brakes on his lavish commissions from Gobelins. Most of the exquisite silver commissioned that had been commissioned for Versailles was melted down and the factory, which in its heyday had employed up to 800 skilled artisans, returned to producing only tapestries.
Tapestries: The silk and wool tapestries woven at the Gobelins were the finest of any produced in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Preparatory cartoons were ordered from leading painters such as Charles Le Brun, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Charles Coypel, and François Boucher. During the 72 year reign of Louis XIV (1661-1733), which was one of the longest in history, tapestries were created with intricate motifs alluding to great moments in French history and celebrating the king, whereas 18th century subjects were lighter and more frivolous. Skilled weavers were paid according to the difficulty of the work and those entrusted with heads and flesh tones received the highest wages.
The exhibition includes two Gobelins tapestries. One has a rare arched top and was created for a curved niche in Louis XIVs bedchamber at Trianon, his private retreat at Versailles. This tapestry depicts Louis XIV as Apollo sporting a bow for hunting, a favorite activity of Louis XIV. Its border is filled with flowers and fruits alluding to the king’s bounty. According to Marc Bascou, Director of Département des Objets d’art at the Musée du Louvre, over time, the ravages of light destroyed many of the subtle effects in most tapestries from this period, but these specimens have survived—not only do they have significant subject matter but they have exquisite color and reflect sophisticated tonal effects achieved through a wide range of special dyes which were developed during that period.
Another exquisite “don’t miss” late 17th century tapestry is the exceptionally large and vividly colorful one that opens the exhibition—a “chancellerie” from the Beauvais Manufactory. This factory was second in importance to the Gobelins workshops and was established by Louis XVI’s finance minister and specialized in low-warp weaving. Chancelleries were given by the king to his chief justices or chancellors. Woven in silks and wools, this stunning example has a central coat of arms of France, and the symbols—crossed maces and the casket containing the royal seals—and cypher of Chancellor Louis Boucherat (who served under Louis XIV) in the mid-section of its lower border. The border was designed by the esteemed French painter Jean Lemoyne. Just in front of this tapestry is a remarkable bronze statue of Louis XIV, captured dramatically on his rearing horse. It has life-like detail throughout, right down to the nails on the horse’s shoes, and is one of the few statues of Louis XIV to survive the Revolution.
If you haven’t yet seen the fall edition of Fine Arts, FAMSF’s quarterly magazine, the cover is a close-up of a brilliantly colored late 17th century mosaic tabletop in marble and semi-precious stones fabricated by Gobelins. This large tabletop features emblems of Louis XIV, including intricate lapis lazuli lyres of Apollo set at each of its four corners. Apollo was both the sun god and god of the classical world and Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, associated himself with the cult of Apollo. The lyres are set on lapis globes filled with fleurs-de-lis-and the entire composition is interspersed with garlands of flowers, fruits and images of exotic parrots so finely rendered, you might mistake it for a painting. The technique of hardstone mosaic was developed in 16th century Florence; by the 18th century, it had been refined to the point that convincing imitations of oil paintings could be created. The Italian-trained artisans at Gobelins were counted among the world’s finest and this tabletop is the finest example of their work in large-scale.
The Gemmes de la Couronne (The French Crown Collection of Hardstones): It took roughly 25 years but Louis XIV accumulated the finest precious and semiprecious hardstone vases in Europe for his own personal collection— a mix of superb antique, Byzantine, medieval and oriental carved hardstones with exquisite sixteenth and seventeenth century gold, enamel and gemstone mounts from Milan, Prague and Germany. These were the most esteemed objects in the royal collection, cherished for their rarity and as exquisite mineral specimens. A palace inventory of 1713 lists 823 objects in this category, broken down into 446 works in rock crystal and 377 works in different semiprecious colored stones.
Among all his possessions, Louis XIV especially treasured an agate ewer, mounted as a pitcher in gold and embellished with elements from classical mythology. This graceful study in form and color was chosen as the exhibition poster. Its ornate handle is an enameled female whose wings have spouted into vegetation and join with a goat’s head which forms the rear rim. The entire underside of the lip is a colorful enamel satyr’s mask. The pitcher was not made to be used but to be displayed. When the Palace of Versailles was redesigned in the 1680’s, Louis XIV had his private apartments outfitted with special tables and mirrors to showcase these stunning objects. Eighteen hardstone and rock crystal pieces are on display at the Legion, including several shell-shaped hardstone cups, some of which are translucent and all of which are encrusted with jaw-dropping mounts of enameled gold and stones.
Royal Gifts, “Présents du Roi”: The French kings frequently commissioned opulent luxury items as gifts for foreign kings and dignitaries, known as “présents du roi.” Louis XIV understood the timeless allure of diamonds and was well known for giving miniature enamel portraits of himself set in diamonds to people he wanted to impress. These backsides of these miniatures were elaborately enameled and embellished with the king’s crowned double-L cypher. These miniatures were called “boîtes à portraits” (portrait boxes) because they presented in exquisite protective silk-lined leather boxes. While very few of these jewel-encrusted portraits survived intact because the value of the diamonds led to re-purposing, one, in exceptional condition, with its original large diamonds is at the Legion.
When Louis XIV’s great grandson, Louis XV, came to power (reined 1715-1774), the custom of giving king’s portraits continued, but instead of being presented in ornate boxes, they became the boxes. Miniature portraits were mounted on snuffboxes, many of which were solid gold, reflecting the wealth and power of the donor. The Louvre has the finest collection of snuffboxes in the world and eight are in this exhibition. Many of these are decorated with four colors of gold—rose, green, white and yellow—and hand-chased or set brilliantly with diamonds and colored enamels or jewels.
The Marchands-Merciers, Luxuries: During the 18th century, under Louis XV, purveyors of luxury goods, “marchands-merciers,” stepped up to replace the system of state patronage that Louis XIV had established with his purchase of Gobelins in the 17th century. Louis XV furnished his personal apartments and those of his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, with the finest decorative pieces of the Rococo era, supplied by the marchands-merciers. The marchands-merciers both commissioned works from artisan workshops and acted as middle men, stepping in as designers, interior decorators, jewelers and dealers.
A stand-out from this period is a tea table with Sèvres porcelain plaques made in 1774 for Madame du Barry (1743-1793), Louis XV’s mistress who succeeded Madame Pompadour. The table’s commission was handled by Simon-Philippe Poirier, who specialized in Sèvres porcelain and became one of Madame Pompadour’s preferred dealers. The king spent lavishly on du Barry and reportedly told the Duke of Richelieu that she was the only woman in France who could make him forget he was 60. She, in turn, was said to have made a profession out of acquiring whatever she fancied, building up a vast collection of the rarest, most curious and costly objects. This table with a tilting top is one of the most elaborate of its type, consisting of seven porcelain plaques with bucolic themes and a base fabricated by the cabinetmaker Martin Carlin of rare purple wood veneers on mahogany with gilt bronze mounts. While each of these Sèvres plaques is a work of art, the central plaque by Charles-Nicholas Dodin, the leading artist at Sèvres, is an exotic scene from the 1737 work “Le concert du grand Sultan” by painter Carle van Loo. The catalogue states that this scene must have been copied from an engraving rather than the original painting because the composition is reversed. (catalogue p. 111)
Madame du Barry had an insatiable taste for Sèvres porcelain. She had several full sets of dinnerware, which could consist of up to several hundred pieces each made for her. Many of these featured an ornate center design formed from her initials “DB.” She was known to reject completed sets, complaining that design elements that captured her fancy at the time of their commission were not what she really wanted.
Madame Pompadour’s gold coffee grinder: Madame Pompadour (1721-1764), Louis VX’s earlier mistress, also dined on the finest Sèvres porcelain and had a taste for luxury. Her gold coffee grinder, embellished with delicate spays of coffee berries and leaves, is the exhibition’s most delightful object.
The king met Pompadour at a ball in 1745 when she was 23 and he was 35. She came dressed as a coquettish shepherdess and he came as a tree and was smitten. She was masterful at seduction and aimed to secure her place, acquiring a number of lodges and châteaux chateau, all appointed with everyday objects made in precious materials, so that the King and she could play at ordinary life while living in outlandish luxury.
The Private Collection of Marie Antoinette: The mystique of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), who became Queen of France when Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774, is the subject of extensive lore. A small gallery is devoted entirely to the queen’s personal collection of precious objects for her private apartments at Versailles. She had a team of stylists, architects, and decorators at her beckon call who worked to furnish these dwellings in an elegant Neoclassical style that worked in concert with her prized possessions. On display are 16 objects reflecting the richness and refinement of her taste—furniture, porcelain and gilt boxes, bowls, cups. There are also several hardstone vases of which she was particularly fond, some of which she took from Louis XIV’s priceless collection of hardstones.
Particularly impressive is her large jewel coffer (1786-1787), set with thick decorative panels of moss agate with a base of marble and jasper and ornate gold lion mounts. These elaborately crafted ornate mounts are seen in many of her objects and were intended to act as a stylistic counterpoint to the stone’s plain surface and to enhance its natural beauty. The coffer’s front panel of agate stands out as a marvel of natural abstraction with spheres resembling planets floating in a vast cosmos, a piece that one can literally lose all sense of time gazing at.
Also on display is a 19-inch-high jasper perfume burner (1774-1775) prized for its naturalistic garlands of vine leaves. Mounted by the famous bronzier (bonze worker) Pierre Gouthière, one of the most celebrated artists of his day, this object actually belongs to the Wallace Collection, London. It is one of three masterpieces by Gouthière in the exhibition, all three acquired by French royals at the famous 1792 auction of the duc d’Amont’s private collection.
In the early days of the Revolution, the queen’s precious objects were consigned to Dominque Daguerre, a prominent marchand-mercier who had assisted her with a large number of commissions and purchases. After her execution in 1793, the objects eventually went to the Commission of Arts and many were placed in the Louvre.
While Louis XVI’s art collecting stood in the shadow of his wife’s reputation for extravagance, he was a great patron of the arts who initiated a set of reforms in 1774-1792 that would pave the way for the Louvre. In 1774, he installed his most valuable possessions—his hardstone vases, renamed “Gemmes de la Couronne,” and the Crown jewels—in the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne (today’s place de la Concorde) where they were open to the public on certain days. He also began purchasing and commissioning objects with an eye to establishing a great museum in the galleries of the royal palace of the Louvre. Unfortunately, before his project could be realized, his regime collapsed, bankrupted by years of bad harvests, drawn-out wars, resistance to reform and the debt incurred by Louis XIV’s outlandish spending on Versailles. Public opinion turned against the King and his royals and unrest eventually led to revolution and Louis XVI was executed in January of 1793. Eight months later, the Louvre, now designated as a collection for the people of France, opened to the public.
The Legion has gone all out with its lavish installation of Royal Treasures from the Louvre, which includes an informative optional audio-tour narrated by FAMSF’s Martin Chapman and Maria Santiago. No matter what you believe your particular taste is, prepare to be completely mesmerized by these priceless objects and pulled into another era, and, of course, you’ll have done your homework in preparation for a trip to Paris to visit the Louvre and its additional 34,900 artworks.
Catalogue: At $29.99 the catalogue, Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette, (hardcover, 176 pages) includes large and high-quality color photos of all of the objects in the exhibition and insightful essays by Marc Bascou, Director of the Musée du Louvre’s Département des Objets d’Art (currently in charge of renovating the Louvre’s 18th century galleries) and that department’s chief curator, Michèle Bibenet, as well as Martin Chapman, FAMSF’s Curator in Charge of Decorative Arts and Sculpture. Chapman co-curated the Legion’s Cartier and America show in 2010, as well as Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique in 2009. Anything he writes on the decorative arts is a must have. Published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, Paris and available for purchase through the museum shop or online.
Details: Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette closes Match 17, 2013. The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. Museum hours: Tuesday–Sunday, 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.; closed on Monday. Tickets: $20; seniors 65+ $17; students with current ID $16; youth 13-17 $10; children 12 and under and members free. Purchase tickets in advance online here. More info: http://visit.legionofhonor.org.
Related Lectures and Events:
Special Lecture: from Versailles to rodeo Drive: French Luxe Conquers the World, Dr. Anne Prah-Perochon, art historian and contributor to the journal France-Amérique. Sunday January 13, 2013, 2 p.m., Florence Gould Theatre, free after museum general admission.
Docent Lectures: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 1 p.m. with Kay Payne; Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 1 p.m. with Jim Kohn; Sunday 27, 2013 at 2:15 p.m. with Kay Payne—all in Florence Gould Theatre. Free after museum general admission. Before planning any museum visit around a scheduled lecture, check here to make sure the schedule has not changed.
Related Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum: After you’ve finished at the Legion, the Metropolitan Museum has “Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens,” through January 27, 2013, showcasing the exquisite and innovative work of the cabinetmaking firm of Abraham Roentgen and his son David whose ingenious desks with their pop-out drawers, pivoting parts, hidden niches and mirrors took 19th century Europe by storm including Marie Antoinette.
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