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A pair of gilt-bronze-mounted sèvres soft-paste porcelain `vases medici'

  • GBR
  • 2012-07-04
About the object
Superbly painted on a pale blue ground with 'rich arabesques' including, on the upper part, draped tables supporting steaming brûle-parfums alternating with others hanging from draped baldaquins, the lower part with urns filled with flowers and overflowing with water, held within a delicate and elaborate décor of foliage, grapevine and feather arabesques, on a grey-marbleised square base, the mounts with an egg and dart rimmed bowl and twin scrolled handles cast with fruiting vine tracery; the vases cracked, the ormolu with some repair and losses
Comparative Literature:
D. Peters, Sèvres Plates and services of the 18th century, 2005.
C. Baulez, Versailles deux siècles d'histoire de l'art, Versailles, 20007, p. 277, fig. 16.
"La Collection Hodgkins", Les Arts, May 1909, fig. 2.
Rosalind Savill, The Wallace collection, catalogue of Sevres Porcelain, London, 1988, p. 1066-1067.
G. de Bellaigue, French Porcelain in the collection of her Majesty the Queen, London, 2009, no. 176.
M. N Pinot de Villenchon, Sèvres Porcelain from the Sèvres Museum, 1740 to the Present Day, London,1993, p. 46, fig. 45.
This magnificent pair of vases are exceptional in both their form and their decoration, although it has proved challenging to identify them in the Kiln records or Artist's records of the Royal Manufacture of Sèvres. The rarity of their ground colour makes it hard to know what phrase might have been used to describe them, and though they evidently date from the Neo-classical period at the very end of the reign of Louis XVI, the lack of a date code or painter's marks further complicates matters.
First used by the factory circa 17551 and then falling out  of favour for a couple of decades, the revised Medici vase form had been reintroduced by 1781, by Louis-Simon Boizot who designed it possibly for the birth of the Dauphin and called it "vase jardin à dauphins", now in the Musée du Louvre2. The model was then developed in three different sizes in the following years. A plaster model for the vases is still at the factory, inscribed in pencil "Vase Medicis / 3me grandeur/1802" -the date probably having been added during the first inventory of the museum made by Alexandre Brongniart (see Fig. 1).
Copied directly from Antique models taken from the Louvre museum, this renewed form was part of a larger programme of revolutionary change in style at the Sèvres factory, led by its director the comte d'Angiviller. The latter believed that good taste and true beauty resided in the art of antiquity, and he was keen on introducing to France the 'style étrusque', an archaeological Neo-classical style based on actual objects that were being excavated in southern Italy in the second half of the 18th century and were – incorrectly believed to have been made by the Etruscans3.
Louis XVI offered a wonderful opportunity to the comte to develop this new neo-classical taste. In 1783, the king bought the property of Rambouillet, where he wanted to build an idealised dairy for Marie-Antoinette and her court to disport themselves as Arcadian milkmaids and rustics, in the latest fashion, as the Queen had already begun doing in the Hameau de La Reine.  D'Angiviller employed the finest artists and craftsmen for the Rambouillet project, coordinated by the painter Hubert Robert, and especially the painter Jean-Jacques Lagrenée as co-artistic director of the manufactory, to produce a service with new designs for both decoration and forms. The sky blue ground on the present pair of vases is one of these new pastel colours (others included lilac, grey, green and yellow) specifically created for the service and seems likely to be the colour referred to in the archives as fond petit bleu. See for example, the famous bowl in the shape of a woman's breast now in the Musée de Sevres and other sketch (fig.2&3).
The profusion of elaborate ornaments on the present pair of vases, however, more closely echoes another very ambitious project of the period, the service arabesque (Fig. 4). Produced from 1783 to 1787, this exceptional commission was composed of unique forms individually decorated with arabesques after Raphael. The engineer and architect Louis Le Masson was employed to design classical forms and intricate decorative motifs inspired by Roman and Pompeian models, and watercolour sketches were produced for the individual items of the service, each probably having its own decorative pattern. In 1795, the Comité de Salut Public had admired this service for its superb quality, and chose it as the perfect diplomatic gift to a minister, von Hardenberg, of Friedrich Wilhelm II, the King of Prussia4.
The Arabesque service was sadly to remain in the Sèvres factory's reserves. Furthermore, the Neoclassical fashion was by now as its peak and the sketches were used for other projects at the Sèvres factory, between 1786 and 1792. See for example a pair of hard-paste porcelain 'vases en cornet', circa 1786, sold Sotheby's Paris, 18 October 2006, lot 80. A "service petit bleu arabesque" was produced between 1789 and 1791 and painted (after Lagrenée's sketches) by various artists of the factory, including Guillaume Buteux and Theodore Buteux5. The decoration of that service is however considerably less ambitious than that on the present lot, and only the border of the plates bears a pattern of arabesques en camaieu on a petit bleu background (Fig. 5).
As to the likely painters of our vases, one candidate may be Pierre-André Le Guay, called Le Jeune,  who was directly involved in the Service Arabesques, and who painted in 1788, a pair of porcelain vases also with a pastel ground, the fond petit verd, and very similar arabesque decoration, but with a central hunting scene en camaieu (now in Versailles, see Fig. 6). This pair was then bought by Louis XVI himself, during the Factory exhibition in 1789.
In 1788, Le Guay Le Jeune also painted a pair of vases Medicis with similar but smaller arabesque friezes and essentially the same shape and gilt mounts, illustrated in 1909 when part of the Hodgkins collection (see Fig. 7)6.  A third pair of vases echoed this neoclassical taste and décor, now in the Cité de La Ceramique, Sèvres Museum7. These bear only the gilder's mark of Henri Prevost but their shape and ornament is in close relation to these others, in the same period.  Le Guay Le Jeune was most celebrated for his figure painting and it may be that several artists were involved both in these pieces, and in our own pair.
Another candidate must be considered: Nicolas Sinsson, celebrated for the general excellence of his painting. Certainly, the motifs of the arabesques, particularly the scalloped drapes and the draped table supporting a vase, are echoed on a hard paste punch bowl, dated 1790, in the Royal collection.8 The painter came to specialize in friezes and arabesques and was one of those who worked on the Service Arabesque. He also, for example, completed in the 1790's vases by P-A Le Guay to which he added the arabesques. Moreover, he is known to have decorated pieces with the pastel ground colours, including petit verd and petit bleu.9
Two entries in the Sèvres decorator's records, for example, read: "24 May 1788, 2 vases en deux pieces chacun, Riches arabesques" and "27 July 1788, 2 vases en deux pieces chacun, riche arabesques".  Could the present vases perhaps represent the most ambitious work of Nicolas Sinsson?10.
The superbly cast and chased gilt-bronze mounts demonstrate a most ambitious project. Interestingly, the mounts of the vases in the Hodgkins collection, previously mentioned, were then attributed to Pierre Gouthière, the outstanding Parisian ciseleur-doreur. However, recent research by Pierre Verlet, reveals that many of Gouthière's mounts were in fact made by the hand of his apprentice, Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843), who is most likely bronzier for the mounts on the offered vases. After training with Pierre Gouthiere, the latter quickly established a reputation for finely chased gilt-bronze and was responsible for designing and fitting gilt-bronze mounts at the Sèvres factory from 1783.
This pair of vases appears to be one of the most ambitious and most complete projects in the 1780's-90's neoclassical fashion, and  "illustre le haut degré de raffinement et de technicite atteint par la Manufacture de Sèvres à la fin du 18th century et la conjonction des meilleurs talents du temps pour repondre à l'évolution du goût"11.
Pierre-PhilippeThomire (1751-1843):
Along with his master, Pierre Gouthière, Thomire was the most celebrated bronzier during the reign of Louis XVI. He was the son of a ciseleur but also received training under the sculptors A. Pajou (1730-1809) and J.-A. Houdon (1741-1828) and he cast bronze portrait busts for both. The former was also a pupil at the Académie de Saint-Luc. He was already working for the Royal family by 1775 and collaborated with Jean-Louis Prieur ciseleur et doreur du Roi, on the bronze mounts for the coronation coach of Louis XVI. He set up his own atelier the following year and in 1783, Thomire was appointed as the modeller to the Manufacture de Sèvres, succeeding Jean-Claude Duplessis. He cast and chased bronzes the following year, which were designed by the sculptor, L.-S Boizot, for a monumental vase in dark blue porcelain intended for the Musée Centrale des Arts, which is now in the Louvre (cat. no. 407).  He was still working for Sèvres during the Napoleonic period.
In the accounts of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, his name appears frequently from 1784 as a maker of furniture mounts. He also collaborated in particular with Beneman on some pieces made for the Crown, aswell as Boulard and others, on a large screen made for Louis XVI's bedchamber at Compiègne in 1786 (now in the Louvre). He was also well known for bronzes d'ameublement such as the two sets of chenets for Marie-Antoinette's apartments at Versailles in 1786 (now in the Louvre cat.nos. 369 and 370) and the set of wall lights for Compiègne in 1787 (four are now in the Wallace Collection, London, Cat. Nos. 366-369 and two at Waddesdon Manor).
Additionally he made chimney mounts for Thierry de Ville d'Avray, the contrôleur-général des Meubles de la Couronne. He also undertook other commissions for example, he executed for the City of Paris in 1785, a set of monumental candelabra for presentation to General Lafayette to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. His other patrons included the Comte d'Artois, for furnishings for the château de Bagatelle.
During the Revolution, his atelier was used for the production of arms, but in 1804 he reverted to his former profession when he acquired the premises and business of the marchand-mercier Éloy Lignereux, the former partner and successor to Dominique Daguerre. His business flourished during the Empire period, and was renamed Thomire, Dutherme et Cie and in 1807, he is recorded as employing at least seven hundred workers. He enjoyed prestigious commissions from both the City of Paris and the Emperor including an important toilet service for presentation to Empress Marie-Louise on the occasion of her marriage and also the celebrated cradle for the King of Rome. He retired from business in 1823, and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur in 1834 and died in his 92nd year.
His style is more purely neo-classical than Gouthière's and he utilised motifs such as Victories, sphinxes and neo-classical incense burners quite early in his career. When he made mounts for the monumental Sèvres vase in 1783, he was already using the anthemion motif. During the Louis XVI period, he appears to have sometimes cast the works himself but at other times used fondeurs such as Forestier who also worked after models he provided. He is also recorded as gilding his own bronzes and sometimes employing others to do so, such as the fondeur-ciseleur Chaudron.
His work pre-revolution is to be found in all the major collections including the Louvre, Versailles, Fontainebleau, Compiègne, the Pitti Palace, Florence, the Wallace collection and Waddesdon Manor.

The marchands-merciers and Dominique Daguerre:
The marchands-merciers were great innovators and entrepreneurs in 18th century Paris. They played an important role in instigating fashion trends during the latter part of the reign of Louis XV and in particular during the reign of Louis XVI. Their success depended in no small part upon their ability to harness many different trades resulting in innovative and superlatively executed pieces of furniture and luxury objects that satisfied the insatiable appetite of collectors.
Those at the forefront of establishing taste included Darnault, Hébert, Duvaux, Poirier, and his successor Daguerre and led the way in setting the trends in interior decoration and furnishings in the second half of the 18th century. They invented new techniques and instigated new designs. It was they who created a market in objets de luxe, by mounting oriental and French porcelain to fit effortlessly into French interiors and also mounting French Sèvres porcelain on furniture by some of the leading ébénistes of the day.
They worked not only for their most important clientèle, the French Court, but also private clients. Lazare Duvaux's main client was Madame de Pompadour. The success of Poirier was almost solely down to Madame du Barry and his successor Dominique Daguerre became the chief supplier to the Court of Louis XVI. As early as 1760, Poirier had established a virtual monopoly in buying plaques of soft-paste porcelain from the Manufacture Royale de Sèvres. This monopoly resulted in a large production of Sèvres-mounted pieces of furniture. Poirier and Daguerre were instrumental in supervising the employment of porcelain plaques on pieces of furniture from the leading 18th century Parisian ébénistes such as Adam Weisweiler, Martin Carlin, Roger Vandercruse and these pieces were often fitted with fine gilt-bronze mounts by Pierre Gouthière.
Dominique Daguerre was one of the most celebrated Parisian marchand-mercier who was in partnership from 1772 with Simon-Philippe Poirier. Daguerre took over Poirier's business at La Couronne d'Or in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1777/78.
In 1778, Daguerre moved to London, and went into partnership with Martin-Eloi Lignereux, who remained in Paris. Daguerre's premises were in Sloane Street, Chelsea and he supplied furniture to George, Prince of Wales, around 1787-89 for the interiors at Carlton House, where his account in 1787 for furniture and furnishings totalled £14,565 13s 6d and at Brighton Pavilion. Surviving bills record that chimneypieces were imported from Paris, to be adjusted by craftsmen in London. At Carlton House, and Woburn Abbey, and for Earl Spencer at Althorp (1790), Daguerre worked in collaboration with the architect Henry Holland and sets of mahogany chairs by Georges Jacob, with openwork backs in lozenges and circles, are in the Royal Collection and in the Library at Woburn, where Holland was executing alterations; they are likely to have been supplied through Daguerre.

Sotheby's is very grateful to David Peters for his help in cataloguing  this lot.

1 Vase dit Le Boiteux, Brunet et Preaud, Sèvres des origines a nos jours, Fribourg, 1978, fig. 70.
2 This vase was offered in 1997 to the Musée du Louvre, see Louis-Simon Boizot, 1743-1809, exhibition catalogue, Versailles, 2001, p. 261, fig. 3.
3 Selma Schwartz, "The 'Etruscan' style at Sèvres, A bowl from Marie-Antoinette's dairy at Rambouillet", The Metropolitan Museum Journal N. 37, 2002, pp. 259-266.
4 David Peters, op. cit., pp. 1085-1095.
5 Choisy, Drouet, Massy, Philippine Cadet, Taillandier,Viellard fils. David Peters, op. cit., pp. 1049-1051.
6 Chavagnac in his article in Les Arts describes the date letter as LL which was thought to be then 1789.
7 MCN, 25, 493, 1-2
8 G. de Bellaigue, op. cit., no. 176
9 R. Savill, op. cit.,p. 1066-1067.
10 Another entry however records that the painter Jean-Pierre Fumez on 23rd July 1788 painted "2 collet et pieds a deux vases de Sinsson, Arabesques".
11 Virginie Desrante, "Le service de Marie-Antoinette pour la laiterie de Rambouillet", Sevres Cite de la ceramique, Fevrier 2011

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