by Louis Bofferding
Gilbert Poillerat (1902-1988). Center table, circa 1950. Gilded wrought iron, lacquered wood. H: 28” Dia: 51 “. Provenance: Mario Buatta; presumably Gregory Smith, New York. Sold
Gilbert Poillerat was the premier metalworker of his generation – and after Edgar Brandt, of the century itself. As a young man, on moving to Paris from the provinces, his humble background prompted him to pursue a craft at the Ecole Boulle, rather than his first love, painting, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In the years that followed he continued to paint for his own satisfaction, yet that thwarted ambition may account for his having pushed craft to the very brink of art, and his becoming the master of the forge.
On leaving the Ecole in 1922, Poillerat went to work for Brandt, who entrusted him with the design and execution of several showstoppers at the 1925 Paris exposition. When there he married the secretary of the boss, Rosette Belleli [his painting of her below right], who went to work when her Egyptian-banker father declared bankruptcy. A few years later, Poillerat worked briefly for a firm that made architectural metalwork, including, among other things, “artistic” elevator cages. He soon left to establish his own studio [below left], and rose slowly but surely to prominence, in spite of the Depression and a World War. Along the way he landed commissions for the ocean liner Normandie, the Ministry of Finance, the Elysées Palace, and the Louvre museum. He also collaborated with the decorators Serge Roche, André Arbus, and Jean Royère, as well as the decorating firms of Ramsay and the Compagnie des Arts Français.
After the war, the New York decorating firm of McMillen became Poillerat’s biggest client. It was established in 1924 by Mrs. Drury McMillen, who, after her second marriage, ran it as Mrs. Archibald Brown [seen in a Thunderbird and pearls below left]. Eleanor Brown would remain involved in the firm until her death at 100 in 1991, by which time she had sold it to Mrs. Virgil (Betty) Sherrill, her former assistant, who had by then become a full associate. Mrs. Sherrill’s daughter Ann Pyne (Mrs. John Sloan Pyne) runs it today. Not incidentally, all of these women are to be found in The Social Register of their respective days, alongside their socially prominent clients.
Mrs. Brown and her associate Grace Fakes began buying Poillerat’s work around 1950. They may have been introduced to it by Van Day Truex, who was then running their alma mater, the Parsons School of Design in New York, after having run its Paris branch in the 30s. They may also have seen it in the French design magazines and books sold at the Librairie Française in Rockefeller Center, a few blocks from their East 55th Street office and showroom. And when shopping in Paris, Mrs. van Akker, their Paris agent, may have suggested a studio visit. In any case, they would have seen his work at the Paris design salons where he exhibited regularly. Among them was Les Arts de la Table of 1951, where he may have shown the room documented in a McMillen archive photograph [above right]. In it, a table identical in design to our own is seen against a backdrop of mirrored paneling by Max Ingrand.
McMillen organized Paris 1952, a salon-like exhibition in their own showroom that very year. It featured modern French furnishings by Poillerat, Ingrand, Jacques Adnet, and Georges Jouve, among others [catalog cover above left]. According to Ann Pyne, it included a Poillerat table and a set of four chairs matching those in the photograph. McMillen sold the table and chairs to Mrs. Marshall Field. Another table of the same design was sold to Henry Ford, II. And some years later, they sold a pair of these table bases with a large green-lacquered top to the Oklahoma oilman George Coleman. They also sold yet another table base of this design with a black lacquered top, which is probably our own table [above right], to Mr. Gregory Smith, for whom McMillen came to decorate twelve residences over the years. Interestingly, McMillen shipped Poillerat table bases from Paris and had the tops made in New York, presumably to save shipping costs and import duties. Confusingly, they resold many, since their client relationships were ongoing. And so the five table bases that we cite do not necessarily represent five different ones.
Fast forward to 2010 when we purchased an unidentified bed [above left], knowing it was by Poillerat, and acquired by McMillen for their 1952 exhibition (it was saved for a subsequent exhibition they presented in 1954). When Mario Buatta saw it in our shop, he asked who made it, since he was sure he had in storage a table by the very same hand, which he had purchased unidentified from a dealer years before. Since Mario was the Prince of Chintz, and celebrated for his English country house style, we were more surprised that he bought something modern than his being unable to place it at home or with a client. And so, over the years, it hibernated in storage, and emerged only last spring when his hidden hoard was dispersed in four auctions. Passing unidentified once again, it was knocked down to us as “A Lacquer and Wrought-iron Center Table Attributed to Karl Springer.”
Gilbert Poillerat (1902-1988) for Ramsay (Paris decorating firm). Pair of small cocktail tables, circa 1950. Gilt wrought iron, glass. H: 18 ½” L: 33” D: 15 ½” Sold
Around 1900, firms like Jansen in Paris, White Allom & Company in London, and Herter Brothers in New York, dominated the field of high-end interior decoration. Then, in the 1920s, freelance decorators like Elsie de Wolfe, Syrie Maugham, and Jean-Michel Frank muscled their way into the picture. Yet many of those firms continued to prosper, despite the expense of employing armies of designers, producing their own furniture lines, and maintaining retail premises stocked with antiques. Following the 1929 stock market crash, however, that infrastructure became a heavy lift. Nevertheless, in 1931 the financier Louis Sée and the antiques dealer André Hammel launched Ramsay, the last of the great decorating firms.
The name Ramsay was drawn out of thin air. It evoked the England that the gratin associated with fine Savile Row tailoring, exclusive Pall Mall clubs, and the arcane rituals of the hunt. Reassuringly, it was a nation unbloodied by revolution, where an aristocracy still called the shots, even if, at that very moment, the Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald leaned to the left. No wonder, then, that Ramsay the firm took premises opposite the British Embassy at 54 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Initially, Ramsay’s rooms were luxurious if staid, with antique paneling and masses of antique furnishings upholstered à l’époque. But by the late 1930s they streamlined the interior architecture, and furnished with just a few choice antique pieces offset by monochrome satins, as seen in their 1937 exhibition room at the Salon des Arts Ménagers [above left]. Ramsay’s new look, and that exhibition room, was probably the work of Jacques Franck, a young man-about-town who came on board as a designer around that time A few years later, when the Nazis occupied Paris, Ramsay was able to soldier on because Sée, who was Jewish like Franck, and Hammel, a Protestant involved with the Resistance, Aryanize the firm by transferring ownership.
After the war, when the coast was clear, Sée and Hammel resurfaced with Franck to grasp the reins once again. Then, they brought in as decorators two society figures, who also brought in clients. They were Princess Georges Chavchavadze and Louise de Vilmorin [above right]. Both were tastemakers, yet neither was a professional. In the years that followed, Ramsay’s decorating threesome landed many prestigious jobs, including the French Embassy in London (Franck and Chavchavadze), the Palais-Royal flat of André Malraux, Minister of Culture (Franck and Vilmorin who was his mistress), and the fashion house of Lanvin (Vilmorin). All the while, Franck moonlighted as a party decorator, setting the scene for legendary entertainments, including one that was thrown in 1950 at the Hôtel Lambert by its then tenants, Princess Ladislas Czartoryska, Mrs. Harrison Williams, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Around that time, Gilbert Poillerat, the finest metalworker of his day, began supplying Ramsay with a line of gilded-wrought-iron tables and standing lamps. Poillerat was then working in an updated Baroque style, characterized by bold curves and counter curves. His version of it can be seen in his drawing for a center table [above left], and a cocktail table that is nearly identical to our own, which he supplied to the Compagnie des Arts Français [above right], then under the direction of Jacques Adnet.
Today, the triumverate that put Ramsay on the map is largely forgotten, at least when it comes to decoration. Yet each is remembered for something else: Vilmorin as the novelist who wrote Madame de (filmed by Max Ophuls as The Earings of Madame de…), Chavchavadze as a glamorous international socialite, and Franck as the event planner who elevated the ephemeral to an art. In 1968, however, that second career of his would come to a halt with student protests in France, and race riots in America, particularly in Detroit where Franck had recently staged the coming out for one of Henry Ford II’s daughters. That very year Franck confessed to a reporter, “I love frivolity and I’m sorry it’s on the way out.” A fitting epitaph for an out-of-touch elite that achieved an apogee of refinement we’re unlikely to see again.
French, 20th century. Attributed to the Compagnie des Arts Français. Cocktail table, circa 1928. Glass, mirror, nickel-plated steel and copper. H: 11 ½” L: 23 ¾” D: 15 ¾” $9,000
This glittering cocktail table of glass, mirror, and nickel-plated metal is the quintessence of 1930s glamour, and so finely made it could be compared to diamond-mounted platinum jewelry. It was sold to us as the work of Jacques Adnet [below left], who, in 1928, took charge of the Compagnie des Arts Français, a design studio and retail store established by Louis Süe and Andre Mare in 1919. Those designers collaborated with a small team of like-minded artists and craftsmen, establishing a tradition that continued under Adnet.
In 1928, the retail mogul Théophile Bader added the Compagnie to his collection of luxury-brand firms, which included, among others, the Galeries Lafayette department store, the house of Vionnet, and d’Orsay perfumes (decades later Francois Pinault and Bernard Arnault would make their own headlines assembling similar luxury conglomerates). In short order Süe resigned, and Maurice Dufresne [above right] gave the showroom a flashy new look [below left]. Since 1920 Dufresne kept busy running La Maîtrise, the Galerie Layfayette’s interior decoration studio and high-end furniture line, which probably accounts for his turning the Compagnie over to Adnet, his 28-year-old protégé.
Adnet would pivot the firm from an Art Deco grace to an au courant modernity, realized in glass, mirror, metal, and the occasional unembellished rare-wood veneer. Dufresne, however, must have been involved since he designed some furnishings for the Compagnie. Among them were a chandelier, lamp, and table published in Modern Glass [above right], a 1931 book by Guillaume Janneau that included only one chandelier by Adnet. Given this, Dufresne’s years of experience, his redo of the showroom, an in with the owner, and his appointing Adnet as director (acording to an Adnet interview), must have been an éminence grise at the firm in those transitional years.
When the Compagnie’s glass pieces appear on the market today, however, they’re invariably credited to Adnet. This isn’t surprising, since in the 1930s and 40s Adnet designed the firm’s popular line of leather-wrapped furnishings, ran the Compagnie until its 1959 closing, and outlived Dufresne by fourteen years, dying in 1984. As for our table, its glass-globe legs [above right] do indeed match the lamp bases credited to Adnet [above left], but around the same time, Dufresne was designing furniture with glass-ball feet under his own name. So the question is who influenced whom, or to what degree did they collaborate? In any case, shish kabobs of glass balls became a global design trope in the 1930s, as can still be seen in the balustrades of the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. But until more is known about each man’s design contribution, we’ll play it safe, and stake no authorship for our table beyond the Compagnie itself.
Attributed to Marcel Coard (1889-1974). Side table, circa 1930. Oak, shagreen. H: 21 ¾” L: 11” W: 11”. Provenance: Pierre Le-Tan. $6,000
This small side table was made from two materials that are rarely combined: red oak, which is commonplace and humble, and shagreen, which is exotic and rare. Shagreen is the hide of the stingray, which is leather-like, but more interesting-looking, with a natural patterning of tiny circular denticles. For use its sanded down to smoothness, and tinted a color – in this case green. Today, stingrays are commercially farmed in Southeast Asia, and, unlike those that are fished from Northern European waters, they have large coarse denticles. In 18th-century Europe, shagreen was used to make cases for spectacles, scientific instruments, sewing implements, and cosmetics. It fell out of fashion in the 19th century, only to become all the rage once again in 1910s and 20s Paris, when it was used for luxurious, one-of-a-kind furnishings by Paul Iribe, Andre Groult, Pierre Legrain, Jean-Michel Frank, and Marcel Coard [below left].
This table’s simplicity, geometrical form, attenuated proportions, fine joinery, and uncommon combination of materials, characterizes the work of Marcel Coard, as can be seen in his 1921 table of blackened oak with a string of inlaid ivory around the top [above right]. On the underside of our table top is a smudged green mark [below left] that may be the ghost of his parrot stamp [below right], harking back to the only pet he was allowed to have as a boy — a parrot that was given to him by family friends, which he named Coco.
The Coards were rich Jewish bankers. Traditionally in France, sons took up their fathers’ professions, but by this time it wasn’t that unusual for a young man to strike out on his own path. Marcel may have chosen to study architecture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, rather than design at the Ecole Boulle, to appease his parents over the choice of a career. Nevertheless, in 1913 he signed a shop lease, and hung out his shingle as a decorator. He kept an inventory of antiques, and designed one-of-a-kind furnishings marked by a deep understanding of material and craft. The following year he received the first of several commissions from Jacques Doucet, the important collector and patron of modern art and design. But the largest commission of his career came in 1928 from Paul Cocteau, the stockbroker brother of Jean, the famous writer, artist, and filmmaker.
In the late 1920s, Cocteau and his wife Marcelle commissioned Coard to fully furnish the vast country house [above left] they were building, a job that took him years to complete. What was notable about the results, aside from the sheer number of pieces, and the high quality of craftsmanship, was the variety. They ranged from the soigné to the rustic, as did the materials from the precious to the commonplace, as seen in a macassar ebony commode inlaid with lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl, and an African-inspired table hewn from solid oak and topped with black-glass [above right]. Our shagreen and oak table, if it is indeed by Coard as we suspect, would fall somewhere between these two poles.
French side table, circa 1950. Limed oak, limestone. H: 19” L: 13 ¾” D: 10 ¼” Sold
This insouciant little table from the 1950s is one of our favorite recent acquisitions, even though the designer is unknown, and we make no claim for its importance. In conception and materials — a limed oak frame with a limestone top – the table is simple yet elegant. But as any good carpenter can tell you, a simple design isn’t necessarily easy to make. Certainly these curvaceous legs wouldn’t have been, since they start out thin and taper down precariously, through subtle undulations, to a ballerina’s en pointe.
These curving legs can be traced back to French 18th-century joinery and cabinetmaking. In the 1770s Joseph Canabas made a fancy mahogany-and-brass tiered table that the English call a “whatnot” [above left]. Compare it to the humble French provincial side table Frances Elkins, the decorator, placed in the otherwise swanky 1930s living room of the Albert Laskers on Chicago’s North Shore [above right]. Both of these tables have curvy legs, but they curve inward to secure shelves, whereas ours curve whimsically for aesthetic effect. And so this soignée model, which to our knowledge is unique, has all the originality and sass that characterize the best in sophisticated Midcentury Modern French design.
Japanese 18th century altar table. Edo period. Lacquered wood, gilt-brass mounts. H: 12” L: 24 ½” D: 10 ½” Provenance: Pierre Le-Tan, Paris. $15,000
This lacquered 18th-century altar table was probably made for the private shrine of an aristocratic home. There, it would have been placed before a deity, and ritual objects — an incense burner, candle stands, and offerings of fresh flowers — would have been placed on it. A similar, longer table was once in the important Asian art collection of Mr. & Mrs. Michel Beurdeley of Paris [below left]. In Japan and China, as in the West, lacquerware is coveted for its beauty, durability, and the skill of the artisans who are trained to make it. To lacquer an object properly requires dozens of coats, and each must dry and be sanded down before the next can be applied. And since lacquer is toxic when wet, the artisans who mastered the art suffer skin rashes, and risk early death.
Our table was first lacquered black, and then a color we know as “Chinese red.” Over time, and with use, the surface was worn down randomly, revealing the layers underneath. This mottled effect was so prized that the process was sometimes rushed by rubbing, reflecting an appreciation of age and use that is intrinsically Asian. In addition to lacquerware, this can be seen in Japanese kintsukuroi – gold-repair ceramics –- that were mended with gold lacquer to emphasize, rather than disguise, breaks and chips occurred over time [above right a 17th-century example in The Smithsonian]. These techniques of aging and repair reveal an essential difference between the East where age is venerated, and the West where youth is prized above all else.
German 20th century, attributed to Hans Heinrich Müller (1879-1951). Expressionist table, circa 1920. Solid and oak veneer, dark stain. H: 28” Dia: 27” Sold
A square or rectangular table has four legs, but a round one can get by with three, even if most have four. But this round table has eight. To call that overkill is an understatement. Their proliferation, however, constitutes an artistic expression an artist might call art. For us it’s design at its most interesting. In any case this table, made in Berlin around 1920, is a rare surviving example of German Expressionist furniture.
After Germany’s 1918 defeat in “the war to end all wars” (sic), precious little furniture, Expressionist or otherwise, was made or sold. And no wonder, since the government had collapsed, territory was lost, war reparations were being levied, and an incalculable number of young men had been killed in battle. When Kaiser Wilhelm fled into exile the leftist Weimar Republic came into being, to the unease of the upper classes. Political power grabs and assassinations ensued, turning streets into battlefields where branches of the disaffected military fought Communists and rightists, as well as each other. Germany wouldn’t regain a semblance of equilibrium until the mid 1920s.
In the fields of painting, film, architecture, and design, a collective angst found expression in Expressionism. It took root in the 1910s, when the avant-garde bristled at Wilhelmine philistinism and militarism. In the 1920s it metastasized among the general population that had come to realize “the system” had been haywire all along. That attitude became form in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1914 Potsdamer Platz, which depicts prostitutes on a roundabout in a Berlin public square [above left]. The exaggerated and spiky forms add up to a disturbing grotesquerie. Its cinematic equivalent can be seen in the sets for the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which tells the sinister tale of an insane doctor who hypnotizes a man to commit murder. In one scene a lamplighter goes about his business in a town square, and a lamp casts a pool of light in the form of a lopsided star. That star form is regularized in our table’s top.
We attribute the table to Hans Heinrich Müller, a Berlin architect and designer. In the 1920s he was lucky to find work designing electrical power stations for the Städtische Elektrizitätswerke Aktiengesellschaft. This being Germany, utility companies functioned reliably amidst political chaos, and craftsmen upheld their high standards under financial constraint. Müller’s solidly built stations, as seen in one he designed in 1928 [above left], are characterized by spiky sculptural forms of rudimentary dark brick. That fine workmanship, and those formal characteristics, are found in our table made of rudimentary oak, dark-stained, with a top finely veneered with rays emanating from a disk.
Today, Expressionist form looks less modern than the cool geometry associated with the Bauhaus, the German design school that was founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, around the time our table was made. But Gropius and the Bauhaus then worked in the Expressionist idiom, as seen in the school’s 1919 program cover by Lyonel Feininger [above right], which depicts a spiky Gothic cathedral. As noted at the time, the stylistic roots of Expressionism are found in the German iteration of the Gothic, a style that achieved full expression in the cathedral. Carved on their portals were figures that exude earthly suffering and spiritual anguish, as would the Berlin prostitutes that were painted much later by Kirchner. Inside those cathedrals is the pointy austerity [Cologne below left] that also marks our table, if you translate void into solid in the manner of Rachel Whiteread, the contemporary English sculptor. Her Holocaust Memorial in Vienna represents the interior void of a book-lined room [below right], and makes space, and a sense of loss, disturbingly palpable.
Attributed to Peter Baumann. Chinoiserie table, circa 1925. Japanned wood with raised gilt-gesso decorations, Bohemian Breccia marble top. H: 25 ¾” Dia: 31 ½”. Bibliography: Innendekoration, 1925, pp. 286-7. $10,000
When one culture discovers another, the discoverer and the discovered find the other exotic, and a mutual fascination ensues. This has been the case with Europe and Asia since Marco Polo ventured eastward in the 13th century. In the 18th century that mutual fascination took form in King Frederick the Great of Prussia’s Asian-style pagoda outside Berlin [below left], and the Qianlong Emperor’s European-style summer palace outside Peking [reconstruction below right]. Neither ruler, nor their designers, however, had set foot on the other’s continent, so their knowledge was rudimentary at best. And so their two pleasure domes reflect fantasies rather than realities, and come off looking remarkably alike in style.
In 18th-century Europe, only aristocrats, and the odd filthy-rich banker, could afford Asian goods or the European interpretations of them known as chinoiserie. But in the 20th century, by which time capitalism had replaced the divine right of kings, a taste for the exotic had trickled down to the middle classes everywhere, from San Francisco to Berlin. And it was in Berlin, in the early 1920s, that the interior design studio of Hermann Gerson, a high-end department store, proposed to their clients a chinoiserie dining room with red-lacquered paneling and furnishings, and porcelains that may or may not have been Chinese [below left].
We attribute our 1920s German chinoiserie table to Peter Baumann, based on a nearly identical table seen in a winter garden he designed for a residence in Cologne. That room, published in Innendekoration in 1925 [above right], was filled with the potted palms native to Asia, and sparingly appointed with Art Deco furniture given an Asian twist with stepped spandrels, black japanning (a European painted finish imitating Asian lacquer), and raised decorations picked out in gold [below left]. Those decorations appear to have been based on Indonesian motifs that can be found in textiles [below right]. No doubt, many made their way to Germany when it seized a large chunk of Papua New Guinea, one of Indonesia’s largest islands, in 1885, and renamed it Kaiser-Wilhelmsland.
Germany’s improbably named colony was seized by Britain at the outbreak of World War I, and then by Japan during World War II. Following liberation in 1945, Indonesia finally achieved independence, as would the other Asian colonies of Britain, France, and Holland, in the years that followed. In spite of this, Western designers, collectors, and consumers, became ever more familiar with Asian art and its regional characteristics, thanks to global tourism, art historical scholarship, and museum attendance. Yet even today, the lure of chinoiserie – that fantasy land of pagodas, palms, and lacquerware – persists in the Western imagination.
Renaissance chair, Italian, probably Florence, circa 1575. Carved walnut. H: 40 ¾” W: 21 ¼” D: 18 ¾” (seat height 17 ¾”). Provenance: Pierre Le-Tan, Paris. $8,000
Over the course of five centuries of use, this Italian Renaissance walnut chair has acquired a rich patina. Its form is characterised by austerity, which is relieved by a sensuously carved back splat and stretcher. Their vaguely vegetal forms are in the Auricular style that was named for the human-ear cartilage its forms resemble. Too bizarre to be widely popular, the style originated in late 16th-century Renaissance Italy, and found its fullest expression during the Baroque in 17th century Holland, where it was known as Kwab, which is Dutch for earlobe. There, an Auricular giltwood frame came to overpower a self-portrait of Sir Anthony van Dyke facing off with a sunflower [below left], which is now at Ham House in England. Centuries later, back in Italy, when decorating a platter in 1927, Gio Ponti channeled both the Auricular style in the form of a nude on a puffy cloud, and the High Renaissance style in the form of the city she hovers over, as well as in the balustrade that enframes her.
We purchased this chair in Paris from Pierre Le-Tan, the celebrated artist and collector, who was photographed sitting on it in 2018 for The World of Interiors [below left]. Its earlier provenance, however, remains a mystery despite two tantalizing clues: a large “F. R.” painted on the rear legs in a 16th or 17th-century script, and a turn-of-the-20th-century Italian shipping label affixed to the underside of the seat, indicating the chair was to be shipped “with no great speed” to a gentleman in Paris named César something-or-other, who lived at number 7 rue de la something. How infuriating that the information we most want to know – the collector’s surname — is now illegible.
Italian (Venetian) Rococo armchair, circa 1760 (bearing the emblem of the Knights Templar). Parcel-gilt walnut, upholstered with later voided-silk-velvet. H: 49 ¼” W: 28 ½” D: 25 ½” $15,000.
During the first half of the 18th century, the bold curves and counter curves of the magisterial Baroque effervesced into the spritely curlicues of the vivacious Rococo. In the decorative arts at their best, the Italian iteration of the Rococo assumes an anthropomorphic guise – animated legs and arms like living limbs – as seen in our wonderfully lanky Venetian armchair upholstered in an old, sumptuous, voided-silk velvet. Nearly lost amidst the rocaille, the tendrils, and a scattering of flowers, even though it’s front, top, and center, is the cartouche where one would expect to find the original owner’s coat of arms. This cartouche [below left], painted a dark brown to imitate bronze, was carved with the cross of the Knights of Calatrava. This Spanish military and religious order was established during the Crusades by the King of Castille, and named for a castle in Morocco that he and his knights had conquered from the Moors in 1147.
The aristocratic Knights of Calatrava, like those of Malta and the Templars, were entitled to display its insignia on personal possessions, as seen in the 17th-century Velasquez portrait of Don Pedro de Barberana y Aparregui [above right], who had it embroidered on his doublet and cape. By the mid 18th century, when our chair was made, the Order had evolved into a secular confraternity of hereditary nobles who occasionally admitted new members deemed worthy, among them Farinelli, the celebrated castrato who, when he sang in Madrid, beguiled King Ferdinand VI. Farinelli would also sing to rave reviews at La Fenice in Venice. Nevertheless, it would be a stretch to propose that Farinelli commissioned our armchair between performances when there. Rather, we assume it was made around 1760 for a noble Spanish member of the Order, an ambassador perhaps, when living in Venice.
Pauly et Compagnie, Italian (Venice), early 20th century. Grotto chair. Gilded and silvered wood, paint. H: 35 ½”W: 23” D: 23”. $15,000
In 16th century Italy, on hot summer days, princes and popes sought refuge in the cool grottos of their country estates. Inspired by naturally occurring grottos, like the famous Blue Grotto of Capri, man-made ones, like that of the Visconti Borromeo family outside Milan [below left], were even more fantastical. They opened onto formal gardens, had walls sculpted to imitate dripping moss, were encrusted with shells, and equipped with fountains. Presumably the chairs placed in them went with the setting. And while it’s been said they incorporated shell motifs, no surviving chairs with shell forms have yet been identified with a known grotto.
The so-called grotto chair, made from clusters of shell-form elements, was introduced in the 1880s by one Signor Pauly of Venice. At the time, in an increasingly industrialized world, factory-made furniture of interchangeable parts was replacing the hand-made furniture of craftsmen. Pauly’s furniture combined both production methods, being hand-made from interchangeable parts that were assembled as arm- and side-chairs, tables [above right], stools, and vitrines. After assembly the results were silver-leafed, and then highlighted with translucent gold varnishes that gave them the nacreous sheen of seashells. The final effect was magical. And Pauly’s timing was perfect. He launched his furniture line when Venice was just beginning to become a playground for rich and sophisticated international tourists. No wonder he took a showroom just off the Piazza San Marco.
In 1902 Pauly’s firm merged with the distinguished glassworks that was formerly known as Salviati. We haven’t yet found a period photograph of their showroom, but the juxtaposition of iridescent shell-form furniture, with delicate hand-blown glassware [above left] must have been enchanting. Nevertheless, with the onslaught of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Pauly discontinued the furniture line. In the years that followed, local craftsmen continued to fill a diminished need with inferior copies for a less discerning clientele. But if fashion moved on to other fads by then, the whimsical theatricality of grotto furniture had since become a touchstone among a bohemian elite. In her Park Avenue penthouse, for example, the cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein aptly paired grotto chairs with four Surrealist murals she commissioned from Salvador Dali [above right].
On the Cote d’Azur, a more circumspect Henri Matisse owned a grotto chair that was kept in his studio at the Hôtel Régina in Nice. There it is seen behind the posed model in our photograph of him [see VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPHY] that was shot by Georgette Chadourne in the 1930s [above left]. This chair appeared often in many of his paintings, including Chaise Rocaille, which translates into English as Rococo Chair. This title, however, is a misnomer. It should be titled Chaise de Grotte, or Grotto Chair.
Baguès (Paris maker). Chandelier, circa 1950. Bronze, glass, and interior-painted glass. Fixture H: 36” Dia: 24” (with original 12”chain not seen here) $15,000
The Paris bronzier Noël Baguès established his eponymous firm in 1860. Initially he cast reproductions of 18th-century andirons, candlesticks, and chandeliers. But before the century was out, his firm, under the direction of his two sons, transitioned from candle- and oil-powered lighting fixtures to those powered by electricity and the newly invented light bulb. They also began rolling out more original designs in historicist and modern styles. Those smart designs, and their superior craftsmanship, won Baguès press accolades, and landed them overseas clients, resulting in showrooms being opened in New York, London, Rome, and even Cairo.
Our chandelier can be identified as Baguès, circa 1950, based on a similar model that was published in Plasir de France in that very year [above right]. Stylistically, it represents what Baguès was, and remains best known for, namely, modern interpretations of historical styles — in this case, a 17th-century Dutch brass chandelier [above left]. Baguès kept the original model’s brass arms, but switched out brass drip pans for clear glass disks, and brass baluster-support spheres for colored-glass ones, the largest of which is engraved with cross-hatching à la Baccarat. Attuned to decorating trends and the decorator’s needs, these colored glass elements were, in fact, made in hollow clear glass. That allowed the interior to be painted in the color that would best suit the room where the chandelier was destined to be hung.
Baguès (Paris maker), design attributed to Armand Rateau. Pair of sconces, 1920s. Silvered bronze, rock crystal, amethyst. H: 13 ¾ W: 11 ½ D: 5 ½ $15,000
In 1920s Paris, the smartest cut-crystal lighting fixtures were to be found at Baguès. There, well-heeled clients and high-end decorators placed custom orders, and bought chandeliers, sconces, and lamps off the floor. Among the American decorators who did so were Rose Cummings and Frances Elkins, and, closer to home, the now-legendary decorating firm of Jansen.
Baguès’ main claim to decorative-arts fame, however, is their collaboration, which began in 1919, with the designer, decorator, and sometime architect Armand Rateau. Today he’s identified with the Art Deco style, and celebrated for his beautiful yet idiosyncratic interiors, and the furnishings that he designed for them, as seen in the Paris dining room [above left] of couturiere Jeanne Lanvin, and the madcap cut-glass, rock-crystal, and amethyst chandelier that Baguès made for her sitting room after Rateau’s design [above right].
Less well known today, but equally well known in his own day, are his interiors and furniture designs inspired by historical styles, and made for clients who collected antique furniture and old master paintings, like the Comtesse de Beaurepaire in Paris, Lady Baillie in Kent, England, and the George Blumenthals in New York, Paris, and Grasse. But much of his Art Deco work was also inspired by the Louis XV and XVI antiques that he collected himself. A photo of him at the office [above left] shows some of his trophies, including a group of master drawings and a pair of antique sconces. Yet when working in this idiom he never failed to give it a personal spin, as seen in the Louis XVI-style chair he designed [above right], and a Louis XV-style dining room he exhibited at the 1934 Salon des Arts Menagers [below left]. Neither the chair, with it’s stark black-and-gold decoration, nor the woodsy interior, mixing humble Provincial furniture and paneling with a fancy chandelier, centerpiece, and clock, would have made sense to a pair of 18th century eyes.
We attribute the design of our Louis-Louis sconces to Rateau, and their fabrication to Baguès. Typically, Rateau stamped his furniture but not his lighting fixtures. Baguès also stamped their fixtures, but not as a rule, if there was a flat surface to apply it, as there wouldn’t have been on these wisps of glinting rock crystal and amethyst that appear to hang in mid air. Yet these sconces reflect both Rateau’s sensibility and Baguès’ ability. That said, we’ve never before seen a sconce or a chandelier by Rateau, Baguès, or anyone else for that matter, that employ openwork “nets” to secure prisms [above right]. This is a jeweler’s technique for setting gemstones in chandelier earrings, and the sort of subtle, amusing, extravagant detail that we expect of Rateau and Baguès at their best.
Attributed to Jean Gabriel Domergue (1889-1962), made by Véronese (Paris and Murano firm). Pair of sconces, 1930s. Glass and aluminum. H: 24” W: 19” D: 12 ½” $20,000
In 1930s Paris, the smartest blown-glass lighting fixtures were to be found at Véronese. The firm was established in 1931 by Marcel Barbier, most likely the furniture designer of that name who was cited in a 1928 article. Regardless, Véronese was unique in having a design office in Paris (vortex of fashion), and a glassworks on Murano (vortex of glassmaking). Under Barbier, Véronese developed a product line of clear translucent glass, which was promoted through extensive advertising [below left], and sold from striking showrooms in Paris and Nice [below right]. As for the name itself, their master glassblower was Giovanni Veronese, but to christen a company for an artisan who didn’t work exclusively for their firm, and was unknown beyond Murano, seems odd to say the least. In any case, Barbier was also attempting, presumably, to tap into the fame of Paolo Veronese, the 16th-century Venetian artist who depicted glassware and other luxury goods in his paintings. Paolo Venini was too, just a few years before, when he named the Veronese Vase after him, since it was copied from one he had painted, which became Venini’s signature product and a design classic.
Launched early in the Depression, Véronese devised a lean business model. Instead of employing a salaried in-house art director, they commissioned designs from independent architects, like Marcel Roux-Spitz and Jean Courtois (who designed the Nice showroom), decorator Andre Arbus, and society painter Jean-Gabriel Domergue [below left], among others. Not incidentally, these men were in a position to propose the products they designed for Véronese to their own clients. Additionally, Véronese avoided the expense of maintaining a glassworks. Instead, they bought furnace time from Archimede Seguso, the descendant of a family that had been in the glassmaking trade since the 14th century. Then, Suguso’s art director was Flavio Poli, who also created designs for Véronese. At the time, Poli’s glassblower was the aforementioned Giovanni Veronese who worked for Véronese. If all this seems a bit incestuous, it was, but it isn’t atypical of the glassmaking world that is Murano.
Véronese’s clear glass, creative marketing, and shrewd business practices, masked their essentially conservative approach to design. Most of their models were based on 18th-century prototypes. This can be seen in our pair of sconces, as well as a chandelier [above right] designed for them by Domergue, according to a caption in the 1937 article on the firm in Art et Industrie. Since our sconces and that chandelier share a design sensibility, and incorporate identical glass elements, they were quite likely made en suite. And that accounts for our attribution of the sconces to Domergue himself.
Antique lamp with a Pierre Le-Tan (1950-2019) painted shade. Painted sheet-metal shade 2019, silvered-brass bouillotte lamp circa 1920. H: 33 ½” Dia: 22” $20,000
Early last year the artist Pierre Le-Tan painted the shade of this antique lamp with words for light — lumière, lux, luce, licht — in English, French, Latin, Italian, and German. Pierre, who was fluent in French and English, got by in a few other languages too. He was, you might say, a cosmopolite. When I first met him in the 1980s he boarded planes at the drop of a hat, ricocheting from Paris, his home, to New York, London, Milan, and Tangier. He was also attracted to more offbeat destinations like Cairo, São Paulo, Portmeirion in Wales, and Macao, China. Pierre chronicled his travels in Album [below right], an artist’s book published in 1990. But in recent years just getting him across the Seine to see a museum exhibition was like pulling crab meat from its shell. Pierre [below left] had come to the sad conclusion that venturing afield was no longer worth the effort, with globalization and commercialization making the world ever more uniform and vulgar.
Not that Pierre became a hermit. He made a second marriage, had two more children, and continued to meet friends at restaurants in the neighborhood, and on the other side of town too, if the décor and atmosphere were de l’époque (and if that époque wasn’t the present one). Nor was there a good, important, or interesting antiques shop that he didn’t frequent. In one of them he came across this massive, silvered-bronze bouillotte lamp. Like all bouillotte lamps it has a metal shade that can be raised or lowered in order to adjust light for the playing of bouillotte, a card game popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, which evolved into poker. This particular lamp, however, is in the Empire style, and dates to the early 20th century. That didn’t put Pierre off since it was handsome, and came with a shade that presented a blank field for him to decorate. He chose to paint it an astringent yellow, with contrasting black-painted words, arabesques, and pictograms, in his signature crosshatching style [below].
Amongst those pictograms and words are a few English phrases — “Stars do shine if you ask them gently”, “Full moon = good mood,” “The moon and her friends the stars” – and French ones too — “L’ étoile filante” (Shooting star), “L’oeil lumineux” (The luminous eye), “Lumiere d’ici et de là” (Light here and there). Pierre was pleased when he stood back to observe his work. Yet he found that this over-scaled lamp didn’t suit the intimately-scaled rooms of his much-photographed and published apartment on the Place du Palais-Bourbon. And so he telephoned me to say, in his ever so slightly British-accented English, that he had decided to sell something that I might like. Before we signed off I bought the lamp, sight unseen, without discussing the price.
Chinese, 18th/19th century. Quing dynasty screen panel, circa 1800, on later base, circa 1920. Wood, plant fiber inset screen. H: 73 ½” W: 56” D: 19”. $9,000
The large 19th-century fretwork panel of this Chinese standing screen was originally the window of a house. In the early 20th century it was salvaged and mounted in a matching hardwood stand, along with the horizontal panel and two small vertical ones below, in order to create a freestanding indoor screen to function as a room divider. Only that large panel, however, was intricately carved on one side, or fitted with a fine mesh-reed screen, which would have kept buzzing insects and flying birds from getting inside. Presumably, that house, like most, incorporated several panels of identical design [below left]. It can only be hoped that they also survived.
A qilin, the mythological hoofed creature that could fly, appears dead center in that large panel [above right]. Since they spouted flames from their mouths at the approach of malefactors, they protected the houses of wise and benevolent men — appearing when needed, and disappearing when not. As such, their placement at any point of entry to a house is appropriate.
This qilin is set in a circle carved with four winged bats seen head on. And beyond that circle is an octagon, beyond which are four more bats shown from above. In China, bats are symbols of prosperity since the word for them is pronounced fook, as is the word for wealth itself. In the fretwork beyond, in radiating tiers going outward, are pairs of pine boughs in circular form, symbolizing steadfastness and longevity. Beyond them on each side in the final tier are what appear to be lotus flowers symbolizing purity of heart and mind, since they rise pure, white, and unbesmirched from the muck of ponds. And at the top and bottom are what appear to be plum blossoms symbolizing perseverance and hope. Auspicious symbols all, which are suited to the geomancy of the home known as feng shui.
Tiffany & Company. Desk set, 1930s. Sterling Silver, Portor marble, leather. Blotter container size 30 1/4“ x 19 1/4“. Provenance: Philip Green Gossler, New York; Marion “Oatsie” Charles, Newport, RI. $10,000
On March 14th, 1938, Mrs. Georgia Whiting Saffold Oates — a former southern belle and a recent divorcee — plighted her troth with Mr. Philip Green Gossler [below left], then on his third marriage. If he was, as they used to say, “a caution,” he was also a man of substance. A utilities magnet, he was “one of fifty-nine men who rule America,” according to his 1945 obituary in The New York Times. This 1930s Tiffany desk set belonged to him, and his initials “P.G.G.” are engraved all over it [below right], except on the notepad holder that didn’t have a blank field large enough to accommodate them.
Born in Columbia, Pennsylvania, Gossler attended the local university before studying electrical engineering at Columbia University. Making a name for himself at Edison General Electric, he went on to Royal Electric in Montreal. Returning to New York, he rose through the ranks of Columbia Gas & Electric, becoming chairman, and, along the way, orchestrated the mergers and acquisitions that made it one of the largest utility cartels in the world, with thirty-four companies in eight states. Appointed a director of the Guaranty Trust Company, he was clubbable enough to be admitted in the Metropolitan, University, and Piping Rock clubs, as well as the Royal Nassau Sailing Club, which came in handy when wintering on Hog Island where he had an estate.
We don’t know if Gossler kept this desk set at the office or in his East 65th Street townhouse [below left], designed by William Welles Bosworth, architect of the skyscraping AT & T headquarters on lower Broadway, and Kykuit, the Rockefeller family manse on the Hudson River. In any case, Tiffany forged it from sterling-silver-mounted Portor marble, which is known in Italy, where it is mined, as Portoro. The French, however, most favored the marble, especially for topping off commodes and cabinets from the 17th century on. Its striking coloration of black, yellow, and white, complimented rich woods and gilt bronze, as seen on (if only just barely) a precious Art Deco bar cabinet designed by Süe et Mare [below right].
It isn’t just the Portor marble that makes us believe this 1930s desk set was made for Tiffany in Paris, and not Tiffany in New York. For one thing, it bears the Tiffany hallmark [below left] but not the so-called maker’s mark found on all Tiffany New York silver. For another, its au courant design is in line with the work of the Paris masters of Art Deco, but not the more traditional New York designers. Among the Paris ones who had worked for Tiffany were André Groult and Armand Rateau, who designed Tiffany’s showroom on the Avenue de l’Opera some years before. This isn’t to say that Gossler’s desk set had necessarily been purchased there, since Paris-made luxury goods were commissioned and shipped to New York, where they caught the eyes of the discerning few, who still had the wherewithal to buy them as the Depression closed in.
On Gossler’s 1945 demise, the desk set presumably passed to his widow, and when she breathed her last, to her beautiful daughter Marion, who would expire in 2018 at the age ninety-nine [above]. That Marion had bothered to keep it says more about her love of the beautiful than her fondness for her stepfather, whom she didn’t much like. This, in spite of his having footed the bill for her extravagant 1938 coming out at his townhouse, and the St. Regis rooftop supper dance that followed. She, too, as it turned out, was “a caution,” painting her fingernails black, which matched her dark moods, and earning her the sobriquet ‘Black Marion.’ Back then, her name was Marion Oates, which changed on her marriage to Thomas Leiter, a Marshall Field & Company heir, and once again following a divorce, and remarriage to Robert H. Charles, Assistant Secretary of the Air force. Those marriages gave her the wherewithal to become Washington, D.C.’s most celebrated hostess, ‘Oatsie’ Charles (a sobriquet bestowed by her by fellow debutante Brenda Frazier). There, she regularly hung out a ham for the likes of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, Ian Fleming, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Deeda Blair, among others. Summertime, she was doyenne of Newport society, living in Land’s End, Edith Wharton’s former “cottage,” and chairing the Newport Restoration Foundation. Fashionable to the bitter end, she enchanted, impressed, and intimidated more than a few. According to her admiring grandson, “children were terrified of her — so were most adults.”
Master F. G., French (Fontainebleau), circa 1550. Wounded Paris Carried Beneath the Walls of Troy. Etching on laid paper, framed. Sheet 10 “ x15 “, framed 12 ½” x 17 ½” $4,000
“Sing goddess, of Achilles’ rage, black and murderous, that cost the Greeks incalculable pain, pitched countless souls of heroes into dark Hades, and left their bodies to rot as feasts for dogs and birds.” That opening line of Homer’s Iliad, and the thousands that follow, rang in the ears of the ancient Greeks, burned through the page in the Roman world, and, after a centuries-long hibernation in the Dark Ages, resurfaced to enthrall the Renaissance. Homer’s tale of the Trojan War, along with his sequel the Odyssey, continue to resonate among American veterans squaring trauma with duty after deployments in Afghanistan, if less so among academics retooling the Western cannon.
This engraving illustrates an episode in the war that was overlooked by Homer. Paris, the scapegrace Trojan princeling, who initiated the war by abducting Achilles’ wife Helen, is being carried to safety behind city walls as bugles and horns sound the retreat. The scene is archly presented, which is typical of late Renaissance, or Mannerist, compositions. The nude Paris gazes directly at the viewer with bedroom eyes through tumbling locks. Though not dead yet, his dead weight is shouldered by a warrior with a balletic lift of leg, which should send them both tumbling to the ground. The scene is also improbably theatrical. It is presented on a trompe l’oeil stage, and bears the engraver’s initials “GR.F”, and the inscription “a Fontana.Bleo. Bol.”, which a contemporary viewer would read as “At Fontainebleau” after the “Bolognese” painter Francesco Primaticcio, then a famous artist who hailed had from Bologna.
In 1534, King Francis I of France summoned Primaticcio [above left] to the palace of Fontainebleau, which then functioned as the capitol of France. Between 1541 and 1544 Primaticcio frescoed the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Porte Dorée [above right], a courtyard entrance. There, he painted this scene of the wounded Paris [below left], along with four others, including Hercules being dressed as a woman (Fontainebleau taste was nothing if not kinky). All conformed to an obscure iconographic program that promoted the king and celebrating his reign. Not incidentally, at that time, a legend gained traction that Frankus, a mythological warrior, had established the French kingdom after fleeing Troy when it fell.
Concerning our print, there are two mysteries we can’t explain. One is the name of the artist who engraved it. In the 19th century, a group of stylistically related prints bearing the initials R G F were identified as the work one engraver, who was then christened Master F. G. It was posited that he might have been Francois Gentil, a Frenchman who worked at Fontainebleau, and to whom no other works could be attributed. Then it was pointed out that the F isn’t an initial, but an abbreviation of fecit, which is Latin for “he made it.” That would mean his initials were G R. Then it was posited that he was Guido Ruggieri, another artist, Italian this time, who had worked at Fontainebleau, and to whom, like Gentil, no other works could be attributed. The jury remains out.
The other mystery is that the composition has the same orientation as Primaticcio’s painting [above left] and preparatory drawing, which is in the Louvre [above right]. Typically, that isn’t the case since a print is an impression taken from an inked matrix, and therefore appears as the inverse of the image that was copied. In any case, before photography, prints were the only effective means of disseminating images widely. And so King Francis sang his own praises, as it were, by commissioning artists to paint fresco cycles that had iconographic programs that were propogandistic. He also financed a print studio at Fontainebleau to disseminate those cycles, image by image. It was all the printmakers could do to keep up. And it should be noted that many of the painters also made prints. In any case, the general rush accounts for printing flaws – note the poor inking of our impression – and editions so small that some are known by just one impression.
Striking a pose even when dying, risqué content, a thirst for fame, and slapdash production values, as embodied in this print, are hallmarks of what has come to be known as the School of Fontainebleau. They are also hallmarks of our Instagram age. Yet the Fontainebleau that flourished five hundred years ago — not all that distant relative to the fall of Troy in the 12th-century BC — flashed with an erudition, a beauty, and a glamor that is at odds with what passes for those qualities today.
Philip Peter Roos, known as Rosa di Tivoli (Frankfurt am Main 1655-1706 Rome). Night scene of animals in a landscape, circa 1685. Oil on slate 6 1/2“ x 11 5/8“; “ later frame 8 ¾” x 13” ½”. $10,000
A glowering ram lowers its horns in a face off with a barking dog rising on its haunches. An imperturbable ox turns its massive head to watch the row. Annoyed, a recumbent ewe to the left glances over its shoulder, but the two behind her don’t deign to give the combatants the satisfaction of looking on. And then, lastly, a pair of blissfully oblivious sheep grazes at a safe distance to the right. Nothing could be more ordinary than a dog corralling a herd before heading home for the night, but what is extraordinary is the painter’s ability to portray an animal-kingdom drama. You might say the scene is the barnyard equivalent of a modern-day subway altercation – more posturing than fight – which suggests, intentionally or not, the restiveness of animals and humans alike.
The painter was Philipp Peter Roos, better known as Rosa di Tivoli [above right]. He was born in Germany, to a multigenerational family of painters who specialized in landscapes and animals. Early on, he worked in Frankfurt am Main under the protection of Charles I, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Knowing talent when he saw it, that beneficent ruler sent the young Roos to Rome to perfect his art in 1677. There, his skill was honed in the studio of Giacinto Brandi, a painter of religious scenes, of all things. And in Rome he would remain after falling in love with his master’s daughter, Maria Isabella. In 1681, Roos, a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism to marry her. Three years later, they purchased a house in nearby Tivoli, where they raised seven children, two of whom became painters. During those years his surname was Latinized to Rosa, and, following that change of address, he became known to the locals, and to posterity alike, as Rosa di Tivoli.
Tivoli is celebrated for a landscape of rolling hills garnished with ancient Roman ruins. Among them are the surviving arches of the famous aqueduct [above left], which can be discerned, if just barely, through the evening gloom to the left in our painting. Rosa’s acreage in Tivoli allowed him to keep a menagerie of animals that served as models [above right his “portrait” of a ram], which is why his home was known as Noah’s Ark. Not that Rosa cut a figure of biblical propriety. He was one of many Northern painters then living in Rome who was notorious for carousing. He joined the Bentvueghels (Dutch for “birds of a feather”), a confraternity of German and Dutch painters who met in a room of the Pantheon. That 2nd-century temple, originally dedicated to all the pagan gods as its name would suggest, had since been rededicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. The painters’ meetings there invariably turned into drinking binges, sending members hopscotching from tavern to tavern for weeks at a time. If many contemporary Romans looked down on the antics of these barbaric foreigns, aristocratic connoisseurs bestowed on them their patronage. This is why most of Rosa’s paintings are still to be found in the palazzi of the Colonna, Borghese, Ludovisi, and Doria Pamphilj families.
Connoisseurs were then partial to small jewel-like paintings on hardstones, which were selected for their suitability to the scene depicted. For example, precious blue lapis lazuli was matched to scenes unfolding against a daytime sky, just as satiny black slate was matched to scenes unfolding against a nighttime sky. Our rustic scene, painted on fine-grained slate, probably dates to the 1680s. In 1691, by which time dark Caravaggesque scenes like Rosa’s were less in vogue, he was forced to sell Noah’s Ark and return to Rome. He died there in poverty at the age of fifty-one (ale, women, and song, had taken a toll). We know this from Arnold Houbraken, his contemporary, who included Rosa in a book he wrote on German and Dutch painters. There, he records: “In the year 1698 to 99, the Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, his first patron, came to Rome, and inquired after our Roos, whether he still lived, and after his conduct in life, and said, when he heard that he had changed his Religion, that I am still able to forgive him, but that he has never sent me a piece of his Art as proof of his gratitude I can never forget.” Reckless ingrates, take note.
American, 19th century. Framed silhouettes of William and Charles Livingston, 1838. Paper cut outs in the original giltwood frame. 20 ½” 24 ½” (framed). Provenance: Pierre Le-Tan, Paris; John Armbruster, Brussels; Frederick W. Hughes, New York $8,000
In the late 18th century, snipping someone’s profile from paper with scissors, and mounting the result to a contrasting sheet, was a popular diversion among the European elite. They were called silhouettes, after Etienne de Silhouette, a finance minister of King Louis XV. But lost in the mist of time is whether they were so named because he practiced the art (as has been said), or because he notoriously snipped away at taxpayers’ incomes. In any case, by 1829, August Edouart, another Frenchman, called himself a “silhouettist” as he snipped his way down the eastern seaboard of a newly established United States.
A few years later, an amateur snipped our silhouettes on a summer’s day in 1838. He or she identified the sitters, and dated their work to the very day, but they didn’t bother to sign their own name, or erase the pencil outlines they made when tracing the profiles to guide the scissors. But the fancy original giltwood frame, and the fancy sitters themselves — Charles and William Livingston, members, presumably, of the Hudson Valley landowning clan — adds a certain cachet.
The allure of sitters and frame are equaled by the provenance. We bought the work from Pierre Le-Tan, the Paris artist. He bought it from one John Armbruster, a mysterious international private dealer, who has sold many fine if offbeat things that I’ve coveted over the years. He, in turn, bought it at the Sotheby’s estate sale of Frederick W. Hughes [above left with Loulou de la Falaise]. The right-hand man of Andy Warhol, it was Fred who persuaded the likes of Gianni and Marella Agnelli, Yves Saint-Laurent, and the Empress of Iran, among others, to commission portraits from Andy — the chicest and priciest to have been painted since Anthony Van Dyke.
And so we were amused to find our silhouettes of Early American patricians mistakenly identified in the Sotheby’s sale catalog as “A large free-cut portrait of Fred Hughes and a friend, American 20th Century.” Fred, who came from humble Texas stock, was a terrible snob, so he would have been delighted to be taken for a Livingston. But in defense of the auction house expert, we must concede that Fred’s profile resembles that of William Livingston, and that this nearly two-hundred-year-old work looks remarkably contemporary.
A close connection to a Pop master wasn’t Fred’s only claim to fame. He also possessed one of the best eyes of his generation, for both art-historical treasures and offbeat curiosities (our silhouettes falling somewhere in between). In addition, he could arrange a collection better than any museum curator or decorator we know. He demonstrated the skill in his enchanting Paris apartment on the rue de Cherche-Midi [above right], and his rather spooky Manhattan townhouse on Lexington Avenue [above left]. When he sold off the contents of the former, I punched above my weight, competing with a handful of major dealers, decorators, and the artist Cy Twombly. So when his New York hoard came under the hammer, posthumously, at Sotheby’s in 2001, I restrained myself, and walked away with mere dribs and drabs. Nineteen years later, I’m still making amends.
Swedish 20th century, possibly by Sidney Gibson. Abstract sculpture, circa 1925. Painted and gilded wood and plaster. H: 29 1/2:. Provenance: Folke Wickman, Stockholm; Daniel Katz, London. $10,000
This abstract 1920s Swedish sculpture, of painted-and-gilded plaster on a painted-wood base, is pleasing from all angles. At the time and place of its making, the Swedish Grace movement was in full swing. That style, characterized by a refined and delicate fluidity, updated the neoclassical style of the Gustavian period that prevailed around 1800. What’s unusual about this sculpture, however, is the union of Swedish Grace arabesques, recalling vegetation or windswept drapery, with stark Cubistic forms, suggesting the influence of French modernism. Nevertheless, we can identify the sculpture stylistically as Swedish, and because the previous owner, the important London sculpture dealer Daniel Katz, purchased it in Stockholm. As for the sculptor’s identity, when the research libraries reopen we’ll be looking into the work of Sidney Gibson. He was a sculptor who designed furniture, lighting fixtures, and furniture, for the Stockholm town hall, and his own beautifully appointed house on the grounds of the royal palace of Haga.
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