by Louis Bofferding
1935 JANSEN DINING TABLE
Jansen dining table designed by Gaston Schwartz (1879-1938), 1935. Amboyna-veneered mahogany, silvered bronze, black glass. H:31”L:9’ 9”D:47. Provenance: Susan Webber, New York. $50,000
The January 1935 issue of Plaisir de France featured two dining tables by Jansen [below left], the eminent Paris decorating firm that designed furniture and made it in their own workshops. The editors presented the same photograph of one of them yet again [below right] in their 1949 book Decoration de France, a compilation of images and articles previously published in the magazine. This photograph shows the table set extravagantly with Lalique glass, and a Misia Sert glass centerpiece in the form of a sheaf of wheat. The table is described as palisander, or rosewood, with bronze mounts. Our table is amboyna, an exotic burlwood, with silvered-bronze-mounts. Since they misspelled Misia as Missia, and misidentified the glass base of her centerpiece as rock crystal, they may also have misidentified the table’s wood and overlooked the silvering. Nevertheless, our table may be a different iteration of the same design, since more than one could have been made, although it’s unlikely that any two were exactly alike. After all, a Jansen client wouldn’t have been pleased to come across a table identical to their own in someone else’s dining room, any more than a Chanel client would have been to see another woman in the same dress she was wearing when out on the town. As the French would say, quelle horreur.
The designer of the table model was Gaston Schwartz. In 1920 he was one of three designers Henri Jansen brought into the firm as he was easing his own way into retirement. The other two were Stéphane Boudin, now celebrated, and Jean-Jules Vandries, now unknown (who probably worked on the business end). Design wise, Boudin swung traditional while Schwartz swung modern, as seen in his work at the Château Solveig, an Art Deco love nest on the shores of Lac Leman. It was built for the improbably named Francis Francis, an English Standard Oil heir, an amateur aviator, and a member of the King’s Royal Horse Guard, until he married the no less improbably named Sunshine (“Sunny”) Jarmann, an American musical-comedy showgirl. In those days this was a scandal, which sent them into a luxurious Swiss exile, and the building of a modern residence where Sunny’s blond pulchritude was reflected (until they divorced) in the sheen of mirror, glass, metal, lacquer, polished marble, and gold-and-silver gilding. This shininess is seen in the hall [below left], and dining room [below right], with a table of plate-glass that rests on green-lacquered-metal supports.
Schwartz designed this table around the same time as our own, yet ours looks less like his other table than one by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, the great Art Deco furniture and interior designer. That table [below left] was made just a couple of years before, for the dining room of Count Vizela in Porto, Portugal. It had, like the Francis table, open-arc supports, and was, like ours with solid supports, veneered in amboyna and mounted in silvered-bronze. Ruhlmann’s first version of this table was unveiled at the 1925 Paris Exposition [below right]. It was veneered in palisander, and had silvered-bronze mounts (like the published description of the later Jansen table). Shortly thereafter, Ruhlmann made another version for the Paris dining room of François Ducharne, a Lyon silk magnate. And then, in 1931, he rejiggered the design as a desk and had it made in Macassar ebony, with an ivory-inlaid shagreen top, for the 1931 Paris Exposition Coloniale. What Ruhlmann’s tables and desk, and Schwartz’s two tables (assuming they’re not one and the same), go to show is that Ruhlmann and Schwartz, like the couturière Chanel and others in the luxury trades, produced in series, kept the numbers low, and customized each iteration to maintain the exclusivity demanded by their well-heeled clientele.
We know little about Schwartz. He was born in 1879 in Sens, married Rachel Frank in 1910, was Jewish (his comings and goings were cited in the newspaper L’Universe Israelite), and died in Paris in 1938. In his professional life, he joined Jansen as a partner in 1920, and was made director of the firm in 1928, just prior to the death of Henri Jansen. In 1930 he became a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur (like Jansen before him, and Boudin later on). Professionally, he was out of the picture before his death, by which time Boudin was the firm’s director. Surprisingly, he was a socialist, and had his wedding banns published in the party newspaper Le Travailleur Socialiste. Needless to say, for a decorator who catered to le gratin, this wasn’t par for the course.
Schwartz has remained the shadows thanks to the disappearance of Jansen’s archive, their policy of not crediting individual designers, and his dying childless. Boudin was more fortunate in that he had a longer career that ended much later, and an adoring daughter, Brigitte, who made herself available to researchers (including yours truly). And so, many of Boudin’s admirers today will be surprised to learn that he was passed over for the firm’s directorship in favor of Schwartz. This was presumably a business decision, and we can surmise the reason. But to do so we must backtrack. Shortly after 1880, when Henri Jansen, scion of a family in the Amsterdam decorating trade, launched Jansen in Paris, he opened a showroom, Jansen Ameublement, on the Rue Royale, and then Jansen Moderne next door in 1897 [both above left]. The former sold antiques, and Jansen designs in traditional styles, and the later sold Jansen designs in modern styles. The two showrooms attracted different clienteles, thus increasing Jansen’s overall market share. And when one of those clients chose modern, Jansen made everything from scratch in their vast workshops [above right]. Later, during the giddy 1920s, when many fell for what is now known as the Art Deco style (after the 1925 fair where Ruhlmann unveiled his table), its overnight success seemed to point the way forward commercially. Hence, at Jansen, Schwartz was the man of the hour.
Earlier in the century, however, a fault line had appeared in the modern design movement that separated designers for the rich, who favored one-of-a-kind goods handcrafted from expensive materials, and those who designed for the masses, and favored manufactured goods in inexpensive materials. Schwartz fell in with the former camp stylistically, and in the latter one politically. But when the Great Depression set in after the stock market crash of 1929, styles associated with what seemed to be a more secure past regained their appeal. And so the planets realigned in favor of Boudin, who, in 1935, installed a neo-rococo dining room in London [below left] for Henry (“Chips”) Channon that was inspired by the Amalienburg Palace outside Munich. Boudin equipped this room with a painted, silver-leafed, and mirror-topped table [below right] of a type that no 18th-century German would have recognized. Surprisingly, that table and our own were made in the same Jansen workshops around the same time.
The waxing and waning of modernism and historicism define 20th-century design. Both camps won battles, but, as postmodernism proves, neither won the war. Well placed to attest to this is the former owner of our table, Susan Webber, the founder and director of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York. She acquired it for her own dining room [below], along with a set of made-to-measure Ruhlmannesque dining chairs, a 1950s Fontana Arte chandelier by Max Ingrand, and a pair of 1930s Ferro Toso Barovier glass vases. But it is the Jansen table that prompts us to question the definition of modern, and just what constitutes modern design.
AN ART DECO DESK BY ERNEST BOICEAU
Ernest Boiceau (Swiss/French, 1881-1950). Desk with sliding side shelves, circa 1928. Amboyna-veneered mahogany, boxwood and purplewood inlay, blind-tooled leather. H: 29” L: 59” D 33 ¾”: Provenance: Private collection, Paris; Galerie Eric Philippe, Paris; Private collection, New York. $40,000
Ernest Boiceau was an anomaly among the Art Deco masters working in Paris between the wars. He was Swiss rather than French, Protestant rather than Catholic, and a costume and fashion designer before he became an interior and furniture designer. Unlike other designers then and now, he wasn’t a publicity hound, and was never the subject of a stand-alone magazine article in his lifetime. Equally surprising for a Paris designer, he was influenced by German design. All this accounts for the singularity of his work, and his being less well known than his contemporaries. And so, when E-J Ruhlmann, Süe et Mare, André Groult, and Jean Dunand (with whom he occasionally collaborated), were rediscovered in the 1960s and 70s, Boiceau wasn’t until Eric Philippe mounted a show of the work in his Paris gallery in 1982. That show came as a revelation. Others were presented subsequently in the galleries of Barry Friedman in New York and Willy Hubrechts in Paris. Articles followed, including “Le Mobilier au ‘Top’,” published in Connaissance des Arts in 2007, that placed Boiceau among the ten most important twentieth-century French designers. His prices, however, have yet to catch up with those of his contemporaries. Today, at auction, theirs soar past seven figures while his only occasionally exceed six (although a Boiceau rug owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé sold in 2009 for 600,000 euros at Christie’s Paris). But in his own day there wasn’t this discrepancy. Then, according to Mr. Philippe, Ruhlmann was the most expensive, followed by Boiceau, and then Eugene Printz. Yet, in spite of the high prices he charged and the low profile he kept, Boiceau never lacked for clients, even in the darkest days of the Depression.
The Art Deco masters were, and still are, celebrated for superbly crafted furniture made of costly materials. Our Boiceau desk, bearing his stamp [above left], was entirely veneered in amboyna, an exotic burlwood named for Ambon, the Indonesian island where it was harvested. The naturally squiggling patterning of the veneer itself provides the overall surface decoration. The desk top alone has no fewer than 60 small book-matched squares of it – ten across and six deep – creating a kaleidoscopic effect in subtle monochrome. Applied decoration is minimal. It consists of two inlaid pairs of boxwood-and-purplewood griffins facing off across braziers [above center] on the desk’s front and back, and blind-tooled Greek keys trimming white-leather-topped shelves [above right] that slide out to either side. These decorations introduce no color, and, in lying flush with the surface, leave the desk’s sleek form undisturbed. Boiceau even eliminated drawer pulls, necessitating a lock and key for each drawer.
The French Empire and Restoration styles of the early nineteenth-century, characterized by richly ornamented geometrical forms, inspired Boiceau. So too did the unornamented sculptural forms of the Biedermeier style, prevailing around the same time in Germany and Austria, which was revived there in the early twentieth century as Zwischen (Second) Biedermeier. This Teutonic influence prompted unease among the chauvinistic French, who had been competing with the Germans for design-world supremacy since before World War I. In 1929, Gaston Varenne snidely noted in a review for L’Amour de l’Art that Boiceau’s exhibition room at the Salon d’Automne that year [above left] has “a picturesqueness that probably suits Swiss taste, which is not quite ours”. Yet Varenne conceded, “we must praise the artist for maintaining such a specific character in his production, at a time when fashion has too much of a tendency to erase peculiarities.” One of our desk’s peculiarities is its very form, with drawers incorporated into telescoping legs. This design oddity conforms to a long-standing Biedermeier type that was revived in a 1910s, as seen in a dressing table [above right] designed by Edmund Korner when he was working in Darmstadt for Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse.
Born in Lausanne in 1881, Boiceau descended from French Huguenots who settled in Switzerland. Prominent as bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and diplomats, the Boiceaus were a cosmopolitan family. One member was the pastor of the French Church in London, and another a New York department store executive who returned home with an American wife. As for Ernest, he studied painting in Munich, and painting and architecture in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1900 he embarked on a ten-year European sojourn, painting landscapes and portraits along the way. In 1910 he resettled in Paris, studied embroidery, and established an embroidery workshop that catered to the stage and haute couture. Among his clients were the Folies Bergères, the Comédie-Française, and the Paris Opéra, and the fashion houses of Worth and Molyneux. He also made embroidered table linens, wall hangings, and upholstery fabrics. In a 1913 embroidery exhibition at the Musée Galliera in Paris, he presented a boudoir in collaboration with John Jacobson, another foreign-born embroidery designer, with curtains, upholstery fabrics, and a tapestry embroidered in a uniform, abstract modern design.
In 1920 Boiceau relocated his business to the Avenue de l’Opéra, then lined with some of the world’s most fashionable shops. That proximity, presumably, prompted him to launch a couture line that would emphasized boldly sumptuous embroidery, some executed in a channeled appliqué technique known as the Cornely stitch [above left]. Around 1924 he branched out, designing finely crafted objects and furniture made in rare woods, like ebony and Tasmanian oak, as well as distinctive rugs in both representational and abstract designs [above right]. The rugs were executed in an adaptation of the Cornely stitch that he devised and patented for rug production. Each rug, depending on its shape and proportions, had a single image repeated two or more times, which endowed even the representational ones with an abstract aspect. And then, in 1927, after having decorated his own Rue du Bac apartment, he opened a separate interior design showroom on the Rue Pierre-Charron [seen in 1929 below left]. In 1933, when the world economy was at its nadir, Boiceau closed his fashion house, deeded the embroidery workshop to his employees, and moved his furniture and interior design business to the Avénue Matignon, where it remained in operation until the eve of World War II, when he closed it and retreated to his country house for good.
Like most decorators, Boiceau’s interiors incorporated the antique furnishings his clients inherited and collected, and augmented them with his own designs. This is seen in one of the sitting rooms in the vast Paris apartment he decorated for Alexandre Mavrogordato, a rich collector of Turkish descent. A 1930 photograph published in Art et Industrie [above right] shows it furnished with an antique Louis-Philippe table, a Boiceau carpet and pair of chairs, and an important modern painting by Joan Miró. So too, as a designer, Boiceau created rooms from scratch. Surprisingly, to our knowledge, no photograph of any of them survive. Nevertheless, we can recreate a bedroom he designed for a Mme. Israel in Paris by juxtaposing his perspective watercolor of the panelled setting, showing a rug and a bed, with a photograph of that bed, and a cabinet and chair, which were made in pairs for the room [below]. This ensemble has long since dispersed.
Our desk was discovered, along with a pair of Boiceau urns [below], in a 1998 Paris auction by Eric Philippe, and published the following year in his annual catalog of notable acquisitions. Both came from an apartment overlooking the Esplanade des Invalides, according to the auctioneer who didn’t divulge the original owner’s identity — and that’s a pity, since Boiceau’s clients are of no little interest. Among them in Paris were the novelists Louise de Vilmorin (The Earrings of Mme d’O…), and Princess Marthe Bibesco (The Green Parrot), the international society portraitist Bernard Boutet de Monvel, and Cécile Sorel, the legendary star of the Comédie-Française. There was also the jeweler Louis Cartier, and the fashion designers Captain Edward Molyneux and Jean-Charles Worth. Across the Atlantic, the aviator Caleb Bragg had Boiceau furniture and rugs in his Long Island retreat, as did the Manhattan financier William Goadby Loew and his wife Florence, daughter of the banker George F. Baker, then one of America’s three richest men. In Chicago there was Mrs. Howard (Lucy) Linn, née McCormick Blair, a socialite and equestrian who moonlighted as a decorator (she bought Boiceaus directly off the floor of his 1929 Salon room). And speaking of decorators, Elsie de Wolfe was a client, along with Frances Elkins, Ruby Ross Wood, Elsie Cobb Wilson, Marian Hall of Tate & Hall, and Mrs. A. Stewart (Sybil) Walker, who hung on the wall of her Southampton house a Boiceau watercolor of Josephine Baker dancing in the nude. An impressive client roster for a designer who, over the course of a short fifteen-year career as an interior and furniture designer, exhibited only three times, abstained from advertising, and was rarely published.
NEO-CLASSICAL BALTIC COMMODE CIRCA 1800
German (probably Altona). Commode, circa 1790. Mahogany, solid and veneered, with brass mounts. H: 34“ L: 37 3/4“ D: 20 1/4“ Provenance: Mr. & Mrs. David (Vivian) Campbell, Toronto. $20,000
This handsome mahogany commode has the fluted rails and canted corners that are typical of case furniture made in the coastal towns on the Baltic and North Seas around 1800. But it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it was made, since this geographical region stretches from Denmark to Russia, and Germany to Scandinavia. A strikingly similar if plainer commode [below left], however, provides a clue: it bears an old paper label that identifies it as having been made in the port of Altona, and the seal of its first owner, King Christian VII of Denmark, who reigned until 1808. At the time, Altona was in the independent Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein, which also belonged to Christian, and was located between Denmark and Prussia. Over the decades, these two powers fought periodically to annex the Duchy, but in 1848 a descendant of the king’s was forced to cede it to Prussia, which, in turn, became part of Germany in 1871.
Altona had once been a member of the Hanseatic League, an association of seaports that was established in the 14th century to foster trade and police the high seas. Around 1800, in an effort to increase his tax base, the aforementioned King Christian allowed Jews to settle freely in Altona, which enabled them to conduct business in neighboring Hamburg, a financial hub that maintained strict quotas. And so these Jewish families came to prosper, and build and decorate elegant Biedermeier villas.
At the time, cabinetmakers often took their inspiration from the furniture-pattern books that found their way overseas. That craftsman in far-flung seaports looked at the same books accounts, in part, for the difficulty in determining today whether a commode of mahogany, shipped from the West Indies, was made in Stockholm, St. Petersburg, or Altona.
We can’t trace our commode to a Danish king or a known Altona merchant, but we can link it to the New World empire builders David and Vivian Campbell [above right]. In 1945, with a $2,000 loan, they opened a record store in Montreal and expanded into household electronics and appliances. They went on to establish a cable television company and an online system for banking and brokerage houses. Their fortune made, they came to endow the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art, and were patrons of the Toronto Symphony and the University of Toronto. They also collected photography, and modern painting from Edvard Munch to David Hockney. Not bad for the son of Samuel Kimmel, a penniless Jewish immigrant who, in 1915, set sail to Halifax from Vilnius, which was then under the thumb of the Czar, but had been in better days a prosperous Hanseatic port. On arrival, Kimmel didn’t speak a word of English, and was therefore incomprehensible to immigration officials, who processed him under the name Samuel Campbell. Decades later, his son, on buying this commode, may or may not have known of its Baltic origins, or the role of Jewish financiers in Altona. If he did, this may have intrigued him — or not — but, either way, like any businessman who was worth his salt, he knew quality when he saw it.
SIDE TABLE ATTRIBUTED TO BREUHAUS DE GROOT
German, 20th century, attributed to Fritz August Breuhaus de Groot (1883-1960). Side table, circa 1928. Solid and veneered stained birch, Bohemian breccia marble. H: 23” D: 25” $6,000
Don’t be fooled by the no-nonsense Teutonic appearance of this German side table — it’s more about style that it lets on at first sight. For instance, there’s no reason for the top to be raised on a drum, the legs to extend beyond the circumference of the top, or a continuous trim to connect the legs and top rail. Such elegant touches add visual interest, and required skill and man hours to realize, increasing the fabrication costs. As such, the table turns modernism on its head — form doesn’t follow function, and chic rather than God is in the details.
Our table was made of birch, solid and veneered, stained a rich brown, and topped off with a slab of Bohemian breccia marble. We date it to around 1928, and attribute the design to Fritz August Breuhaus de Groot, [seen on a 1929 magazine cover below left], who coined the term Kultivierte Sachlichkeit (Cultured Objectivity) to describe his work, to distinguish it from the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) practiced by contemporary artists, and architect designers like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Lily Reich. The table bears a passing resemblance to a considerably simplified, marble-topped ovoid one that he designed for his 1934 Berlin living room [seen middle ground below right, with Breuhaus himself in the background].
Breuhaus was a man on the make. The first of his three marriages was to an industrialist’s daughter, who financed the building of luxury villas and workers’ housing projects designed by his son-in-law. In 1929, Breuhaus, the son of a dentist, added “de Groot” to his name, falsely linking himself to a distinguished family of painters. By then, he’d been fudging his academic record for years. That didn’t prevent his becoming an instructor at the State University of Bavaria, allowing him to add the prestigious “Herr Professor” prefix to his name. Yet he never followed through on the teaching part — he was far too busy designing more luxury villas (commissions were accepted only if he could furnish them as well), and products for his own company, which included a line of furniture, textiles, wallpapers, lighting, and fine silver. In addition to designing aircraft interiors for Lufthansa, and pullman railroad cars, he landed plum commissions, including the first-class interiors of the Bremen, the world’s fastest luxury liner on entering service in 1929 [ship and library below left], and the Hindenburg, the state-of-the-art dirigible that met a famously fiery end at Lakehurst, New Jersey [airship and lounge below right].
If he was a bit of a charlatan, Breuhaus was also a talented designer, and one of Germany’s most famous at home and abroad between the wars. And in spite of his opportunism, and having designed the private plane of Hermann Göring, he opposed the Nazis. Botilla, his third wife, and an associate too, helped Jews escape Germany. As a result, his license to practice architecture was cancelled in 1941. Therefore, when the National Socialist nightmare finally came to an end, there was no need for rehabilitation, and Breuhaus hit the ground running. Reflecting on his life in later years, he told an interviewer, “I’ve designed handrails, doors and lamps, as well as furniture, vases, tableware, cigarette cases, cutlery—it’s all part of it. There’s nothing minor in a cultured house. I’ve written novels and painted pictures, too. The novels were lousy, and my wife says so are the paintings.”
Ashanti people. Ghana, early 20th century. Royal chair (“Asipim”). Hardwood, brass plaques & nails, leather. H:31 1/2” W: 17 1/2” D: 20 1/2” Seat height: 14 1/2“. Provenance: Private collection, New York. SOLD
Chairs of this type, made for Ashanti royalty in present day Ghana and the Ivory Coast, are known as asipim — “I stand firm” in the local dialect. These chairs are still associated with power and prestige, being local interpretations of those brought over by European bigwigs. Asipim were used as seating in ceremonies [below right], unlike stools that were never sat upon, since they were associated with ancestors and the spiritual realm. Asipim were made from hardwoods that aren’t eaten by insects, and withstand the damp climate. They’re of mortise-and-tenon construction, and have seats upholstered in leather, leopard skin, or kente cloth. They were encrusted with brass nails imported from the west, and plaques made by local craftsmen, who cut them in the shapes of animals and symbols. On the front cresting of our chair is a fierce alligator, and on the back [below left] a bellows used for kindling fires — a life force in tribal cultures, if not in the wired-for-electricity first-world.
We acquired this chair from a New York product designer of note. He did something to the chair that’s anathema to museum curators and African tribal-arts collectors: he restored it. Specifically, he had the brasses polished, and the odd missing nail replaced. For us this didn’t diminish the chair’s appeal – rather, it amplified it by resuscitating the chair’s original bling-like effect. This, after all, is what made it desirable in the time and the place of its making — as it does today among design collectors.
PAIR OF 1930s RENÉ PROU SLIPPER CHAIRS
René Prou (French 1889-1948). Pair of slipper chairs, circa 1938. Sycamore, tufted silk upholstery. H: 35” (seat height 15 ½”) W: 20“ D: 20”. $10,000
One could imagine this pair of cloud-like slipper chairs being wafted aloft by a breeze, or, with their delicate feet en pointe as they are, springing into a pas de deux. Choose your metaphor. Either way, these earthbound chairs appear to be weightless. Such is the illusion, if not the magic, that designer René Prou [below left] created in 1930s Paris with the aid of an upholsterer.
After working for two decorating firms and fighting in World War I, Prou began designing under his own name in 1920. As he prospered, he opened four ever-larger showrooms in succession, including one on the Rue de Rome in 1929 [above right]. As a gun for hire, he designed porcelains for Sèvres, textiles for Le Manach, and hardware for Fontaine et Cie. At the Paris 1925 Exposition he exhibited rooms in several pavilions, and presented a boutique stocked with his own designs. He also presented exhibition rooms in nearly every annual Salon d’Automne and Salon des Artistes Décorateurs from 1920 to 1946. In 1921 he designed the second-class dining room and a first-class stateroom for the French Line’s ocean liner Paris, which led to commissions for the Ile-de-France [seen looming in the background of the photographic portrait], the Normandie, and some others that he fitted out entirely. The French national railroad took notice, commissioning sleeping, dining, and lounging cars for their fabled Train Blu, and other trains on prestigious routes. Prou also designed an hotel outside Biarritz, banks and stores in Paris, and the salon de thé of the Lido, the famed Champs Elysée music hall. In addition, from 1928 to 1932, he ran the Atelier Pomone, the interior design studio and furniture line of the Bonne Marché department store. And so, between the wars, pretty much anyone who traveled to or within France, shopped in Paris, or made the scene when there, passed through a Prou interior.
Prou designed luxurious one-of-a-kind Art Deco interiors and furnishing in the 1920s, but he also stepped up to the modernist plate on occasion, as seen in his striking 1928 bent-sheet-metal chair for the manufacturer Labormétal [above left]. But by 1930 the Art Deco style had lost its novelty, and even modernism had begun to look old hat among blasé sophisticates who had been there and done that. Prou’s response was to soften his Art Deco and modernist rectilinearity to an historically referenced curvaceousness, as seen in his streamlined take on the Louis XV style, realized in a 1937 gilt-wrought-iron chair and table [below right]. Embarking on this tack kept him in the swim, and the black, as the Depression set in. In spite of it, a number of commissions came his way from private clients still in the money, and from the Mobilier Nationale, the government bureau that orders and stockpiles furniture for embassies, official residences, and offices. Other commissions flowed in from abroad, including one for the vast Assembly Room of the League of Nations in Geneva, the no less vast dining room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, and a suite of reception rooms for the Mitsubishi Department Store in Tokyo. in spite of all this, the indefatigable Prou found time to “give back,” and taught at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs.
Our soigné tufted silken slipper chairs, in a vaguely Louis XV style, embody the refinement that Prou achieved in the late 1930s. A more pneumatic variant of the design, with the same broken-pediment back and cabriole feet, was drafted in 1939 for an exhibition room [below left]. Just months after it opened, the Nazis marched into Paris. In the grim years that followed, memories of pre-war halcyon days haunted the precious few rooms that Prou was able to realize. One of them was a 1943 sitting room in a Paris apartment [above right]. There, a similar pair of chairs, and a matching sofa, were placed before a mural of a chateau in a park that was painted by Prou’s students at the École. It’s tempting to regard this quintessentially French interior as a communal cri de coeur on the part of the designer, his students, and the nation itself. It also brings to mind a statement that Prou had made prior to the Occupation: “I’ve always tried to make French things that don’t owe anything to the foreigner.”
LOUIS XVI GILWOOD STOOL BY CLAUDE SENE
Claude Sené (French, 1724-1792). Stool, circa 1775 (stamped). Giltwood, upholstered. H: 19“ W: 15“ D: 15“. Provenance: Mr. & Mrs. Henry (Kathleen) Ford II, Grosse Point, Michigan, subsequently Palm Beach. $9,000
One could be forgiven for thinking that Claude Sené, the maker of this 18th-century stool, was a bad speller and dyslexic, since his stamp [below left] has a ‘G’ initial for Claude, and an inverted ‘N’ in Sené. His skill as a craftsman, however, was perfection. Hailing from a well-known dynasty of Paris joiners, he was admitted to the joiners’ guild in 1743, and worked in the rococo style (associated with Louis XV) for most of his career, before working briefly in the succeeding neo-classical style (associated with Louis XVI) just prior to his 1780 retirement. Two rare examples of his work in this latter style are our stool, and the charming giltwood dog kennel [below right] in the Palais Paar room of the Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum.
In pre-industrial times, sons typically entered the trades of their fathers. Claude Sené trained in the studio of his father Jean, before he, in turn, trained his sons Jean-Baptiste and Claude (known as Claude II to distinguish him from our Claude I). Individually and collectively, their work reinforces the prejudice of connoisseurs that the decorative arts reached their apogee in 18th-century France. This theory is justified by the sophistication of the designs produced, and the skill of the craftsmen who executed them. By then, an exceptionally high level of craftsmanship had already been achieved, thanks to a rigorous guild system that oversaw the training of journeymen, and then their work, once they became masters in their own right. Guild members were barred from infringing on the trades overseen by other guilds unless they received a rare royal dispensation to do so. Therefore, four different craftsmen, belonging to four different guilds, were involved in the making of our stool: the joiner of the frame, the carver, the gilder, and the upholsterer. Each craftsmen maintained his own studio that was subject to surprise inspections by guild officials. Among these craftsmen, unfortunately, only the joiner was required to apply his stamp, which leaves us in the dark as to the identities of the others.
The rich have always competed in the size of their houses and the extravagance of their appointments. In 18th-century Paris, however, a remarkable number of aristocrats and financiers also competed in what can’t be bought, namely, refinement, taste, and style. More than a few of them went bankrupt in their quest for perfection. Neither money nor sophistication was lacking in the case of the previous owner of our stool, Henry Ford II [seen above left with his last wife Kathleen]. He maintained, besides an ocean-going yacht and residences in London and Palm Beach, a succession of houses in Grosse Pointe, close to the Ford Motor Company’s headquarters and factories that the Ford family dynasty would control over four generations. Those houses were decorated by McMillen, a New York decorating firm that’s controlled by the third generation of the Sherrill and Pyne dynasty. Over the years and three marriages, Mr. Ford moved from house to house, taking much of his 18th century French and English furniture with him, along with a collection of Impressionist masterpieces. We don’t know when, or for which house, our stool had been acquired, but we did learn from his stepdaughter that it graced the powder room of the last of them at 160 Provencal Road [above right]. And there it would remain, until it was shipped by his widow Kathleen, along with ormolu-mounted marble fireplaces, Grinling Gibbons paneling, and a slew of Louis-Louis and Georgian furniture, to 300 North Lake Way, the Palm Beach house that she built for herself.
1930s ITALIAN BENCH
Pierluigi Colli (Italian, 1895-1968). Bench, circa 1935, fabricated by the firm Frederico Martinotti, Turin. Amboyna veneered and carved walnut. H:22.75“ L: 47” D:17 ½” 10,000
This 1930s Italian bench is so monumental in appearance that we assumed it was a console table on first seeing a photograph of it. Imagine our surprise, then, on seeing the thing itself, and the seller’s relief when we happily followed through with the purchase. In any case, it’s too low to be a console, and some might even say that it’s too high to be a bench, since for anyone under six feet it leaves the feet dangling. Apparently, it was made less to the scale of the average person than that of a large room. As such, it would function equally well — or poorly as the case may be — as a low side table or a high cocktail table. Therefore, we’ll allow the future buyer to determine its use.
The designer was Pierluigi Colli, and the fabricator was Martinotti, a furniture and interior decorating firm in Turin that was established in 1831, and exhibited their wares at various world’s fairs. Colli’s family owned a textile company that was suppling Martinotti with upholstery fabrics, suggesting nepotism had something to do with the 1926 hiring of Pierluigi as director. Nevertheless, he proved himself worthy as a designer and able as a businessman. Having studied in Paris at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, he was friendly with many leading French designers, and cut deals for Martinotti to retail Lalique glass and Jean Perzel lighting. In addition, the quality of his firm’s work, and Colli’s dedication to the modern design movement, prompted Carlo Mollino, Gio Ponti, and Gino Levi-Montalcini, among others, to have Martinotti fabricate their furniture designs. Colli’s claim to fame, however, is his own work as a designer, and his ability to master the vocabularies of every trend from Art Deco to midcentury modern [below left a late 1940s interior].
During the Great Depression, when nearly every nation floundered economically, fascist Italy prospered under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, who initiated a building campaign the likes of which Italy hadn’t seen since the days of the Roman Empire. Unlike his fellow dictators Hitler and Stalin, who considered neo-classicism the only suitable style, Mussolini accommodated modernism, known in Italy as rationalism, the local iteration of the so-called international style. And this being Italy, both camps acquitted themselves with panache. A proponent of modernism, Colli mastered the monumental sensibility of fascism, and the forms of rationalism, while maintaining the superb craftsmanship that he demanded, and employing the luxurious materials that he favored. This is seen in our bench, consisting of eight barely intersecting walnut slabs [above right], which were veneered on their surfaces, and scored on the edges of the top and bottom slabs [below left].
Colli, more a style chameleon than innovator, remained in the swim over the course of a decades-long career. As such, our mid-1930s bench warrants comparison with a slightly later one, and a dining table [both above right], designed by the writer and Mussolini enabler Curzio Malaparte. His were made to furnish his own Capri villa, designed by the rationalist Adelberto Libera, which was completed in 1941. The only decoration on the Colli and Malaparte benches, and the Malaparte table, is the carved scoring – vertically on the benches, spirally on the table. These works by these two designers – and those of their contemporaries Mollino, Ponti, Levi-Montalcini, and Libera – reveal an unexpected fact: fascist Italy fostered the modern design movement no less than the American and European liberal democracies.
Attributed to Paul Troost (German 1878-1934), for United Workshops for Art in Craftwork (Vereinigte Werkstatten fur Kunst im Handwerk). Pendant, circa 1910. Gilt bronze, marble, silk cord. H: 46” Dia: 28” SOLD
This sumptuous yet restrained ceiling pendant consists of a back-lit shallow marble bowl, a bronze ring of roses cast in high relief, and a knotted-and-woven silk cord. Made around 1910 in Germany, its designer was influenced by the work then being done in Paris by Paul Iribe, among others, whose celebrated depictions of roses prompted sophisticates to accept “la rose Iribe” as a symbol of French elegance.
The design of our pendant has been attributed to the architect designer Paul Troost by Markus Winter, the German design expert. Around 1900, Troost was reacting against the excesses of the Art Nouveau movement, which prompted him to embrace both the neo-classicism seen in this pendant (which doesn’t preclude a proto-Art Deco sensibility), as well as German vernacular traditions. Following Troost’s untimely death, his reputation suffered as a result of Adolph Hitler’s admiration for his work, and the commissions that he had sent his way early on.
This pendant was made shortly before the First World War, when Kaiser Wilhelm II was still on the throne. In those Wilhelmine years, Troost was one of many architect designers associated with the United Workshops for Art in Craftwork (Vereinigte Werkstatten fur Kunst im Handwerk), established in Munich in 1897 to produce modern designs. Inspired by William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement, the Workshops flourished under several regimes in the first half of the 20th century, and established branches in several major German cities, until closing in 1991.
PAIR OF LARGE SCONCES BY BAGUES
Attributed to Baguès (French maker). Pair of sconces, circa 1950. Painted sheet metal. H: 21 ½” W: 18 ½” D: 10”. $10,000
To judge from previous posts, it might seem as if we claim that all of our 20th-century French sconces and chandeliers were made by Baguès, the fashionable Paris maker of lighting fixtures. And now, here we are again, attributing yet another pair of sconces to the firm. This may set your eyes rolling in disbelief, since most of their fixtures were made of rock crystal or cut glass, and mounted in bronze or silvered bronze, when these are of white-painted sheet metal. But in the late 1930s, when white neo-baroque and rococo furnishings by Serge Roche and Emilio Terry were all the rage, Baguès got in on the act with their own line of white fixtures in these styles.
Those white Baguès fixtures turned up in rooms decorated by Syrie Maugham, Elsie de Wolfe, and Jansen, among others. And since they still looked a la mode when business began to flourish once again after the war, Baguès picked up where they had left off, augmented the line, and featured it in advertisements published in the stylish French magazine Plaisir de France [a 1951 ad above left and a 1947 one at right]. Baguès offered fixtures in a variety of painted finishes, but perhaps their signature one at the time is that which is seen in our sconces. It’s a mat-white paint applied to an artificially corroded surface, which was was then rubbed to expose the brownish corrosion beneath. This finish had the advantage of looking fresh without forsaking the patina — however artificial — of age.
TABLE MIRROR FROM THE COLLECTION OF SIR JOHN RICHARDSON
Victorian table mirror, American or English, circa 1875. Carved oak, original mirror plate. H: 27 ½” W: 27” D: 12”. Provenance: Sir John Richardson, Connecticut. $4,000
The rustic aspect of this Victorian table-top mirror may suggest to some that it was made for the dressing table of a man. Around this time, which is to say the second half of the 19th century, furniture styles were “gendered,” and the rustic was seen as suited to men rather than women. That said, our mirror could have been made to suit a place — a country house — rather than a person. In any case, at the time, men were no less likely to primp at dressing-table mirrors than women. But by the second half of the 20th century, men and women both came to dispense with them, favoring, as they still do, the rudimentary mirror above the bathroom sink. Thus was yet another nail hammered into the coffin of gracious living.
The former owner of our mirror was nothing if not civilized. He was John Richardson, the English-born art historian and Picasso expert, who became Sir John when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Richardson is best known for his magisterial four-volume biography on the artist [seen together above left]. As a young man, Richardson was the lover of Douglas Cooper, whose personal fortune allowed him to assemble one of the greatest collections of the work of Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger. Richardson eventually left him, and settled in Manhattan, where he established Christie’s New York, wrote books and articles for Vanity Fair, and landed a gig in his 90s organizing important exhibitions for Larry Gagosian. By then, during the week, Richardson was living in a sprawling loft on lower Fifth Avenue, and on weekends at his Connecticut compound with a house, a pool, and a free-standing double-height library. And in the bedroom of that house [above right] he positioned our mirror on the marble top of a mahogany Empire commode.
SALVIATI GLASS MINIATURE TAZZA
Salviati & C. (Venice, founded in 1877). Miniature tazza, circa 1880. Murrine glass, millefiori technique. H: 1 ½” W: 3 7/8”. Provenance: Martin Cohen, New York. $1,250
For centuries, Venice maintained a stranglehold on the art of glassmaking in Europe. But in the 16th century, the artisans who had perfected the art on the island of Murano began to slip away one by one, along with the secrets of their trade. In the 19th century, Venice regained her glassmaking supremacy, thanks in part to the artistic sensibility and the business savvy of Antonio Salviati, a former lawyer. In 1859 he opened a glassworks on Murano that produced blown-glass objects and glass mosaic tesserae. In 1866 he took on a well-heeled partner, Austen Henry Layard, an English archeologist, diplomat, and collector.
At the time, glassmaking studios were pokey little family affairs that were passed on from father to son, had an assistant or two, and perhaps an adjoining shop. Salviati, however, took his cue from modern industry. He established a large studio, manned it with teams of glassblowers, marketed the products, and sold them from an impressive emporium on the Grand Canal, as well as a showroom in London. The façade of the Venetian mothership [below left] was embellished with a mosaic that depicted artisans offering their wares to an enthroned woman symbolizing La Serenissima.
Salviati pushed the envelope artistically as well as commercially, for he revived the murine glass technique, which had lain dormant since Murano’s 16th-century glory days. Murrine glass is created from multi-colored glass canes, which, after being heated and fused, are sliced and shaped into objects [above right]. And when those canes are densely packed, rather than spaced out in monochrome glass, the result is millefiori or thousand-flower glass. The technique first appeared in the ancient Middle East, was then copied by the Romans, and, following the 18th-century excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, added to the Murano glassblowers’ repertoire. Difficult to execute, it fell into desuetude until Salviati rediscovered it, and employed it as the Romans did in the making of small precious objects. Decades later, in the 1940s, Carlo Scarpa used it on a larger scale for Venini. Our millefiori tazza – a footed shallow cup – harks back to ancient Rome not only in technique, but also in form. Even today, millefiori glass tazzi are occasionally unearthed, if invariably broken, at archeological sites.
TWO JAPANESE BRONZE SHELLS
Japanese, 19th century (Edo or Meiji Period) shells, one being a box. Patinated bronze. Abalone 3 ¾”; dolphin snail 2”. Provenance: Pierre Le-Tan, Paris $9,000
These charming bronze shells were cast in Japan in the 19th century. They lived for many years in the collection of the Paris artist Pierre Le-Tan. One of the them is a lidded box in the form of an abalone shell [below right] — inside, it has a mottled-green patination that replicates the mother-of-pearl lining found in natural specimens. The other one is a dolphin snail shell [below right] — when turned upside down, it sits on stubby spikes to serve as a small cup. Both the abalone and the dolphin snail are found off the coasts of Japan, an island nation surrounded by the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, the Philippine Sea, and the Pacific Ocean.
The Japanese have always been keen observers of nature. This is not unconnected to the indigenous Shinto religion that is based on the principle that spirits, or kami, inhabit all things in nature. This predisposed the Japanese to collect natural specimens, like rocks and shells, which were also prized for the beauty of their forms. Not surprisingly, the most important collection of shells in the world is said to have been formed by the Japanese emperors. One particularly rare example is known the “emperor’s shell,” because, whenever a fisherman found one, he was obliged to surrender it to the ruler. In Europe, from the 16th to the 18th century, shells were also collected by kings, aristocrats, and learned men, who incorporated them in their cabinets of curiosities. Only in Japan, however, did shell collectors convene to contemplate them one by one. In an exercise of poetic free association, each participant compared a shell’s form to that of something else — perhaps a cloud, dragon, bird, or feminine hairstyle. No wonder, then, the Meiji emperor saw fit to ennoble Mikimoto Kōkichi, son of a lowly merchant, who, on discovering the secret of pearl cultivation, was made Baron Mikimoto. He patented the process in 1896, and established Mikimoto, the famous jewelry firm specializing in pearls, which became the first international Japanese brand.
SUNFLOWER BY JOE EULA
Joe Eula (American, 1925 – 2004). Sunflower in a Vase, 1987 (signed & dated in pencil). Watercolor on paper, sycamore frame. 37“ x 29“ overall. Bibliography: Cathy Horyn, Joe Eula, New York 2014, reproduced page 32. $4,500
To call Joe Eula a minor artist would be missing the point. From the 50s to the 80s he cut a wide swathe on the New York scene as a graphic, costume, fashion, stage-set, and film-set designer, as a stylist, party giver, and briefly as a model agency macher – as well as an artist. He was, you might say, in his day, the art director extempore of Manhattan. And if you’ve never heard of Eula (or hadn’t before David Pittu played him in the Netflix Halston series), it’s because he was famous, to employ a contradiction in terms, as an eminence grise. No wonder Andy Warhol referred to him in typical, ditzy, Warholian hyperbole as “the most important man in New York.” Yet his Polaroid portraits of Eula [one below left] make our point, if not Andy’s own, since he never shot anyone who wasn’t a rich paying customer, a pretty young thing, a freak, a famous artist, or a celebrity. Eula, somewhat uneasily, fell between the last two categories.
Not that Eula was poor or unattractive. He came from a hardscrabble Italian-American background in South Norwalk, Connecticut, where he was raised by his widowed mother who ran a grocery store. When he was seventeen, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he lied about his age to join the Army, saw action in Italy, and was awarded a Bronze Star (if he was traumatized by the experience, in later years he blew it off with the quip, “I never had so many men”). On his return he took classes on the GI Bill at the Art Students League, and formed a business partnership with the photographer Milton Greene to produce features for Life and Look magazines, and a couple of films. Greene was behind the camera and Eula styled and painted the backdrops. On his own, Eula illustrated Eugenia Sheppard’s famous newspaper fashion column, did illustration work for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, designed ballet costumes and sets for Jerome Robbins, an album cover for Miles Davis, and a benefit invitation for Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers (this, in the day of ‘radical chic’). He also threw weekly evening bashes attended by everyone who was anyone – not just Halston, Andy, Liza, Truman, and Elsa (Peretti), but Lily Auchincloss, Martha Graham, Lauren Bacall, Anjelica Houston, Barbra Streisand, Diana Vreeland, Bill Blass, Tammy Grimes, Marina Schiano, and, when in town, Yves Saint-Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise.
Eula’s hallmark as a draughtsman was a slapdash, elegant, modern simplicity — ”if you could do it with one line why put down fifty?” – and, as a personality, a cocky outrageousness – “these are the worst fucking clothes I’ve ever seen!” he shouted as he stormed out of a Saint-Laurent show. A surfeit of cocaine accounts, in part, for that outrageousness and slapdashery, but it was talent that put him on map, and Halston’s payroll as a creative director. Eula became indispensable not only for his ability to convey the spirit of a collection in sketches, which often had second lives as ads [above center], but in the very realization of those collections through a circular design process that involved drawing, draping, critiquing, and yet more drawing. On occasion, Eula would save the day, as in 1973 when Halston and four other New York fashion designers were pitted against the big guns of Paris in the so-called ‘Battle of Versailles.’ The backdrop for this high-society benefit fashion show had been executed in yards rather than meters, so Eula improvised on the spot with gallons of house paint and a broom to create an enormous image of the Eiffel Tower on a roll of photographer’s backdrop paper [a related sketch above right]. By every account, the Americans won that battle, if not the ongoing war.
Halston crashed and burned in the late 1980s, unlike Eula, who knew when to stop – or when to get away. In the mid 1970s he bought an 18th-century farmhouse [above left] with five acres of land in the Hudson Valley. He stripped away unsightly accretions, mixed modern furniture with antique finds, converted an outbuilding to a studio, installed a swimming pool (paid for by Halston), and took up flower painting. After decades of sketching top models and socialites in expensive frocks, Eula now painted the flowers that grew in his garden [above right]. If his style was as slapdash as ever, he embraced happenstance as never before. A favorite painterly passage in our watercolor of a sunflower is a patch of raw paper [below], which managed to escape a surging green tide, only to lose its virginity to an accidental brown splat. The continuity of his vision, however, is what Eula stressed in a 2002 interview when speaking of the evanescent immediacy “of watercolor, clothes, a moving figure, a beautiful flower that blooms,” and “the goddamned falling petals” at the “most gorgeous moment.” He went on to praise “bright colors — roses and hollyhocks, delphiniums and nasturtiums, dahlias and zinnias, daisies and poppies, and sunflowers the size of your grandmother’s head.” And so, to the incredulity of the Studio 54 set, Eula became a modern Redouté, and found contentment in his final years at the end of a country road.
JAYNE WRIGHTSMAN’S PEACOCK FEATHER
Peacock feather in an early 19th-century French giltwood frame. 11 1/2“ x 9 1/2“ framed. Provenance: Mrs. Charles (Jayne) Wrightsman, New York. $7,500
According to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the male peacock fanned his spectacular tail to attract the drab female peafowl during mating season. And among humans in the heyday of capitalism, a woman arrayed herself elaborately to attract the drab businessman with a big bank account. Over millennia, nothing much changed in the animal kingdom, where females continue to call the shots, although it has in the human one, now that women have achieved parity with men in mate selection. This wasn’t yet the case, however, when Jayne Larkin, a strikingly stylish twenty-five-year-old swimsuit model, who traveled in smart Hollywood circles, caught the eye of the recently divorced Charles Wrightsman, a rich forty-nine-year-old Oklahoma oilman, who was then setting out to conquer café society. At the time, qualifications for admission included a stable of horses, a well-dressed and bejeweled wife, residences in all the right places, and a collection of art and antiques. Mr. Wrightsman would come to possess all four — the last three in spades, courtesy of Miss Larkin, whom he married in 1944.
The stable was of Mr. Wrightsman’s own making, but it didn’t hold his interest for long, unlike those other fields of endeavor that were masterminded by his wife. Society columnists avidly chronicled their comings and goings, and gushed over Mrs. Wrightsman’s Diors, Balenciagas, and Givenchys, and sparklers by Cartier, Verdura, JAR, and the odd bauble formerly owned by Marie-Antoinette or the Romanovs. The Wrightsman’s residences in New York, Palm Beach, and London (and another in St. Petersburg that she took as a widow), were initially decorated by Stephane Boudin of Jansen, then by Bob Denning and Vincent Fourcade of Denning & Fourcade, and finally by Henri Samuel. All were filled to the gills with masterpieces of the fine and decorative arts [above left, Mrs. Wrightsman at home on Fifth Avenue with a Georges de la Tour painting and Louis XVI furnishings]. Over the years, these works were donated to the Metropolitan Museum one by precious one. There, the paintings came to be integrated into the Old Master galleries, and the Louis-Louis furnishings were placed in the nine period rooms that constitute the Wrightsman Galleries today.
This peacock feather in an 18th-century giltwood frame comes from the estate of Mrs. Wrightsman, who outlived her husband by decades, and died in 2019 at the age of 100. Affixed to the back of the frame is a label that was cut from the letterhead of Houghton Hall [above right], the ancestral home [below left] of the Marquess of Cholmondeley. It’s inscribed “Peacock feather” – note the use of the singular – “July 1975.” And in Mrs. Wrightsman’s inventory book, it was cataloged as “A Louis XVI giltwood picture frame circa 1780, now enclosing three peacock feathers. Provenance: The frame: Lebrun, 1991; The feathers: Houghton Hall, 1975. Gift of Mrs. Sid Bass 2010.”
Let’s unpack this. We’ve already identified Houghton Hall. Lebrun is a leading Paris dealer and expert in antique frames (although we beg to differ with the dating of this one, believing it to be circa 1830). And in 2010, Mrs. Sid Bass was Mercedes Bass [above right], a good friend of Mrs. Wrightsman who also happened to be the second wife of an oil tycoon. Yet the photograph in that inventory book shows a single feather in the frame, rather than the three noted in the entry, and seen in the Sotheby’s New York auction catalog [below left] that documents the contents of the London flat she’d just given up. Initially, we assumed that the frame was one of a pair, with one containing three feathers and the other containing one. But then we noticed identical surface wear, indicating the frames are one and the same. Also, we found the lot unlisted in the sale results, suggesting it either went unsold (unlikely, since the auction was successful, the estimate modest, and the item lovely), or (more likely) it was withdrawn by Mrs. Wrightsman prior to the auction. Either way, the item was sent to Fifth Avenue, where Mrs. Wrightsman had the three feathers switched out for the one that had been given to her by Mrs. Bass (proving sentiment does count for something). There, an assistant updated the inventory with a new photograph, but neglected to amend the entry.
In 18th century Europe, peacocks were great rarities imported from India to graze on the greenswards of private country estates. Their feathers came to garnish the elaborate coiffures of Marie-Antoinette, and images of them were woven into the silk upholstery of her Versailles bedroom. Presumably, our single feather was scooped off the lawn of Houghton Hall in 1975 by Mrs. Bass (as opposed to being plucked off a screeching peacock) when a guest of the marquess, and then sent off to Mrs. Wrightsman with a notation on house stationary, which would come to be affixed on the back of the frame.
By the 21st century, a peacock feather was no longer a rarity. After all, in the psychedelic 1960s, hippies bought them for nothing in Haight-Ashbury head shops. Yet, in the refined circle of Mrs. Wrightsman and Mrs. Bass, they continued to evoke a bygone aristocratic age. If they hadn’t, Mrs. Bass wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of sending one to Mrs. Wrightsman, any more than Mrs. Wrightsman would have framed three for her London flat, or switched them out for just one that had a more distinguished provenance. And if further evidence is required to prove the enduring allure of the peacock among the happy few, in Mrs. Wrightsman’s London flat, in addition to the giltwood-framed feathers, she also kept a pair of peacock-feather fans, a peacock-feather bouquet in an ormolu-mounted Regency vase, and a prized Louis XVth giltwood armchair [above right] that she had upholstered in a peacock-feather-patterned silk.
MUGHAL INDIAN MINIATURE
Indian (Mughal), 18th century. A Noblewoman Walking a Deer on a Leash. Gold and paint on paper. Miniature 8 ¼“ x 5 ½“, frame 10 ¾“ x 8“. Provenance Le-Pho, Paris; by descent, his son Pierre Le-Tan, Paris. $12,000
On rare occasion, poetry takes physical form in an image. Perhaps this occurred most frequency in the miniatures that were painted in the 18th century at the princely courts of Mughal India. A case in point is this miniature that depicts a raven-haired princess in a saffron-colored, gold-trimmed silk sari. Under a glowering evening sky, she promenades across a white marble terrace with a pet fawn on a leash, before a landscape with a river that flows before buildings nestled amongst trees. Her hair, falling loosely about her shoulders, rather than being neatly dressed on her head, indicates she’s a a maiden still. The mood is one of expectancy. Perhaps walking a pet and catching a cool evening breeze is a pretext to escape palace scrutiny for an assignation with a lover. In Mughal India, tender sentiments were often a bridge to the erotic – and if this seems contradictory, so too is the balance of realism and caricature, and naturalism with the schematic, characteristic of miniatures painted in this place at this time.
The earliest Indian Mughal miniatures date to the 16th century. They were inspired by those painted at the refined Moslem courts of the neighboring Persian empire. They incorporated figures, in spite of the Moslem faith’s proscription against depicting the human form. Such is the nature of sophisticated courtly life that beauty and pleasure trump systems of morality. This was no less the case at one of the provincial Indian courts where our miniature, marked by a charming pictorial naiveté, was painted. Yet the artist was undeniably accomplished. His command of perspective, introduced by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, is seen in the landscape that rolls back to a distant horizon, contrary to the flat two-dimensional ones that follow Indian painting tradition. And if Mughal artists were influenced by Western art, the West returned the compliment. In Venice during the Renaissance, Giovanni Bellini painted a Mughal-style miniature, and Rembrandt in Amsterdam, and Sir Joshua Reynolds in London, collected Mughal miniatures when the rare opportunity arose.
Centuries later, the celebrated Vietnamese painter Le-Pho, who settled in Paris in the 1930s, acquired our miniature and framed it. He gave it to Pierre Le-Tan, his son, a painter himself, as well as a voracious collector. As such, Pierre was perennially short of space and funds, and, being aesthetically promiscuous, the desirability of the next acquisition overshadow the satisfaction of the last. This is why it wasn’t all that difficult to persuade him to sell what caught my fancy on visits to his home, as this miniature most certainly did. Its history, and Pierre’s fondness for it, however, made the pursuit of it unseemly. But when it came under the hammer at the auction of his estate, I felt no such compunction. At present, the miniature hangs in my living room, where it gives me great pleasure. And yet, as Pierre would have understood, my métier compels me, with reluctance, to offer it for sale.
1934 PHOTOGRAPH BY REMIE LOHSE FOR VOGUE
Remie Lohse (American, 1892-1947). Mr. & Mrs. James Thornton, 1934. Photograph. Image 4 1/4 “ x 6 ¼”; frame 4“ x 6 1/4“. Published in Vogue, July 1, 1934, pp. 42-43. Provenance: Louis Bofferding; Pierre Le-Tan, Paris. $4500
Remie Lohse was born in Puerto Rico, studied painting in Denmark, and settled in New York in 1928. There, he became a professional photographer. In the 1930s he was a freelancer who shot covers for Vogue, and specialized in advertising and magazine features. If he often focused on the high life, seen in this couple stepping out on the town, he also shot humble subjects, like farm hands at work. He was more interested in his art than a particular milieu, and many of his photographs are little masterpieces. His contemporary Gilbert Seldes, the noted Vanity Fair media critic and all around “public intellectual” (not to mention father of actress Marian Seldes), featured Lohse in his 1934 book This is New York, The First Modern Photographic Book of New York. In 1939 Lohse came out with a book of his own, bearing the unassuming title The Miniature Camera in Professional Hands. Like many of the artists whose works are most endearing, Lohse is what the French so aptly call a petit maître – a minor master.
Our photograph was one of three that Lohse shot for a 1934 Vogue article titled “High Spots and Low Music” [above]. If the photographs show a couple making the nocturnal rounds of Manhattan restaurants, bars, and jazz clubs, the written story also covers the daytime haunts of the ladies who lunch. The twist is that Lohse’s model was the author herself, Elena Mumm Thornton, and her husband James Worth Thornton. He was the son of an English lord recently ruined by the Depression. She was born Helene-Marthe Mumm von Schwarzenstein, the daughter of a Mumm, as in Mumm champagne, and the French ambassador to Russia. She attended art school in Paris with Henri Cartier-Bresson, grand maître of photography, and then lived in New York as a freelance writer. She began this article by writing, “The tables have been turned. It is we who go bewildered through the streets of New York, straining our necks at towers…so where the Americans in Paris would turn to Montmartre or the Bois, I – the foreign ‘rubbernecker’ – turn to the high night places and low music of New York.” In the years that followed, her husband came to drink, and she become a Town & Country editor. She met and fell in love with Edmund Wilson, the novelist and literary critic, who was himself by no means a teetotaller. In 1946 she and Wilson divorced their respective spouses in Reno and married. As a widow, Elena, the fourth Mrs. Wilson, edited her second husband’s journals, and, in 1972, published them in two volumes to great acclaim.
PAUL POIRET’S EDITIONS DE LUXE
Paul Iribe (French 1883-1935), Les Robes de Paul Poiret, Paris 1908, 10 hand-colored-pochoir plates, 12 ¾“ x 12“; and Georges Lepape (French 1887-1971), Les Choses de Paul Poiret, Paris 1911, 12 color pochoir plates, 13” x 12”. Each with 10 color pochoir prints between boards. $20,000.
No one ever accused Paul Poiret of modesty. Considered by many to be the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, he was at the top of his game from the mid 1900s to the late 1920s. By 1931, however, when his autobiography King of Fashion was published, he was a bankrupt has-been, living in the unfurnished shell of a modernist country house that he couldn’t afford to complete. It was then that he wrote:
“I am truly obliged to admit that, when I began to do what I wanted to do in dress-designing, there were absolutely no tints left on the palette of the colorists. [Before me] the taste for the refinements of the eighteenth century had led all the women into a sort of deliquescence, and on the pretext that it was ‘distinguished,’ all vitality had been suppressed. Nuances of nymph’s thigh, lilacs, swooning mauves, tender blue hortensias, eau de Nile, maizes, straws, all that was soft, washed-out, and insipid, was held in honor. I threw into this sheepcote a few rough wolves: reds, greens, violets, royal blues, that made all the rest sing aloud. I am truly forced to accord myself the merit of all this.”
All modernists denigrate what proceeds them, and Poiret [above left] was no exception. His career began in the Belle Epoque, when fashion was defined by imprisoning corsets, restrictive tailoring, and those ethereal colors. Opening his own house in 1904, he banned the corset, emphasized draping, and introduced strident colors. No less an impresario than a designer, Poiret hit the road with a bevy of models to promote his collections worldwide. He also designed theatrical costumes and stage sets (producing and starring in some plays himself), created the first designer perfumes, launched an interior design studio, threw unbelievably extravagant parties, and opened a contemporary art gallery and nightclub in the Avenue d’Antin compound where he lived and worked. In other words, he was the first designer to create a lifestyle brand. His initial stab at marketing and branding was the 1908 publication of the book Les Robes de Paul Poiret in a limited edition of two-hundred-and-fifty. Illustrated by Paul Iribe [below left], it had only ten hand-colored pochoir (stenciled) plates and no text. Copies were sold in bookstores, but his target audience was, he wrote, “the elite of Europe,” who were sent complimentary copies. His body-clinging clothes shown on sloe-eyed beauties [above right], whose preoccupations appear to be anything but God, family, and country, prompted the French novelist Octave Mirbeau to accuse Poiret of sending “obscenities” to his wife, and Queen Alexandra to return hers, with a letter stating “the Queen of England does not receive advertising catalogs.” A succès de scandale, the book has been sought after by bibliophiles, collectors, and fashionistas ever since.
The cover has a decorative oval enframing the title, and, in smaller print, the subtitle, Racontées par Paul Iribe (“As Told by…”). That subtitle was suited to a storybook, and indeed, each illustration seems to tell a story [above left]. Interestingly, Iribe rendered the women and their clothes in color, and the luxurious domestic settings in black-and-white. Two years before, Iribe captured the attention of sophisticated Parisians with his illustrations and articles for Le Témoin, a satirical political weekly that he founded. It was financed by his lover Dagny Langen, a rich, older, married woman who was separated from her husband, the Munich publisher of Simplissimus, its German equivalent. In his autobiography, Poiret recounts summoning Iribe to his office, granting the commission, and providing an advance, only to find the artist desultory in execution. When Iribe turned up one day to deliver a few but not all of the drawings, the impatient Poiret asked how he could be reached, only to be told “he had no fixed address in Paris, but that he breakfasted every morning chez Madame L- [Langen]. Then, pocketing a new advance, he vanished once more.” After a threat of litigation, the last drawings would arrive, leaving Poiret and Iribe frenemies ever after.
No less egotistical, fiery-tempered, or entrepreneurial than Poiret himself, Iribe went on to become famous too. He muscled in on his former patron’s territory by designing dresses, theatrical costumes, stage sets, interiors (occasionally collaborating with Poiret), and one-off furniture that he sold from his own shop on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. In 1919 he closed Le Temoin, and set off for Hollywood on signing a lucrative contract to design costumes and sets for the films of Cecil B. DeMille. The late 1920s found him back in Paris, where he relaunched Le Témoin, bankrolled this time by Coco Channel, his latest romantic conquest, for whom he designed a line of precious jewelry (in 1935 he died in her arms on the Riviera after a strenuous tennis game). Of particular interest to us was his engagement with the decorative arts, both antique and contemporary. In the first plate we illustrate, he depicts a Louis XVI commode with George Romney’s portrait of the temptress Lady Hamilton, and in the second, an ebony table of his own design [above right], with a framed print by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.
In 1911, three years after Les Robes, Poiret released a second book with twelve pochoir plates in an edition of one thousand, Les Choses de Paul Poiret Vues par Georges Lepape (“The Things of Paul Poiret Seen by…”). Unlike the competitive Iribe, Lepape [self-portrait above right] was an easygoing artist who hung out with Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin at the Moulin de la Galette, the bohemian dance hall immortalized by Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. No wonder Poiret allowed Lepape’s name to appear on the cover in the same size as his own, along with a belt tassel he had sent to Lepape’s wife as a gift. Inside is an orgy of color, seen in the backgrounds as well as the clothes [above left]. The book’s success brought Lepape many commissions, including illustrations for the Gazette du Bon-Ton, perhaps the most beautiful fashion magazine of all time, which, in turn, brought him to the attention of Condé Nast in New York, who bought the Gazette, and put Lepape on contract for Vogue.
One again, the luxurious settings are of particular interest to us. In 1911, the year Les Choses appeared, Poiret launched Parfums Rosine, a perfume line, and the Atelier Martine, an interior design studio, both named for his daughters. Martine also produced furniture, fabrics, cushions, and wallpapers, which were sold in stand-alone boutiques in Paris and London, and high-end department stores in Berlin and New York. One plate in this book, showing a supine seductress in a cushioned opium den [above left], warrants a comparison with a Martine interior [above right]. It was installed in one of the three barges that Poiret had moored on the Seine for the 1925 Paris international design exposition. He converted them into floating pavilions for dining, dancing, and entertaining — a fabulous marketing and publicity gambit that entailed a sizable expenditure for a fair with a brief seven-month run.
Even in the 1920s, a decade known in France as Les Années Folles (The Crazy Years), Poiret’s unbridled spending, and over expansion, was beyond the beyond. It won him the sobriquet Poiret le Magnifique. It also put him in a precarious financial position. Not surprisingly, following the 1929 stock market crash, his empire was among the first to crumble. When it did, he retreated to that modernist shell of a house, took up painting, cooked sumptuous meals for his artist friends, and wrote a spellbinding autobiography with a poison pen. Force of circumstance, however, left him no less magnificent. In the ensuing century, many designers attempted to emulate Poiret’s creative reach. Yet none equaled, or for that matter even approached, the shear number of his many remarkable accomplishments.
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