Thursday, October 27, 2011

18th Century Folies from the 1960's at Chateau de Groussay

Enthusiasts of the 18th Century and its seductions are all familiar with one of its many notable charms - the garden folly. One architectural historian described them as "joke buildings". Indeed these small whimsical constructions were not so small and could accommodate a good number of people for a reception or a chamber music performance. And it's not unlikely that many a folly was not considered to be a most accommodating place to arrange an assignation with a lover. 18th Century France and all of Europe's elite delighted in commissioning architects to design and erect such endearing edifices. Among the most notable remains the famous Desert de Retz with its pyramid and house in the form of a large broken column from Antiquity.

However in the 1960's, one of the 20th Century's most admired and eccentric taste makers, the Hispano Mexican bon vivant Charles de Beistegui, spent the last 10 years of his life, in the wake of a stroke, embellishing his much admired Chateau de Groussay near Versailles with a population of absolutely magical follies to evoke the douceur de vivre of the 18th Century as it has seldom been evoked - even in Hollywood! In this last great project of his life, he was assisted by his architect of choice, Emilio Terry and the Russian artist Alexandre Serebriakoff.

This is the front entrance to Groussay...

And one of our animated and enthusiastic group of visitors that participated in this memorable outing is Thierry Coudert who is seen in conversation with Olivier who is the personal assistant to the owner at the time of our visit.

Promenading at Groussay with a group of friends last May as guests of its former owner Jean Louis Remillieux (who just sold Groussay this summer to a mystery buyer about whom little is currently known), we had the delight of enjoying an unforgettably magical spring day taking in the enchantment of lush green gardens, cool placid lakes and rivers amidst which these eccentric architectural fantasies were so effortlessly dotted.

The first stop was the hypnotically spellbinding Tente Tartare inspired by a Swedish model as commissioned by Gustav III at Drottningholm.

The "tent" is actually made from painted metal sheets over the concrete construction.

Here we see the French politician Thierry Coudert with the charming musical historian Veronique Schwob. Messr Coudert is also the author of that delightfully riveting book Cafe Society.

I am in this photo with my much admired and fond friend the noted French scholar, private museum guide, and author on the decorative arts, Anne Marie Quette without whom the visit to Groussay would have been impossible to imagine!

In this instance Beistegui added the original detail of specially ordered blue and white tiles from Delft which line the entire inside of the pavilion!

Other follies included this Paliadian Pavilion peacefully nestled in a green maze of bushes and shrubs.

This is followed by a charming outdoor theatre.

The pyramid is inspired by the ice house pyramid at the Desert de Retz.

And the Palladian Bridge is a cross between the bridge at Wilton in England and the bridges of the Venetian canals.

Then comes the unforgettable Chinoiserie Pavilion which is a riot of polychrome and reveries of a China that existed only in the fantasies of 18th Century patrons who yearned for the visual novelties evoking the distant exoticism of the East...

The inside is no less evocative of the 18th Century's sense of whimsy and joie de vivre!

Below, resting inside the Chinese Pavilion is the much valued friend and colleague, the eminent historian of the City of Versailles Messr Jacques Villard with whom I was so happy to be able to share this landmark visit.

Messr Remillieux kindly had our group also enjoy the lovely interiors of Groussay but did not send us off without the lovely gesture of inviting us to a glass of champagne in the widely admired and famous library where you see me and this generous host and guide toasting a successful and unforgettable day at Groussay!

Important 18th Century French Chairs at New York City's Premier Dealer Dalva Brothers

Any serious collector or connoisseur of 18th Century French furniture has made the mandatory pilgrimage to the legendary family owned antiquaire, Dalva Brothers in New York City. Situated after a recent relocation in a historic town house at 53 East 77th Street, this gallery of Olympian category has various floors of boiserie paneled rooms offering a dazzling selection of cabinet work as well as the art of menuiserie on which we shall focus in this visit. Menuiserie was the art of the wood carver who specialized in chairs and other seating, console table and frames of various sorts. The strict guild regulations clearly separated the menuiseur from the ebeniste who specialized in case furniture that was veneered. During my recent visit with Mr. Leon Dalva, the current owner, I was given the customary cordial greeting by this gentleman whose erudition is matched by his affability and delight in sharing his enthusiasm with collectors and historians of the period whose seriousness is evident. I had the pleasure of first meeting this exceptional gentleman in 2007 when I directed a workshop for appraisers in NYC about French 18th Century furniture and on which I collaborated with the world recognized expert in the field, Mr Thierry Millerand. Thierry kindly arranged an excursion to Dalva Brothers to be a perfect ending to this two-day workshop which allowed the participants a chance to view this exceptional museum quality collection in the company of these 2 widely acknowledged authorities. It was quite a thrill! And for me it was a most gratifying introduction to Leon Dalva and his lovely wife Nancy who was also present. During a more recent visit, I discussed several of the gallery inventory's chairs with Leon Dalva who balked with utter conviction at my observation about what I perceive as a waning taste for great French furniture of the Ancien Regime in the collecting and auction world of the early 21st Century. To such a suggestion he replied without a moment's hesitation, "French 18th Century furniture is alive and well here at Dalva!" When you visit, it's easy to agree with him and to question how anyone would not want to collect such glorious furniture if given the opportunity.

Leon Dalva's enthusiasm is unabashedly contagious! And no wonder... The inventory in the settings of finely carved wall panels and creaky wood floors is utterly mesmerizing in its beauty!

Take for instance this chair which is part of a suite attributed to the greatest menuiseur of the reign of Louis XVI, Georges Jacob. The set was executed on the eve of the Revolution in an assertively avant guard style anticipating the Empire under Napoleon with its reliance on Egyptian motifs.

In a more familiar manner is this perfectly carved and oil gilded Louis XVI pair of fauteuils of which we see an example. Oil gilding was a less commonly used technique (as opposed to the more common technique of water gilding) and surviving examples of chairs with the original oil gilding are very rare.

Below is a fine example of the late Louis XVI's period penchant for "Anglomanie" in certain court and aristocratic circles with favoured the use of mahogany in both cabinet work and seating. This particular armchair was clearly designed for an officer to whom it was important to be able to seat himself comfortably while wearing his understandably cumbersome sword! Note the exaggerated inward curvature of the support on the arm and you can see how the client often worked with the artisan to ensure a successful design that was also accommodating the patron's needs while resulting in what had to be the most harmonious period of successful collaboration between patron and artisan in Western history!

Of course Dalva Brothers has much more than just the chaste neoclassicism of the Louis XVI period in its vast and uniformly superb inventory. The Louis XIV period is well represented with such examples as this assertive fauteuil of the 17th Century with what appears to also be original gilded wood.

Plenty of exceptionally fine Louis XV chairs are part of the Dalva Brothers collection. Most outstanding to my mind was this pair of fauteuils of which we have an example below in which a truly rare and not often seen finesse of carving is immediately apparent with the rhythmic and twisting vines and foliage carved by the hands of an obvious virtuoso! In this instance the menuiseur was one of the period's greatest artisans L. Cresson who was well patronized in court circles.

Other examples seen below are ample testimony, in visual and tactile terms, to Talleyrand's often cited remark that only those fortunate enough to have enjoyed the world of elite Parisian and court society before 1789, could understand how sweet life could be for that enviable and enticing ruling caste!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An 18th Century Folie, First in a Series: Le Pavillon de Musique de Madame Du Barry

From all accounts Madame Du Barry had everything it took to become a siren and sex symbol of the same level as Liz Taylor. Even people predisposed to disapprove of her on the basis of her early career as a deluxe call girl and later as the last official mistress to the aging Louis XV during his twilight years, had to admit, after meeting her and enjoying a conversation, that she was charming, likable, egalitarian in her good manners and kindness. Blond bombshell that she was... She was no fool. It certainly didn't hurt that she was stunning. Had she lived today, with her natural physical beauty, her easy manner, and her geisha-like desire to make the person with whom she was speaking at a given moment feel like the centre of her universe, she'd still be a celebrity. No question!

Of course, the apogee of her "career" started in 1769 when she was introduced to Louis XV, seen below in the portrait by Drouais, by one of her "clients" the aging rakish and utterly mesmerizing (if no less utterly cynical) Duc de Richelieu. Richelieu was one of the king's closest friends. What even Richelieu did not expect, as did no one else, was that Louis XV liked her so much in bed he broke all traditions and court customs and installed her at court in her own apartments and shortly after that arranged to bend the rules and made her is official mistress.

This was unimaginable! Not that the king would have an official mistress... That was expected. What totally nonplussed even the most worldly courtier what that the position was not filled by a married woman born into a higher rank in society - and customarily from the court itself. At the same time, to quell criticism a bit, and to cover his bases, Louis XV arranged for her to marry the country bumpkin elder brother of her utterly handsome well born and rather ambitious pimp who happened to be a minor noble too poor to live at court and who was living in the provinces in a crumbling chateau. The groom was the Comte Du Barry. A Count! How convenient! Instant pedigree by marriage! He immediately came to court at Royal command solely for the wedding. He was promptly sent back home to the provinces and never saw the bride again. Mission accomplished. One of the Paris's most celebrated and expensive prostitutes was now the king's favourite and was to go by the name of La Comtesse Du Barry!

With the position came the perks. And a little real estate was one of the most important rewards for any official mistress of the king of France. A mistress of the king could enjoy the use of such a gift during her entire lifetime - even if the king should predecease her. Not a bad fringe benefit!

In truth, the only large country house she was given was a modest - if charming chateau I recently spotted at the village of Louveciennes just a 15 minute drive from Versailles. It is seen below.

The main chateau is not the reason to visit. Though old monochrome photos suggest it's lovely inside with finely carved boiseries... However, it's now apparently privately owned and not easily accessible. The reason to visit is to see the one addition of a separate pavilion for entertaining that Madame Du Barry commissioned in the early 1770's from one of the most avant garde and sophisticated architects of the day, Claude Nicholas Ledoux. Ledoux's Palladian influenced classical style is still appealing to modernists and has a very clean contemporary demeanor that is still reverently rooted in Classical traditions. He was hugely admired by Thomas Jefferson. This is his portrait displayed at the Pavillon de Musique today...

At the Pavillion de Louveciennes he created one of the most fetching folies imaginable for entertaining.

I was charmed approaching the entrance vestibule, as must have been 18th Century guests of Madame Du Barry, as I made my long overdue visit for the first time...

Below is the lesser seen rear facade of the Pavillon de Musique de Madame Du Barry...

Alas! The house as seen today has been relocated a few meters, has had an additional attic story added in the 1920's by a prior owner and understandably attracts the derision of purists who say it's not worth even visiting. I disagree. Granted, it's suffered alterations. But enough is there to get a feeling for how the house seemed in the 1770's when Madame Du Barry entertained Louis XV there one evening in the large central vestibule hall also known as the Salle de Musique. One thing is certain. This was the retreat of a very well kept woman... And happily for us, she had unfailing good taste!

The dinner Madame Du Barry held for Louis XV was happily recorded in this lovely watercolour by Moreau le Jeune and seen below. The same room is very recognizable.

Another unforgettable detail still in place is the collection of utterly jewel-like and finely chased ormolu door and window hardware. Such details, along with the furniture which was once there and which was long ago dispersed into museums and private collections, were noted in the memoirs of one special visitor, the portrait painter Madame Vigée Lebrun.

Among the items once adorning the Pavillon de Musique was a pair of seductive torchères by Pajou which are now displayed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is one of them...

And of course, it was for this ravishing folie that Fragonard had originally created his series of canvases on "The Pursuit of Love" which Madame Du Barry rejected in favour of inferior but appropriately more vigorously Neoclassical paintings by Vien. Admittedly, the Vien paintings series is not as sublime as the Fragonard series. But the paintings she decided to install here were very `a la mode for the time and more in keeping with the classical mood of the decorative ensembles.
Two examples of the paintings she opted to mount on the walls of the pavilion are seen below. They are currently in the Louvre in Paris.

The paintings were originally mounted on the walls of what was oddly termed the "Salle de Cul".  Below is a view of how that room appears today. It is just off the Salle du Roi which is the central drawing room. 


Ironically, copies of the Fragonard paintings (of which the originals are now in New York's Frick Collection) have been placed in the dining room at the pavilion where they are currently on view. It's also interesting to note that, though the canvases were originally commissioned for this building, they would have not been placed in this room which is on the opposite side of the Salle du Roi. As just noted these were intended to be installed in the room we've just visited above.

Other adjacent rooms, though unfurnished, are still lovely to behold! This is the central Salle du Roi to which I alluded earlier.

It is in the centre just off the large Salle de Musique where Madame Du Barry entertained Louis XV and other guests as seen in the Moreau le Jeune drawing we saw above. The Salle de Musique is discernible from here through the doors.

Interestingly, it was in this drawing room that a recent photo shoot was done for the 2009 Dieux du Stade calender of studly French rugby players! What would Madame Du Barry have made of that?

 This is Madame Du Barry painted by Vigée Lebrun in 1783 after her "retirement" from court... The portrait is currently in the collection of the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps, being the friendly gregarious lady she was, Madame Du Barry would be amused to learn that today the Pavillon de Musique de La Comtesse Du Barry is owned and operated by the Fondation Julienne Dumeste. It is available for rental for weddings, conventions and other special events and can also be visited by appointment.