18th-century art at the Huntington Library

Some of the highlights from the European art wing of the Huntington Library’s art collection:

What an amazing repository of historical manuscripts and artworks! Combined with the gorgeous gardens, the Huntington Library is well worth a trip to Pasadena.

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Marie Antoinette’s silver boudoir at Château de Fontainebleau

Located between the chambers of the Queen and the King on the lower level of the château de Fontainebleau is one of Marie-Antoinette’s private boudoirs commissioned by Louis XVI.

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The silver boudoir (“boudoir argent”) was decorated by the Rousseau brothers in 1786 in the antique style. The boudoir is named after the silver background on which various arabesque designs, incorporating floral motifs, animals, classical figures, are painted. These silver panels are set within gold frames, creating an intense shimmer in the space.

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One of Marie Antoinette’s favorite cabinetmakers, Jean Henri Riesener provided the furniture pieces for this space.

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The roll-top desk and the trough-shaped table are lined with mother-of-pearl, their iridescence and classicizing motifs complementing the metallic sheen and the overall decorative style of the boudoir.

This extraordinary room also features four pairs of overdoor sculptures, representing female personifications of various arts and sciences, such as music, theater, and astronomy. Each figure holds the attributes of one or two of the nine muses.

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Clio (history) with a trumpet and a book; Erato (lyric poetry) with a lyre
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Urania (Astronomy) with a celestial globe and a compass, and a mystery woman with a caduceus (perhaps Melpomene, the muse of tragedy?)
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Calliope (epic poetry) with golden crown; Polyhymnia (hymns) with a scroll? or Melpomene (Tragedy) or Thalia (Comedy) with a mask?
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Euterpe (Music) with a flute; Terpsichore (Dance) with a harp

These are all my guesses on what these figures could represent, but it is interesting that there are eight figures holding the emblems of the nine muses.

Does this suggest that the intended occupant of this space, Marie Antoinette, was to complete the iconographic program as one of the muses? If one of these figures is a hybrid of two muses, that would mean that this boudoir is the queen’s very own Parnassus where she surrounds herself with a divine entourage..

A private, intimate space where a woman can enjoy music, conversation, and company of her closest companions. Whatever the precise intention/identification for the sculptural program might have been, I’d say this is definitely a boudoir fit for a queen.

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Chapel of the Virgin, Church of Saint-Roch, Paris
Etienne Falconet’s Divine Glory shines upon the Nativity Scene, flanked by St. Jerome and St. Barbara.
Michel Anguier’s Nativity group replaced Falconet’s Annunciation, lost during the French Revolution.

Stuff of Dreams, n. 4: “service Buffon”

One of the the most curious things in the house museum Nissim de Camondo in Paris (see my previous post here) is the porcelain closet attached to the dining room.

salle à manger, musée Nissim de Camondo

Walk through the door to the left of the fireplace, and voilà! You’re in the porcelain closet.

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Tea service, manufacture de Meissen, c. 1750-60, hard-pasted porcelain

Shelves after shelves of beautifully pristine dinner, coffee, and tea service! The star of this porcelain fantasy is the “service Buffon,” a porcelain dinner set created at the manufacture de Sèvres around 1784.

service Buffon, c. 1784, manufacture de Sèvres, France, soft-paste porcelain with polychrome decorations © Musée des Arts Décoratifs

The name “Buffon” refers to George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-88), the French naturalist, famous for his Histoire naturelle, the wildly popular and hugely influential encyclopedia cataloguing the knowledge of all known species of fauna and flora. His books were accompanied by thousands of engraved plates that illustrate natural history specimens.

Each of these porcelain dinner pieces features a distinct exotic bird species, inspired by the plates of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux (Natural History of the Birds).

L’Épervier (sparrowhawk) from Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, tome 1
Le casse noix (nutcraker), from Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, tome 5
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The gold-trimmed illustrations of birds are set against green background with the pattern of dotted circles,  called l’oeil-de-perdrix (eye-of-partridge). Some pieces also display grisaille cameos of antique profile busts.

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Imagine, in the time before digital photography and Google Image, a magnificent dinner served on these plates and bowls. Imagine the delight of uncovering these images of exotic birds as one works through the meal. Imagine the air in the dining room, thick with fascination and curiosity for these earthly, yet otherworldly creatures and the alternate universe they seem to occupy..