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Gilt bronze by Caffieri in the Wallace Collection

Gilt bronze by Caffieri in the Wallace Collection – Caffiery family art

Peter Hughes

In Paris in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries certain dynasties of artists pursued the same profession for generations. Among those of Italian origin was the Caffieri family of which the founder in France was Philippe Caffieri (1634-1716). He was born in Rome, where he was singled out by agents of Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661), and, at the request of Louis XIV, Pope Alexander VII allowed him to travel to France. He arrived in Paris in 1660 and was employed at once in the Gobelins workshops, which, from 1662, were under the direction of Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). Caffieri was an accomplished sculptor, wood carver, and bronze founder. He made large numbers of bronze castings for Versailles, perhaps most notably the bronze capitals of the pilasters in the Galerie des Glaces, which have French cocks flapping their wings in place of the normal volutes of the Ionic order.

This article is concerned not so much with Philippe Caffieri as with his tenth child and sixth son, Jacques (1678-1755),(1) and, to a lesser extent, with the latter’s eldest son, Philippe (1714-1774), both of whom were sculptors and bronze founders. Jacques Caffieri was brought up in the Gobelins, an admirable milieu for training in the decorative arts. In 1614 he was identified as a fondeur-ciseleur; a member of the guild of bronze founders, on his eldest son’s baptismal certificate. Jacques Caffieri was evidently highly thought of in the guild, for in 1715 he drew the design for a pall to cover the coffins of deceased masters of the guild during their funerals. The drawing(2) shows Christ on the Gross in the center, flanked by Saints Hubert and Eloi, the guild’s patrons, and surrounded by cartouches enclosing typical products of the guild, such as church bells, cannon, lecterns, and chandeliers. The drawing demonstrates that even at the beginning of his career Jacques Caffieri was not simply a bronze founder working to the designs of others, but an original artist in his own right. Beginning in 1736 Jacques Caffieri’s name is found in the Comptes des Batiments du Roi for work carried out at Versailles, Fontainebleau, Choisy, and other royal palaces.(3) On April 15, 1739, he is named in the Journal du Garde-Meuble as one of the two craftsmen responsible for the chest of drawers for Louis XV shown in Plate I.(4) The chest was delivered as part of the furnishings of a new bedroom at Versailles, which Louis XV, who found his great-grandfather’s state bedroom far too cold, created in 1738 from Louis XIV’s billiard room. The bedroom was paneled in white and gold by the sculptor Jacques Verberckt (1704-1771), and the chest was placed under the pier glass opposite the fireplace. The design and manufacture of the chest of drawers was a collaboration, but one in which Caffieri played a leading role. A drawing for the chest attributed to the designer and sculptor Sebastien Antoine Slodtz [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] depicts the central car-touche as shield-shaped and symmetrical. When executed by Caffieri it became asymmetrical, its left side pierced by curious kidney-shaped apertures [ILLUSTRATION FOR PLATE I OMITTED]. The drawing also indicates that many of the mounts on the front and legs were to be in the form of rushes or palm leaves and the feet would be volutes. As cast by Caffieri, the mounts on the front are twisted, car-touche-like shapes. He also used his characteristic piercings not just on the central car-touche but also on other elements on the facade and front corner mounts. These piercings, not suggested in the drawing, help to give the mounts the flame-like character remarked upon by the furniture historian Pierre Verlet in his description of the death of Louis XV. The king was brought to his bedroom on April 28, 1774, suffering from smallpox, and was placed not in his bed in the alcove of the bedroom but on a low bed of red damask between the chimney piece and the chest of drawers. As Verlet described it, the bronze mounts of the chest “sous ses yeux fatigues, dansent comme des flammes” (in his tired eyes, dance like flames).(5)

After Louis XV’s death, the chest of drawers passed to the duc d’Aumont, the first gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, and by 1865 it had been acquired by the fourth marquess of Hertford, the father of Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), who lent it to the Musee Retrospectif exhibition held at the Palais de l’Industrie in Paris that year. The photograph in Figure 3 shows that by 1865 the chest had lost its original top of reddish Sarrancolin marble, which would have matched the marble chimney piece still in the king’s bedroom at Versailles.

Jacques Caffieri not only produced furniture mounts for Louis XV but also entire gilt-bronze objects. The Cabinet de la Pendule adjoining Louis XV’s bedroom at Versailles takes its name from the astronomical clock designed by Claude Simeon Passemant (1702-1769) and made by Dauthiau (w. 1735-1767). Housed in a simple case, it was presented to the king on September 7, 1750, and then provided with a sumptuous gilt-bronze case by Caffieri to the kings order.

Slightly earlier than the clock case, which was delivered in 1753, are the two magnificent gilt-bronze chandeliers shown in Plates II and III. They were both almost certainly given by Louis XV to his eldest daughter, Louise Elisabeth (1727-1759), duchess of Parma, who was known at Versailles as “Madame Infante” as the result of her marriage in 1739 to Philip (1720-1765), the younger son of Philip V of Spain. By the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, Philip and Louise Elisabeth were allotted the duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla in northern Italy. However, she made three extended visits hack to France to see her father. It was probably on her second visit, from September 26, 1752, to September 20, 1753, that the king gave her the chandeliers. When she left Versailles after that visit, Rene Louis de Voyer de Paulmy (1694-1757), marquis d’Argenson, noted acrimoniously that the duchess was accompanied by “a great quantity of waggons loaded with all sorts of old clothes [nippes] given her by the king.”(6) The expression “old clothes” may be assumed to be ironic, but it does suggest that the king’s presents were objects already in his possession rather than specially commissioned for his daughter. This assumption fits with the date “1751” stamped on the larger chandelier [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED].

The chandeliers are among the most sumptuous examples of Louis XV gilt bronze to survive. They are both made up of large numbers of separate castings attached to a central iran cage [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 8 OMITTED]. In design, however, the chandeliers are very different. On the larger one, twelve arms sweep outward from the cage at a low angle, then sweep up before turning down at the outer ends. The inner arms are raised higher than the outer ones. The candleholders are set high on the ends of the arms above elongated drip pans that are largely abstract in form. C-scroll-shaped plates are pierced with kidney-shaped apertures strongly reminiscent of those on the mounts of the chest in Plate I. The whole design is staccato and intensely dramatic. By contrast, the design of the smaller chandelier is more balanced and restful, incorporating more naturalistic elements. The drip pans, for example, are shaped like upturned sunflower heads, and each arm has bolted onto it a realistic spray of rose leaves, cast in two sections, and another foliate spray bolted on below. The rhythm of the arms is also quite different in this chandelier, for each arm forms a balanced S-shaped outline.

In the Duchy of Parma the chandeliers were hung in the summer palace of Colorno about nine miles north of the city of Parma. This is indicated by stamped marks derived from a Colorno inventory of 1856: a “CR” crowned (for Casa Reale) with “C.608.” on the larger chandelier [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED], and a “CR” crowned with “C.92.7.” on the smaller one. An inventory of 1803 records the larger chandelier in the Gran Salone on the garden front of Colorno, while in 1811 the smaller one is recorded in the corresponding salon on the opposite side of the palace, facing the town.(7) The chandeliers probably occupied these same positions in the second half of the eighteenth century and remained there until the autumn of 1862 when, having become the property of the crown of the unified kingdom of Italy, the larger one was sent to the royal residence in Alessandria and the smaller one to the royal storehouse in Turin.(8) The chandeliers were probably sold by the new Italian crown in 1862. At all events, by November 1871 they were in the possession of a dealer named Stein in Paris, from whom Sir Richard Wallace bought them, apparently for 80,000 francs.(9) Photographs of about 1890 show the smaller chandelier in the Front State Room [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED] and the larger in the adjoining Back State Room [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED] of Hertford House (now the Wallace Collection), to which positions they have been returned.

Virtually contemporary with the chandeliers from Colorno is the pair of firedogs shown in Plate IV, which can be securely attributed to Caffieri and dated about 1752 since a nearly identical pair, signed by Caffieri and dated 1752, is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The latter pair bears nineteenth-century inventory marks of the Chateau de Saint-Cloud and shows an identical lion and boar but combined with lighter gilt-bronze scrolls and one, rather than two, vase-shaped finials on each. The head of the wild boar, an animal native to France, is much more convincing than the head of the lion.(10)

Jacques Caffieri formed a partnership with his son Philippe in 1747, and in 1754 Philippe became a maitre-sculpteur, so that by the time of his father’s death the following year he could produce original sculptural models for castings in bronze. On January 16, 1756, Philippe Caffieri was accredited as a maitre-fondeur in the bronze founders’ guild. From his father he inherited a house in the rue Princesse near Saint-Germain-des-Pres in Paris and the stock of bronze master models.

Whereas Jacques Caffieri produced bronzes in the full-blown Louis XV style in the first haft of the 1750s, Philippe appears to have turned rapidly to an early neoclassical style. In the late 1750s he made gilt-bronze mounts of great heaviness and richness and in a very up-to-date, even avant-garde, style for a writing table and filing cabinet now at Chantilly.(11) He was working in that instance to the designs of the painter and furniture designer Louis Joseph Le Lorrain (1715-1759), but may nevertheless be assumed to have made the sculptural models from which the casting molds were prepared. However, since he had taken over a stock of figural models from his father, he may on occasion have produced bronzes on which neoclassical ornament was combined with figures in the Louis XV style. This appears to be the case with the pair of firedogs in Plate V, which have bases that are cast and chased with a neoclassical interlace pattern and are supported on solid lion’s-paw and peg-shaped feet, but are surmounted by infants symbolizing Literature and Sculpture that are entirely Louis XV in character. The attribution of these firedogs to Philippe Caffieri, first made by Emile Molinier about 1900, is not absolutely certain. It was based on the resemblance of the interlace ornament on the bases to that on a plinth in the Musee du Louvre in Paris stamped by Philippe Caffieri and dated 1761.(12) The firedogs may thus date from about the same time, but the models of the infants must date from about twenty years earlier as they appear in reverse order and without the attributes of Literature and Sculpture on a pair of wall lights stamped with the crowned “C” mark and executed in the fullest Louis XV manner.(13) Verlet related the style of the wall lights to Jacques Caffieri, and the same models of infants are also found (facing as they do on the firedogs in Plate V) on a number of firedogs in the Louis XV style attributed to him.

Ostensibly neoclassical, the firedogs in Plate V are surmounted by infants who would look more at home amid a proliferation of curves and scrolls. Presumably Philippe Caffieri’s motive was to increase his profit margin by using existing figural models, which were expensive to initiate. It is curious, however, that it should be the figural models by Jacques Caffieri that live on in the work of his eldest son, since the former’s designs, like the mounts of the chest of drawers, the chandeliers, and the firedogs of about 1752, are remarkable for their character of inspired abstraction.

1 Jacques Caffieri’s younger son. Jean Jacques (1725-1792), became a portrait sculptor some of whose busts may be seen in the foyer of the Comedie-Francaise in Paris.

2 The drawing is in the Musee de Tesse in Le Mans, France, and is illustrated in Jules Guiffrey, Les Caffieri: Sculpteurs et fondeurs-ciseleurs (Paris, 1877), p. 70.

3 Ibid., p. 82.

4 Cited in Pierre Verlet, French Royal Furniture, trans. Michael Bullock (Barrie and Rockliff, London, 1963), p. 102.

5 Versailles (Fayard, Paris, 1985), p. 507.

6 Journal du Marquis d’Argenson (Paris, 1898), under September 20, 1753.

7 “Corti borboniche di Lucca e Parma” (Archivio di Stato di Parma Parma, Italy) vol. 1, busta 2; and Archives Nationales, Paris, [O.sup.2]954.

8 “Corti borboniche,” vol. 1, busta 2, p. 187.

9 Letter dated November 27, 1871, endorsed by Wallace and authorizing an offer of 80,000 francs (file 25E, wallace Collection archives, London).

10 Such firedogs may have been supplied to chateaux used for hunting. Lazare Duvaux, a Paris merchant, records the delivery in June 1758 of a pair of firedogs “a tete d’animaux” to the Chateau de Saint-Hubert, a hunting lodge of Louis XV’s in the Yvelines forest (Livre-journal de Lazare Duvaux, marchand-bijoutier, 1748-1758, ed. J. Courajod [Paris, 1873], no. 3619).

11 Illustrated in Svend Eriksen, Early Neo-Classicism in France (Faber and Faber, London, 1974), Pls. A, 85, 87-89.

12 E. Molinier, La Collection Wallace (n.p., Paris and London, n.d.), p. 48. The plinth in the Musee da Louvre is illustrated in Eriksen, Early, Neo-Classicism in France, Pl. 236.

13 The wall lights were sold at the Palais Galliera in Paris on June 12, 1973, lot 55. They are illustrated in Pierre Verlet, Les Bronzes Dores Fracais du [XVIII.sup.e] siecle (Picard, Paris, 1987), Pls. 10, 11.

PETER HUGHES is the head curator of the Wallace Collection, London, and is the author of the three-volume Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture (Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London, 1996).

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