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GILT BRONZE : 1600-1800

GILT BRONZE : 1600-1800

Baroque and Rococo.


The use of gilt-bronze in furnishings during the 17th and 18th centuries was one expression of the resurgence of a more refined lifestyle that developed during the 17th century. Its use became widespread during the reign of Louis XIV and contributed to the sumptuous and luxurious décor in grand interiors of the time. The essential quality that made bronze so attractive as a medium was that it formed a perfect base for gilding or, more rarely, silvering. Gilt-bronze was used in every aspect of interior furnishings and replaced ironwork. Bronzes d'ameublement comprised clocks, mirrors, fire-dogs, wall-lights, candelabra and chandeliers; ormolu mounts were applied to furniture, porcelain and hardstones. Gilt-bronze was also used for door furniture, to ornament chimney-pieces, staircases, boiseries and marble and was even used to adorn watches. One motive behind this increased use of gilt-bronze can be found in the many sumptuary edicts issued by Louis XIV, in which he forbade the use of precious metals in furnishings. These measures had a serious, though temporary, effect on the type of work carried out in precious metals, but the edicts did not prevent makers from resorting to gilding or silvering in order to create objects considered indispensable not only for the pomp, glory and majesty of the Crown itself but also for the luxurious surroundings demanded by the French nobility. Items that had previously been executed in silver and silver gilt were now re-created in gilt-bronze, for example the surtout de table (Toledo, OH, Mus. A.) made for Louis de Bourbon, the Grand Dauphin, by Nicolas de Launay (1647-1727).

During the reign of Louis XIV a precise distinction was drawn between the two trades of the fondeurs-fondants (metal-casters and founders) and the fondeurs-ciseleurs (metal-casters and chasers or engravers), both of which belonged to the same guild. Gilding and silvering were the exclusive domain of a separate guild, that of the doreurs-ciseleurs (gilders and chasers or engravers); it was not until 1776 that these two guilds merged. The fondeurs-fondants confined themselves to the single activity of casting, while the job of designing and creating models for bronze work was the responsibility of the fondeurs-ciseleurs. Most of the latter group were also sculptors, for example André-Charles Boulle, Domenico Cucci, Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain and Pierre-Philippe Thomire, and such members of the Académie Royale de Sculpture et de Peinture or the Académie de Saint-Luc as Sébastien Slodtz and his sons, François-Antoine Vassé, Jacques Caffiéri, Philippe Caffiéri, Etienne Martincourt (?1735-after 1791) and Jean-Louis Prieur. All were experts in chasing and engraving, the skill that gave bronze its value prior to gilding. Towards the end of the 18th century such gilders as Pierre Gouthière and François Rémond were celebrated for the techniques of matt and burnished gilding. Gilders, for example Louis-François Gobert (d 1772), often used their own models, which would have first been cast in bronze by the fondeurs-fondants, later chased or engraved and gilt. Sculptors, furniture-makers and watchmakers also had their own models, to which they had exclusive rights as long as the casting and gilding was carried out by qualified master craftsmen.

Baroque and Rococo.

In the early 17th century gilt-bronze was not used for furnishings to any great degree except in the case of ornament in church choirs, for example chandeliers and lecterns. It then began to make an appearance in domestic interiors, as in the pedestals (1641) for the Palais du Louvre, Paris, and the capitals and bases (1653-5) of the columns of the baths in Anne of Austria's winter apartments, also in the Louvre. Although Cucci and Boulle both bore the title of Ebéniste et Ciseleur du Roi, the use of gilt-bronze in furniture was generally confined to the edges of table-tops, the capitals of columns and the ferrules placed around the posts or uprights. Cucci delivered candelabra (Paris, Mus. A. Déc.) to the Marquise de Seignelay in 1693, and Boulle also executed candelabra in 1699 for the private apartments of the Grand Dauphin at Versailles. Stylistically, however, this range of objects was no different from the identical models executed in gold or silver.
The use of gilt-bronze came into its own at the end of the 17th century. A move away from the Baroque can be seen in two of Boulle's chandeliers, the chandelier with the figure of Renown (Paris, Louvre) and the Dolphin Chandelier (Malibu, CA, Getty Mus.), and in the Four Hours of the Day Clock by Jean Berain I, Pierre Le Nègre ( fl 1680-1711) and Sébastien Slodtz, of which only the design is extant (Stockholm, Nmus.). This development was more strongly marked in such other works by Boulle as the commode for the King's Chamber in the Trianon (1708; Versailles, Château) and his Venus Marine Clock (London, Wallace), in which the wood is effectively a secondary material. Other examples that point towards a fundamental change in the use of materials include the terminal busts of Zephyrus and Flora (1713) that Vassé attached to the mantel of a chimney-piece intended for the Duchesse de Berry at Versailles.

Gilt-bronze lent itself admirably well to the expression of the Rococo style. Boulle introduced Rococo elements into a number of his works, for example some wall-lights with dragons (Paris, Mme Grog-Carven priv. col.), which matched the similarly inspired wall-lights designed by Jean Berain II (1674-1726) and Sébastien Slodtz in 1720 for Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria (Munich, Schloss Nymphenburg, destr.). Vassé in turn modelled a dragon in triumphant pose holding candle-nozzles in its jaw and on its wings (Lisbon, Mus. Gulbenkian). The major casters and founders working in gilt-bronze in the Rococo style included Jean Le Blanc ( fl c. 1730-60), the brothers Jean-Baptiste and Nicolas Barthélemy Fuzellier ( fl c. 1710-50), Nicolas Vassoult ( fl c. 1710-65), Thomas Germain, Jacques Confesseur (c. 1690-1759) and Charles Cressent. Others whose work was especially fashionable were Jacques Caffiéri, Saint-Germain and Jean-Claude Duplessis, who made an astonishing brazier (Istanbul, Topkapi Pal. Mus.) in 1742 on the orders of Louis XV as a gift for Mahmud I, Sultan of Turkey. Asymmetrical Rococo was to reach its apogee in the pieces executed in the 1750s by François-Thomas Germain, for example the wall-lights for the Palais-Royal, Paris (Malibu, CA, Getty Mus.), and the mantelpiece in the Bernsdorf Palace, Copenhagen.
The gilt-bronze mounts used in furniture were on occasion so overwhelming that many pieces appeared to be no more than a mere support for the extravagance of the mounts. This can be seen in the medal-cabinet (Versailles, Château) executed for Louis XV by Antoine-Robert Gaudreaus and the Slodtz brothers, in the series of commodes decorated with hunting scenes (Dresden, Schloss Pillnitz; Malibu, CA, Getty Mus.) executed by Bernard van Risamburgh II for Frederick-Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, and in the regulator clocks (Dresden, Altes Schloss, possibly destr.) in the form of life-size palm-trees, decorated with girandoles, which were executed by Jean-Pierre Latz and intended for the same sovereign.
Another new use for gilt-bronze was that of creating mounts for hardstones, marble or porcelain. The practice spread on an unparalleled scale owing to the impetus given by marchands-merciers and collectors. Porcelain vessels were transformed into potpourris, ewers, fountains, clocks or perfume burners. Two greyhounds were modelled keeping watch at the foot of a celadon water-basin with reservoir and tap (Versailles, Château), delivered to Louis XV in 1742, for example, and a terrace complete with balustrade, staircase and gilt-bronze trophy served as a plinth for a massive Sèvres flower vase (Dresden, Zwinger). The most prominent artists specializing in this technique included Louis Paffe ( fl 1733-70), Duplessis, Saint-Germain, Vassoult and Edme-Jean Gallien (1720-after 1781), although no work by them is signed. From 1745 onwards the Rococo style went through a more sober phase, an example of which is the well-known astronomical clock (Versailles, Château) made by Passement and the Caffiéris.


Jean-Jacques Caffiéri was foremost among those working in le goût grec and was renowned after 1757 for the bronzes he executed to adorn Ange-Laurent de La Live de Jully's furniture (Chantilly, Château), as was Edme Roy ( fl 1745-80), who made the famous clock with a figure of Study for Mme Geoffrin; the figure on the clock was modelled by Laurent Guiard (1723-88). Robert Osmond (1713-89) designed a clock adorned with a vase and lions' heads (Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.), and Saint-Germain created not only the Spirit of Denmark Clock (Copenhagen, Amalienborg) but also a number of astonishing candelabra with tripod bases terminating in lions' paws. Etienne Martincourt designed the Astronomy and Geography Clock (Malibu, CA, Getty Mus.). Prieur sent his candelabra with eagles to Warsaw (now in Detroit, MI, Inst. A.), while Claude-Quentin Pitoin delivered numerous wall-lights and lamps to the Garde Meuble de la Couronne. Rather than being particularly original, however, these works presented a rigid interpretation of Neo-classicism.

The Etruscan style can be seen in the wall-lights executed by Prieur for the palace ballroom in Warsaw (now in Paris, Mus. Nissim de Camondo), in those made for the high altar in Embrun Cathedral by Jean-Baptiste Allnet ( fl 1766-86) and in the clock (St Petersburg, Hermitage) with allegorical figures that Prieur made for the marriage of Louis XVI after a design by François Boucher. This style was fully developed in the Four Seasons Candelabra (London, Buckingham Pal., Royal Col.) executed by Philippe Caffiéri (ii), in the Three Graces Clock (Toronto, Royal Ont. Mus.) by François Vion (1737-after 1790), in the Ship Clock (ex-Roberto Polo priv. col., New York) by Nicolas Bonnet (1740-after 1790) and in the Avignon Clock (London, Wallace); by Gouthière and Louis-Simon Boizot. The artists, designers and craftsmen who were responsible for developing this vision of the 'grand style' included Boizot, François-Joseph Belanger, Gilles-Paul Cauvet, Charles-Louis Clérisseau, Nicolas Ledoux, Jean-Démosthène Dugourc and Jean-François Forty ( fl c. 1760-90). Such talented sculptors as Jean-François Houdon and Augustin Pajou also contributed, as did Prieur, Martincourt, Louis-Gabriel Feloix (1730-after 1790), Jean-Claude-Thomas Duplessis the younger, Gouthière, Rémond and Thomire.

Imaginary and exotic animals, for example the kneeling camels that appear on Gouthière's lamps (Paris, Louvre), were often used to form a support for monumental compositions, as seen in the candelabra with ostriches (Versailles, Château) by Rémond and the clocks with Vestal virgins carrying the sacred fire (Minneapolis, MN, Inst. A.) by Thomire, where rams' heads were used as handles for the vases and eagles' heads were used to support the candle-nozzles. Duplessis and Thomire, who succeeded one another as modellers and designers at the Sèvres factory, were renowned for the quality of their mounts for porcelain and hardstones. Such mounts can also be seen in works by Gouthière (e.g. in Paris, Louvre), Rémond and Antoine-Louis Pajot (c. 1730-81), where the refinement of these artists' imaginations vied with the equally remarkable perfection of their chasing. After c. 1780 gilt-bronzes incorporated into furnishings began to display exaggeration, as in some work by Jean-Henri Riesener, Martin Carlin, Adam Weisweiller and Guillaume Beneman. A typical example of this development can be found in the gilt-bronze mounts on the jewel-cabinet made for Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Ferdinand-Joseph Schwerdfeger (Versailles, Château), which were executed by Boizot, Martincourt and Thomire.

The French Revolution offered new subject-matter for bronzeworkers, although such symbols as the lictors' fasces were already part of the visual vocabulary prior to 1789, as in the commode from Louis XVI's apartments at Saint-Cloud (Malibu, CA, Getty Mus.). The success of the novel Paul et Virginie (Paris, 1787) by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre influenced works, including clocks and candelabra, executed au nègre. A considerable number of subjects remained fashionable, such as the nymph Erigone and the numerous variations executed on the theme of love, as seen in such sculptures by Philippe-Laurent Roland (1746-1816) as the Chariot of the Seasons (Madrid, Pal. Real) and the Pledge of Love (St Petersburg, Hermitage), which were cast by Thomire, and in such work by François-Nicolas Delaistre (1746-1823) as Friendship Led by Love and Crowned by Hymen (New York, Mr and Mrs Frank Richardson III priv. col.). By the end of the 18th century, the most brilliant period in the execution of works in gilt-bronze in France drew to a close.

D. F. Lunsingh-Scheurleer: Chinesisches und japanisches Porzellan in europaïschen Fassungen (Brunswick, 1980)
H. Ottomeyer and P. Pröschel: Vergoldete Bronzen: Die Bronzearbeiten des Spätbarock und Klassizismus, 2 vols (Munich, 1986)
P. Verlet: Les Bronzes dorés français du XVIIIème siècle (Paris, 1987)
G. Bresc-Bautier: 'Problèmes du bronze français: Fondeurs et sculpteurs à Paris, 1600-1660', Archvs A. Fr., n. s., xxx (1989), pp. 11-50


During this period wrought-iron was relegated to the ranks of mere ironmongery inside furniture. Locks (e.g. in Rouen, Mus. Le Secq des Tournelles), the mechanisms of which grew increasingly complicated, were sometimes very finely engraved, while keys were always very ornate, chased and engraved. Caskets made of polished iron were often engraved with simple foliage and were made for keeping important papers and jewellery. Kitchen and household implements and andirons, which were produced in great numbers, remained simple in design, with their shafts turned to form balusters, sometimes embellished with volutes or more rarely with bronze or brass motifs. Pewter, hardy and inexpensive, was the only material capable of meeting the enormous domestic, commercial, religious and medical demands. On the whole, pewter objects of this period are simple, without decoration (they were for daily use and needed to be easy to clean). The most representative examples were the candlestick à la financière (Paris, Mus. A. Déc.), the shaft of which represents a bundle of small, interconnected candles, and the broad-rimmed charger à la cardinal (Paris, Mus. A. Déc.), so called because it was introduced into France by Cardinal Jules Mazarin. Decoration in relief was abandoned, with only a few plates engraved with designs and even then it was often a simple coat of arms. Bronze, brass and copper continued to be used for the manufacture of kitchen and household implements, and for candleware, where models with shafts turned to form balusters and triangular bases predominated.