Past Exhibition

Pierre Gouthière and the Duke of Aumont

detail of gilt bronze head of a ram

Gouthière produced some of his masterpieces for Louis-Marie-Augustin, the Duke of Aumont. The duke directed the Menus-Plaisirs et Affaires de la Chambre du Roi, an administrative body of the king’s household that managed the monarch’s personal effects and organized his entertainment, creating sets for theatrical productions and significant occasions such as marriages and funerals. The artists employed by the Menus-Plaisirs were free to develop new ideas without constraint, and their workshops were the locus for the forging of new fashions. Aumont employed several of these artists (including Gouthière) to create objects for his personal cabinet of curiosities, which was renowned for its exquisite antique marbles, mounted porphyry, Asian porcelain, and gilt bronze. These were all intended for his opulent hôtel particulier on the Place Louis XV in Paris (now the Hôtel Crillon, Place de la Concorde).

Gouthière worked for Aumont for around ten years, beginning about 1770. For his enthusiastic and wealthy patron, he created unique objects after designs by the duke’s favorite architect, François-Joseph Bélanger (also from the Menus-Plaisirs), whose brother-in-law, the talented designer Jean-Démosthène Dugourc, directed and oversaw their production.

Following Aumont’s death in 1782, his collections were sold at auction. The auction catalogue specifies that “all the works [by Gouthière] are indicated at the ends of the entries by the initial letter G.” In total, there were fifty-five objects in thirty-four lots, most of which were bought for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The king paid high prices for the finest pieces, which were destined for the Muséum du Louvre (now the Musée du Louvre), and the queen did likewise to furnish her private apartments.

Many pieces made by Gouthière for Aumont have been lost or have not yet been identified. With the exception of an incense burner at the Wallace Collection, London, the known pieces are reunited here for the first time since 1782.

Vase (detail). Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière, green Greek porphyry, possibly carved by Augustin Bocciardi or Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Delaplanche. After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger, ca. 1775−80. 15 × 13⅜ × 11 inches. Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

  • pair of maroon vases on golden pedestals, circa 1770

    Two Vases, ca. 1770–75
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    Porphyry carved in Rome in the eighteenth century
    Red porphyry and gilt bronze
    Musée du Louvre, Paris

    A passionate collector of hardstones, the Duke of Aumont was particularly fond of marble, granite, porphyry, serpentine, jasper, and agate, which the neoclassical tastes of the time had brought back into fashion. When possible, he obtained them in Italy, which was generally thought to have the finest stones.

    For these vases, which had been carved and polished in Rome, Gouthière was commissioned to produce gilt-bronze mounts. His intervention was minimal; he created extremely simple bases finely chased with friezes of interlacing motifs and strings of pearls.

  • pair of granite vases on mounted legs made of gilt-bronze, circa 1770

    Pair of Vases, ca. 1770–75
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    Granite probably carved by Augustin Bocciardi (1719–1797) or Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Delaplanche
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    Green granite, bardiglio, and gilt bronze
    Private collection

    It was probably an artisan working in Paris under the direction of the architect François-Joseph Bélanger who carved these rare and original vases, with bottoms in the form of a cul-de-lampe, echoing the knob forms on the tops of the lids. Unable to stand, they had to be supported by a mount, which was created by Gouthière after designs by Bélanger.

    At the sale of the Duke of Aumont’s collections, the pair was sold to Marie Antoinette. We have no details of their royal journey, except that they appeared in 1793 at the Muséum du Louvre. They reappear at an auction sale in Paris in 1837, where they were acquired by the Duke of Cambacérès, Peer of France and future grand master of ceremonies to Napoleon III, before passing through several private collections in France and the United States.

  • marble vase with double gilt-bronze handles, and top, circa 1770

    Pair of Vases, ca. 1770–75
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    Alabaster probably carved by Augustin Bocciardi (1719–1797) or Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Delaplanche
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1832)
    Alabaster, green marble, and gilt bronze
    Private collection

    The seventh entry in the sale catalogue for the Duke of Aumont’s collections consisted of two large, handsome columns of verde antico marble discovered in 1766 near the Temple of Vesta in Rome. On top, each had an alabaster vase described in the catalogue as “interesting” and with ornamentation “of an excellent type . . . perfectly carried out.”

    Louis XVI acquired the full set of items. While the columns were kept in the Salle des Antiques at the Louvre, the vases were left in a storehouse for more than twenty years. In 1793, they were transferred to the Muséum du Louvre, but they clearly fell out of favor: in October 1797 — on orders from the Ministry of Finance and to cover the costs of establishing the new museum — these two alabaster vases “of mediocre quality” were sold. The fairly low price of the estimate was clearly determined by the defective alabaster and not by Gouthière’s mounts, the originality and execution of which are almost without equal. In particular, the laurel leaves so realistically capture the density and variety of a branch of blossoming laurel that they look as if cast from nature.

  • green porphyry vase decorated with gilt-bronze seated female figures on either side

    Vase, ca. 1775–80
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    Porphyry possibly carved by Augustin Bocciardi (1719–1797) or Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Delaplanche
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    Green Greek porphyry and gilt bronze
    Musée du Louvre, Paris; transfer from the Mobilier National, 1901

    Here, Gouthière created elegant mounts in the shape of two seated female figures, looking in opposite directions. Though at first glance they seem identical, these small figures were made from two separate molds. One, representing a female satyress, wears a crown of ivy and holds a branch of the same; the second figure, a mermaid covered in drapery, wears a crown of laurels and clutches a laurel branch. Gouthière’s chasing techniques allowed him to vary the texture of these mounts, breathing life into their expressions and transforming decorative elements into sculptures in their own right. His famous matte-gilding technique gives a soft hue to the skin of the female figures, contrasting with the burnished elements, such as the draperies.

  • green porphyry vase with top, decorated with gilt-bronze ram heads on either side

    Vase, ca. 1775–80
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    Porphyry possibly carved by Augustin Bocciardi (1719–1797) or Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Delaplanche
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    Green Greek porphyry and gilt bronze
    Musée du Louvre, Paris; transfer from the Mobilier National, 1901

    This vase, similar in shape and material to another vase in this exhibition, fetched a much lower price at the sale of the Aumont’s collection. It was sold to Louis XVI, who was prepared to spend three times more for the vase with female figures. Clearly, the cataloguers for the sale thought this vase was of inferior quality since their assessment was less laudatory. The vase is not described, like the previous lot, as one of “high quality,” and the gilt-bronze ornamentation is simply judged to be “adequate.” This judgment is, however, surprising because the rams’ heads are particularly expressive and naturalistic: it might even be possible to identify them as Pyrenean goats. Their hair is exceptionally lively — simply chased on the noses and ears, in contrast to the tight tufts elsewhere on the heads; the latter were cast in the mold and subsequently chased, gilded, and partially burnished. The extraordinary horns, alternately burnished and matte gilded to imitate nature more closely, lend an element of sophistication and luxury.

  • pair of porcelain incense burners held on gilt bronze legs and pedestals

    Pair of Incense Burners, ca. 1775
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthièr (1732–1813)
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    Japanese Kakiemon porcelain, eighteenth century
    Hard-paste porcelain, porphyry, and gilt bronze
    Private collection

    At the time of his death in April 1782, the Duke of Aumont owned more than four hundred pieces of oriental porcelain, which, along with his hardstone pieces, were the pride of his collection. Eight of them received mounts by Gouthière. Here, as elsewhere, Gouthière’s gilt bronzes enhanced and transformed already highly prized objects.

    In 1767, the duke acquired the bowl painted with a bird at the sale of the famous collector Jean de Julienne, director of the Gobelins tapestry manufactory. We do not know where or when he bought the second bowl, decorated with dragons and pomegranates, but it was probably this purchase that justified replacing the “well-composed” mount of Julienne’s bowl with new ones by Gouthière that would better suit the taste of the day and that of their new owner. The gilt-bronze mounts by Gouthière also allowed Aumont to create a matching pair using similar objects that had been bought at different times.

  • gilt bronze capital decorated with leaves intended to be the top of a column

    Capital for a Porphyry Column, ca. 1775–80
    Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    Probably after a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    Gilt bronze
    Musée du Louvre, Paris; Founding collection

    This capital epitomizes the relationships Gouthière had with the most inventive architects of the time, the purity of the neoclassicism he developed under their guidance, and the extravagance of the objects he created for his most illustrious patrons. The capital was made to crown an antique porphyry column owned by the Duke of Aumont, who, during the second half of the eighteenth century, assembled a prestigious collection of marble columns and hardstone vases. These objects were highly sought after by the most refined collectors in Europe since the Renaissance.

    François-Joseph Bélanger, who probably designed the capital, was inspired by an antique column that also belonged to the duke. A large marble ball (now lost) was originally placed on top. Today, only the preparatory drawing for the catalogue engraving gives an idea of the superb contrast of colors between the gilt bronze and the various marbles used.

    At the sale of the Duke of Aumont’s collections, the complete column was acquired by Louis XVI for the enormous sum of 6,999 livres (about twice the annual salary of a teacher). The king purchased it for the future “Muséum” du Louvre (now the Musée du Louvre), which opened in 1793 and still houses the column and capital.

  • sketch of blue pitcher with woman figure as handle

    Preparatory Drawing for the Engraving, Representing a Ewer from the Duke of Aumont’s Collections, 1782
    Pierre-Adrien Pâris (1745–1819)
    Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper
    In Catalogue des effets precieux qui composent le Cabinet de feu M. le duc d’Aumont. Par P. F. Julliot fils et A. J. Paillet (December 12−21, 1782)
    Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

    Written by Philippe-François Julliot, a well-known merchant of luxury goods, and the painter Alexandre-Joseph Paillet, the catalogue for the estate sale of the collections of the Duke of Aumont included thirty engraved plates. The preparatory drawings for these engravings were made by the architect Pierre-Adrien Pâris, who had worked for the duke in the 1770s, decorating his hôtel particulier on Place Louis XV in Paris. Upon Aumont’s death, Pâris was summoned to appraise the unfinished gilt bronzes still on Gouthière’s premises.

    Pâris made two additional drawings that were not engraved (including the one above and the one reproduced at the inset) that illustrate now lost objects by Gouthière. This watercolor represents one of a pair of celadon porcelain ewers, with gilt-bronze mounts by Gouthière, that were sold at the duke’s sale to an individual named “Abraham.” They were auctioned again two years later.

    The illustration below represents an urn (from a pair) said to be in “lapis-colored old porcelain from China” and ornamented with a gilt-bronze mount by Gouthière. The catalogue states that they are “as precious for the perfection of their form and their color as they are for the ingenious taste of their ornamentation and the merit of their finish.” Unsurprisingly, these refined objects were acquired for Marie Antoinette.

  • large sea-green porcelain vase, decorated with gilt-bronze snakes and harpies

    Pair of Vases, 1782
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    Chinese Celadon porcelain, eighteenth century
    Hard-paste porcelain, porphyry, and gilt bronze
    Musée du Louvre; transfer from the Mobilier National, 1870

    At the time of the Duke of Aumont’s death, Gouthière had nine items in his workshop including this pair of vases (originally Chinese garden seats) that had not yet been delivered to his greatest client and patron. However, he managed to complete the mounts before the sale of the duke’s collections, when the two vases were acquired by Louis XVI for an astonishingly high sum (7,501 livres).

    Gouthière created the mounts after a design by François-Joseph Bélanger, whose composition of arabesques, rinceaux, snakes, and harpies was at the height of fashion in the 1780s. Gouthière’s interpretation of the architect’s complex design demonstrates his mastery of the medium of gilt bronze. For example, to imitate a snake more faithfully, the skin on top of the snakes is chased to create small scales, while the undersides are chased with larger ones. Gouthière’s naturalism is just as remarkable on the harpies, whose numerous feathers are pared back (dégraissés) to give them lightness, then chased to make them look as lifelike as possible. Gouthière demonstrates his virtuosic mastery by creating these complex mounts while avoiding any piercing of the porcelain.

  • photo of pair of white porcelain candelabras, on pedestals, decorated with gilt-bronze

    Pair of Candelabra, 1782
    Gilt bronze by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813)
    After a design by François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818)
    One vase, Meissen factory porcelain, ca. 1720; the other, a later replacement
    Hard-paste porcelain and gilt bronze
    The Frick Collection, New York; Gift of Sidney R. Knafel, 2016

    These candelabra, among Gouthière’s last commissions for the Duke of Aumont, are a true tour de force. The extremely detailed chasing lends a naturalistic appearance to the swirling ivy and grapevines decorating the vases’ shoulders, as well as to the individual pomegranates, pears, and other fruits that spill from the cornucopias that form each candleholder. At the same time, the rough texture of the goats’ ridged horns contrasts with the silky appearance of their wool. Gouthière’s superb chasing was embellished by his unique gilding techniques, which included dorure au mat, or matte gilding, that can be seen here on the goat’s heads and on the many leaves on the candleholders.

    What distinguishes these candelabra is the contrast of the bronzes made by Gouthière — whose craftsmanship is comparable to that of a goldsmith — with the simplicity of the white vases. These were considered in the Aumont sale catalogue to be of Meissen porcelain, although they appear in the section titled “old white Japanese porcelain.” Regardless of what Aumont knew about the porcelain, he valued these vases highly enough to have commissioned such exquisite mounts for them.