This magnificent pair of chairs, conceived in the symmetric rococo manner and carved with the most exquisite rocaille and floral trails, is part of an important suite believed to have been given by Louis XV to his mistress, the Comtesse de Séran. Supplied by Nicolas Heurtaut, one of the greatest maître sculpteurs of the Louis XV period, the suite comprised eight armchairs, three sofas and a spectacular bed. Six of the chairs have since been donated to Versailles, leaving only this pair in private hands.
Heurtaut is considered one of the greatest sculptors of carved furniture of the mid-18th century, adapting his style from Rococo through Transitional to Neoclassicism to reflect changes in fashion. The son of Claude Heurtaut, sculpteur en sieges, he began his career as a sculptor, entering l'Académie de Saint-Luc in 1742, before becoming a maître-menuisier on 9 December 1755, and establishing a workshop in the rue de Bourbon-Villeneuve, Paris. Thus as both a sculpteur and menuisier Heurtaut ornamented his own seat-furniture, and sub-contracted work to other craftsmen. His clients were equally wide-ranging from marchands and tapissiers to wealthy clientele including the marquis de Villarceaux, the duc de Jaucourt and the duc de la Rochefoucault. Heurtaut’s craftsmanship of extravagant Rococo ornamentation, rocaille, shells, volutes, palm fronds and floral garlands, motifs that appear on the present fauteuils, is very distinctive. He was possibly inspired by drawings for seat-furniture of the 1730s by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier or designs by Contant d’Ivry of the mid-1750s. A design attributed to Meissonnier in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs displays similar palm fronds framing the shoulders of the chair back, a recurrent Heurtaut motif (Pallot, op. cit., p. 37; pp. 58-59). Kjellberg aptly describes his style as 'Un rythme nerveux et en même temps parfaitement harmonieux semble animer les fauteuils dont le décor est chaque fois légèrement différent’ (Kjellberg, op. cit., p. 441).
In addition to the present pair of fauteuils the Comtesse de Séran's suite included:
- A lit à la Polonaise, now at Versailles in the Grand Cabinet de la Dauphine (inv. 3809, gift of Comte Guy de Boisrouvray, 1962, having been previously with Marcel Bissey). This bed was exhibited in Grands Ébénistes at the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, in 1955-56 (Kjellburg, op. cit., p. 442).
- Six further fauteuils, also now at Versailles (inv. V5212-7, having been given in 1982 by the sons of Antenor Patino, who presumably acquired the fauteuils from Marcel Bissey, Paris).
- A pair of sofas, à chassis, with a single arm rest (which were in the collection of the Prince de Beauvau at the château de Saint-Assise (1930), subsequently with Jean Seligmann (1933) and then sold in Paris, 14 June 1965, lot 67).
- A large concave sofa with two arm rests which the aforementioned pair would have accompanied (also with the Prince de Beauvau and then Mr. Ortiz-Linares) (B. Pallot, op. cit., p. 247).
A further set of closely related seat-furniture comprising a large canapé and six fauteuil à la reine was executed by Heurtaut for l’évêque de Poitiers is in the Louvre (Kjellberg, op. cit., p. 444); while part of a Transitional suite upholstered in Gobelins tapestry, comprising a canapé and six fauteuils and bearing Nicolas Heurtaut’s stamp, was sold at Sotheby’s Monaco, 22 June 1991, lot 538, for 14,430,000 francs (£1,450,251) and also in the Louvre (OA 10290-6).
THE COMTESSE DE SERAN
Marie-Marguerite-Adélaïde de Bullioud, Comtesse de Séran (d. 1793), was a royal mistress of Louis XV benefiting from the King’s generosity particularly following the death of Madame de Pompadour in 1764. The historian and writer Jean-François Marmontel (d. 1799) recalls that Louis XV presented her with a hôtel particulier, no. 4 rue de l’Oratoire, Paris, and presumably the furniture therein, possibly including the suite of furniture of which these fauteuils are a part (Marmontel, op. cit., p. 116; Renwick, op. cit., p. 23). The Comtesse, who was in the circle of Madame Filleul and the Marquis de Marigny, brother of the Pompadour (the Marquise de Marigny was godmother to the Comtesse de Seran’s son), aspired for a position with the duchesse de Chartres. Louis XV, intrigued by rumours of her beauty, consented to the appointment in 1760 with the proviso she visit him à deux in his petits apartements. Thereafter, the Comtesse visited the King every Sunday at the same hour. Seemingly, during her first visit he asked her if she found his drawing-room tasteful, to which she replied she would have preferred it furnished in blue, and by her second visit the apartment was redecorated accordingly. This account certainly supports the belief that the suite was a gift from the King to the Comtesse. Marmontel though was to some degree self-interested; Madame de Séran was his patron and he had a room at no. 4 rue de l’Oratoire from 1773 until the hôtel particulier was sold (Marmontel, op. cit., p. 164). The Comtesse finally entered the service of Mesdames, Louis XV’s unmarried daughters, as a Mistress of the Robes. When the King died in 1774, with the loss of patronage and without a pension, she sold her hôtel in 1776 to Charles-Claude Flahaut de la Billaderie, comte d'Angiviller, the new Surintendant des Batiments. However, she remained at the court of Louis XVI as Mistress of the Robes to Madame Elisabeth, the King’s sister, sharing her time between Versailles and the château de la Tour.
The château de La Tour, near St Pierre de Canivet, Normandy was built in 1769 for comte Louis Francois-Anne de Séran, Madame de Séran’s spouse, and in 1771, refurbished under the direction of the architect Couture and quite probably financed by the king. The present fauteuils and the remainder of the suite were situated in a room at the château with the same upholstery fabric applied to the walls (Boussel, op. cit., p. 40). Heurtaut continued working for the comtesse de Séran and is recorded as having supplied carved mouldings for framing wall hangings in a more neo-classical style with floral paterae and Greek-key carving, underlining the theory that the spectacular suite of which these chairs form part were conceived for an earlier scheme and most probably for her Parisian hôtel (Pallot, op. cit., p. 231). By the end of the 18th century, Madame de Séran made the château a meeting place for the most celebrated writers of the age.
THE DUC DE CHOISEUL
A painting by Louis-Michel Van Loo dated 17(6)7 and depicting members of the Choiseul family might add an intriguing additional element to this suite's provenance. The painting, which was sold at hôtel Drouot on 9 December 1997 (lot 18), is thought to show Louise Honorine Crozat du Châtel (d. 1801), the duchesse de Choiseul, wearing a bracelet inset with a portrait miniature of her husband, and is flanked by their adopted son, Claude-Antoine de Choiseul-Beaupré (d. 1838), who was raised at Chanteloup. Intriguingly, the duchesse is seated on a grand giltwood chair upholstered in crimson fabric and with virtually identical carved detail to the cresting of the seat back as found on the chairs of this suite.
Etienne-François de Choiseul Stainville, le duc de Choiseul (d. 1785), Ministre de la Guerre, was a discriminating collector, and Heurtaut was among the menuisiers he frequented together with Jean Boucault and Jean-Baptiste Boulard (Bloomquist, op. cit., p. 59). The interiors of the Duke’s Parisian hôtel Crozat de Châtel in the rue Richelieu, which he acquired in 1761, are depicted on a gold snuff-box, dated 1770-71, that is ornamented with faithfully detailed gouache panels by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe (Bloomquist, op. cit., fig. 377-383). These panels depict the Rococo interiors of the Parisien hotel, and the minutely detailed miniatures show about forty-eight pieces of furniture, with the celebrated bureau plat by Caffieri clearly recognisable. However, their scale prohibits a positive identification of the present fauteuils, though it is tempting to identify the spectacular lit a la Polonaise from this suite as the grand bed shown in one of the miniatures. It is possible that this suite was sold from the hôtel Crozat de Châtel when the duc de Choiseul fell from favour and was forced to retire in 1770 to Chanteloup, and the suite might have at that point been acquired by Louis XV who then presented it to his mistress, the Madame de Séran, in time for the 1771 refurbishments at the chateau de la Tour. The present fauteuils (as part of a larger suite) are not discernible in any valuations or inventories taken between June 1785 and April 1786 after the death of the duc, however; those valuations are in rather poor and almost illegible state, and lack precision preventing any meaningful identification of specific items (Moreau, op. cit., p. 108). Chanteloup was acquired after Choiseul’s death in 1785 together with some of its furniture by Louis Jean-Marie de Bourbon, duc de Penthièvre, and it was around that time that the furniture at Chanteloup was branded with an anchor flanked by 'C’ and 'P’ surmounted by a crown corresponding to Penthièvre’s arms, and an inventory taken in July 1787.
The chairs were almost certainly acquired by the Patinos from or through Marcel Bissey who, in the 1950s, was buying directly from French private sources and probably acquired the suite direct from the château de La Tour. Interestingly, an armoire à doucine by BVRB, which was formerly in the Choiseul collection, was also part of the 1956 donation of the Patino family to Versailles.
We are grateful to Charles Hooreman for pointing the potential link to the duc de Choiseul.