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Live like a Rockefeller — Napoleon’s ‘Marly Rouge’ service

Christie’s ceramics specialist Carleigh Queenth admires a Sèvres porcelain service commissioned by Napoleon I, and treasured by two generations of the Rockefeller family

A sign of how much the ‘Marly Rouge’ service meant to Napoleon is that in 1814 he insisted on taking it into exile with him on the island of Elba. ‘It’s a service of rare and remarkable beauty,’ confirms Carleigh Queenth, Specialist Head of European Ceramics and Glass at Christie’s in New York.

Napoleon had originally ordered the 256-piece Sèvres dessert service for the palace in Compiègne, although records show it was delivered in October 1809 to the palace of Fontainebleau, where the Emperor had retired to after the gruelling negotiations of the Treaty of Vienna, which ended hostilities between France and Austria. 

During his month-long stay at his favourite country retreat, Napoleon broke the news to his empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais, that he was divorcing her, as she had been unable to give him a son. 

Today, only one dolphin-footed compote and six plates remain at Fontainebleau, all recent acquisitions. Although plates have appeared on the art market in recent years, the portion of the service to be offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller  includes important pieces from the original delivery not seen on the art market since Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, David’s mother, acquired the part-service more than 75 years ago. Before Abby’s acquisition of what was the largest single collection of ‘Marly Rouge’ pieces, the service had been dispersed across the globe.

Napoleon was at the peak of his powers when he commissioned the service. The same could be said of Sèvres, which was without rival when it came to luxury porcelain. Its director at the time of the commission, Alexandre Brongniart, was a keen naturalist and it was his influence that led to insects becoming common motifs. Appropriately, this particular service is decorated with a finely painted butterfly at the centre of each plate, surrounded by a wreath of flowers set within a gold band. Arguably most striking of all, though, are the rich, red borders, gilt with berry leaves.

A plate with the service’s rich, red borders, gilt with berry leaves

A plate with the service’s rich, red borders, gilt with berry leaves

The director of Sèvres in 1809 was Alexandre Brongniart, a keen naturalist, which explains the butterfly motif

The director of Sèvres in 1809 was Alexandre Brongniart, a keen naturalist, which explains the butterfly motif

The service also boasts a pair of sugar bowls with handles in the form of gilded eagle heads. ‘These were in obvious homage to the emperor,’ says Queenth. ‘The eagle was a well-known symbol of Napoleon and appeared atop the standards carried into battle by his armies.’

The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller  contains 22 ‘Marly Rouge’ pieces, including sugar bowls, and its purchase by Abby was symbolic of the family’s deep and longstanding ties to France. In the 1920s Abby’s husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., helped to fund the restoration of Reims Cathedral, the Palace of Versailles and the aforementioned Château de Fontainebleau. In 1927 the couple travelled to France with two of their sons, David and Winthrop Rockefeller, on what was the boys’ first trip outside the United States. In 1936, the French government awarded ‘Junior’ the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur to commemorate his service to the Republic — an honour David would himself receive in 2000.

A sugar bowl from the ‘Marly Rouge’ dessert service, with handles in the form of gilded eagle heads

A sugar bowl from the ‘Marly Rouge’ dessert service, with handles in the form of gilded eagle heads

After Abby’s death in 1948, David’s brother Laurance inherited the ‘Marly Rouge’ service, before David Rockefeller acquired it in 2004. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if David was particularly fond of this service,’ Queenth says. ‘Not, as one might imagine, for the thrill of eating his ice cream from the same dish that Napoleon used, but because he loved the butterfly motifs.’

As a boy, David developed a fascination with insects and by the age of seven — long before he began acquiring art — he had become a passionate collector of beetles. It was a collection that continued into adulthood and ultimately reached 150,000 specimens; a rare scarab beetle discovered in Mexico in the 1950s was even named Diplotaxis rockefelleri  in his honour.

‘As an avid lover and collector of insects,’ says Queenth, ‘you can see why the Marly Rouge service appealed to David perhaps as much as it had once appealed to Napoleon.’