Le goût Rothschild: defining the dynasty’s legendary style

Discover the furniture, paintings and curiosities that epitomise the family’s renowned collection aesthetic

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Left: Interior of Château de Ferrières. Right: A selection of objects from the collection. © All rights reserved

‘Since the 19th century, the Rothschild name has been defined by a world-class collection of art and objects,’ says Csongor Kis, European Furniture & Works of Art specialist. ‘Their taste and approach to collecting is unparalleled, and continues to resonate today.’

At their residence in Paris and their grand country estate, Château de Ferrières, Baron James Mayer de Rothschild (1792 – 1868) and his wife Betty created spaces filled with treasures that rivalled the greatest courts of Europe. Much of the interior at Ferrières was designed by the artist Eugène Lami, who was instrumental in developing the Rothschild aesthetic. Known as the first modern decorator, Lami combined historic styles from the Renaissance to Rococo and favoured marble, gilding and ornate textiles. These dramatic interiors, while used as showcases for his notable patrons, were also carefully outfitted for modern comfort.

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Interior of Château de Ferrières. Watercolor by Eugène Lami

Built on the model of the kunstkammer — the treasure houses and art chambers constructed by German princes of the Renaissance — the Rothschild interiors set the tone for the age and became the framework for what is known today as le goût Rothschild. Anchored by global curiosities, French decorative arts and Old Master paintings, the style is distinguished by an unmatched sense of sophistication and comfort.

‘They would lavishly display their collections in luxurious and impressive yet comfortable houses,’ says Paul Gallois, Head of European Furniture at Christie's in London. ‘Yet their goût shouldn’t be defined by extravagance. It’s mainly about the identification of the best works of art at the highest level within historical and cultural contexts.’

Interior images of a Rothschild residence © All rights reserved

Le goût Rothschild, sumptuous and erudite, was embraced across generations and branches of the family. The objects offered in Rothschild Masterpieces — a series of sales beginning 11 October at Christie’s in New York — capture all facets of this eponymous style. The first-ever North American auction of the family’s treasured collection offers the chance to acquire the rare works that came to define this celebrated aesthetic.

The Kunstkammer

The cabinet of curiosity, or kunstkammer, emerged in the 16th century as cabinets, or in some cases entire rooms, that were full of exotic and notable objects. In creating their own kunstkammer, the Rothschilds were mirroring the collecting habits of wealthy Renaissance princes.

In the entresol of his hôtel particulier in Paris, James’s son Alphonse built a room of curiosities that contained Limoges enamels by celebrated artisans like Léonard Limosin and Pierre Courtoys, Renaissance ceramics including Italian maiolica, a remarkable suite of Sèvres porcelain, Dutch silver and more.

‘The Rothschilds were drawn to the very best,’ says Dominic Simpson, Senior International Consultant, European Ceramics. ‘In 15th-century Europe, the preeminent ceramic art was Hispano-Moresque pottery from Spain, and this was followed by Italian maiolica in the 16th century. The Rothschild collection has important representative pieces from both of these periods.’

A selection of ceramic art © Christie's

Their extensive collection of Hispano-Moresque pottery and Italian maiolica exemplifies their collecting habits. Encompassing 70 individual lots, the objects in the sale represent a microcosm of evolving Renaissance styles.

The Hispano-Moresque pottery in the collection was once owned by by royalty and wealthy families, as evidenced by their coats of arms. One example is a remarkable Royal charger with the coat of arms of the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy in combination with the French Royal arms, suggesting that it was given by the duke to King Charles VII of France or his son, Louis XI. ‘It’s typical of the Rothschilds to buy amazing pieces of historical importance,’ says Simpson, ‘as well as humbler pieces that are excellent examples of a particular type, or others that are just amusing or interesting.’  This includes items such as a covered bowl which would have been used to bring broth to a new mother after childbirth or a novelty ewer in the form of a harpy, a mythical winged creature with a human head.

Other marvels shed light on the scope of the collection and the eclecticism of their taste, including a silver-gilt mounted Nautilus Cup from 1607. Made popular through the opening of Asian and Middle-Eastern trade networks, these shells are commonly mounted in the form of a goblet. The present lot, one of only six recorded Delft Nautilus cups, showcases the beauty of the shell, with a monster’s head unfurling across its top.

A Dutch silver-gilt mounted nautilus cup, mark of Cornelis Jansz van der Burch, 1607. 13¼ in (33.7 cm) high. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in Rothschild Masterpieces on 11 October at Christie's in New York

Goût tapissier

The furniture in the collection highlights the quintessential blend of sophistication and comfort that epitomises the Rothschild interiors. Favouring masterworks of 18th-century French craftsmanship, these items also reflect a goût tapissier, or a taste for fabrics, that was another cornerstone of their style.

This is embodied most clearly in a needlepoint-upholstered slipper chair that dates to around 1860. The chair, adorned with a crowned ‘R’ for Rothschild, is both lavishly upholstered in crimson damask and tasselled fringe while also being an item of practicality. Designed without arms, it was meant to allow the sitter easier access to their feet for undressing.

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A Napoleon III needlepoint-upholstered slipper chair, c. 1860. 35 ½ in (90 cm) high, 20 in (51 cm) wide, 27 in (68.5 cm) deep. Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Offered in Rothschild Masterpieces: Le Goût on 13 October at Christie’s in New York; Right: By Louis Delanois, Joseph-Nicolas Guichard and Jean-Baptiste Cagny, A pair of late Louis VX gilt walnut and white-painted fauteuils, c. 1770-1771. 44 in (112 cm) high, 27 in (69 cm) wide, 31 ½ in (80 cm) deep. Estimate: $600,000-1,000,000. Offered in Rothschild Masterpieces on 11 October at Christie’s in New York

Provenance was also of particular importance, and the collection is rife with items owned by prominent families and royal households. This includes a pair of fauteuils from Madame du Barry’s famous Château de Louveciennes. The last mistress of Louis XV, du Barry commissioned these richly carved chairs from Louis Delanois, one of the most important menusiers of his time. Delanois was an early adopter of the neoclassical style and a favoured craftsman of patrons such as the Prince de Condé and the King of Poland. Du Barry, however, remained his most important client, and additional examples of Delanois’ designs for her are currently displayed at Versailles.

A tradition of collecting

Layered among the curiosities and lush French furniture were also Old Master paintings from celebrated artists like Gerrit Dou, Adriaen van Ostade and Aelbert Cuyp. These works tell the story of a tradition of collecting, with Alphonse augmenting the collecting categories first curated by James and Betty.

Adriaen van Ostade’s 1658 painting Peasants smoking, drinking and playing games before an inn captures the Rothschild interest in artistic refinement and illustrious provenance. One of the preeminent genre painters of 17th-century Holland, Van Ostade was known for his depictions of everyday life.

Adriaen Van Ostade (Haarlem 1610-1685), Peasants smoking, drinking and playing games before an inn, 1658. 26 ¾ x 23 ¼ in (68 x 59.5 cm). Estimate: $1,200,000-1,800,000. Offered in Rothschild Masterpieces on 11 October at Christie’s in New York

This work traces Van Ostade’s change in style as he moved from satirical interior scenes to more delicate depictions of modest subject matter. Here, he paints an outdoor scene, with close attention paid to elements like the ivy-covered trellis, wicker birdcage and textures of the subjects’ clothing.

Appearing at auction for this first time in over a century, this work was previously owned by the successful merchant and noted collector Gerrit Braamcamp before passing to the politician Pieter de Smeth van Alphen, whose collection also included masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer. It was later part of the Leuchtenberg Collection before being acquired by the Rothschilds.

This is typical of the Rothschild collecting habits. ‘What makes the Rothschild collection so important is that they valued virtuosity and demonstrated discernment and a keen sense of history when selecting their treasures,’ says Gallois.

Interior of Château de Ferrières. Watercolor by Eugène Lami

The tradition within the family was based on an understanding of each object’s historical and cultural importance, and their style continues to have enduring and wide-reaching influence. It has inspired prominent American families like the Vanderbilts and the Morgans, as well as contemporary icons like Yves Saint Laurent. With the series of sales in New York, modern collectors can continue this legacy by owning a piece of their dynastic collection.

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