A love of beautiful objects defines the collection of Commandant Paul-Louis Weiller, complementing a lifetime of extraordinary achievements
‘I am not a collector, I just like beautiful things,’ said Commandant Paul-Louis Weiller of the paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative objects that graced his many homes — notably La Reine Jeanne, the villa that Barry Dierks designed for him in the south of France, where he entertained princes, politicians and celebrities including Georges Pompidou, Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor.
Born in 1893 to an Alsatian family, Weiller lived for 100 years, and each one was as extraordinary as the next. He was a photographic reconnaissance pilot in the First World War (when he was shot down five times) and an officer of the Legion of Honour by the age of 25; during the Second World War, he escaped to Canada, worked for Free France and was awarded a Resistance Medal by Charles de Gaulle.
Between the wars, Weiller helped to found Air France; afterwards, he became a giant of industry and finance. But he was also a committed philanthropist and a passionate supporter of the arts, contributing among other things to the refurbishment of the Palace of Versailles. In 1965, he was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1989, he was awarded the highest distinction of the Legion of Honour, the Grand Cross.
‘A giant among men, that’s how Commander Weiller appeared to me during our first meeting in 1970 in Geneva,’ recalls Christie’s chairman, François Curiel. ‘It was during our biannual meetings in Geneva, or my visits to Versailles or Paris, that I got to know the Commandant better and discovered the many facets of his personality, his passion for jewellery and precious stones, but also for exceptional paintings and works of art.’
On 15 and 16 September, a sale comprising part of Weiller’s magnificent cross-category collection, Commandant Paul-Louis Weiller, Capitaine d’industrie, Protecteur des arts, will be held at Christie’s in Paris.
‘It serves as a beautiful tribute to a great man whose collection reflects the best French taste has to offer,’ says Curiel.
Assembled over a lifetime, Weiller’s collection of classical art is on a level with his achievements. According to Lionel Gosset, director of collections at Christie’s in Paris, Weiller’s discerning eye enabled him to acquire real treasures. ‘The furniture, paintings, drawings and works of art that make up the sale will appeal to both distinguished collectors and amateurs for whom the name Paul-Louis Weiller is synonymous with elegance, delicacy and refinement,’ he says.
The star lot is a silver soup tureen (above) from the 3,000-piece service that Catherine the Great commissioned in 1770 for her lover, Count Gregory Orloff. Further highlights include a pastel of Benjamin Franklin (below) by Joseph Ducreux (1735-1802), two large caprices by Francesco Guardi (17120-1793) and a first-century torso of Venus.
Other notable portraits in the sale include an oil on canvas of the glamorous American decorator Lady Mendl (1865-1950), painted by the celebrated artist Bernard Boutet de Monvel in 1936, and included in the artist’s New York exhibition, Profiles, to great acclaim.
Weiller’s appreciation for 18th-century decorative arts is manifest in an Italian neoclassical scagliola-topped centre table, a Louis XV sofa by Nicolas Heurtaut (other examples, made for François de Bussy, are held at the Frick, New York), and a chest of drawers (below) delivered by Jean-Henri Riesener in 1783 to the bedroom of Madame Royale (Marie-Thérèse, the eldest child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) at Fontainebleau Palace.
Arguably the loveliest work, however, is La Belle Strasbourgeoise (below), a charismatic portrait of a young woman, resplendent in regional dress and a magnificently broad-brimmed hat, by the great 18th-century painter Nicolas de Largillière (1656–1746).
The figure has true force of personality, as anyone who has seen the version in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg will attest, and while her identity remains something of a mystery, there is one detail that offers a clue.
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The Weiller version features an orange tree, an indication that the commission was linked to a marriage, which led the art historian Georges de Lastic to suggest in 1982 that the sitter was Largillière’s own daughter, Marie Elisabeth — particularly as she married in 1703, the year the portrait was painted.