In May 1770, a 14-year-old Austrian archduchess, Maria Antonia, arrived in France to be wed to Louis, the equally young heir to the French throne. On her marriage, the teenage bride took a Gallicised version of her name — Marie Antoinette. And she was given a house, the Château de Compiègne, which was furnished for her in the latest chinoiserie style.
One piece of furniture made for Marie Antoinette goes under the hammer in The Exceptional Sale on 22 November 2022, part of Classic Week at Christie’s Paris. It is a commode by Pierre Macret, one of the finest exponents of the façon de la Chine in France — or indeed in Europe. Its tôle-dorée doors, curved like rolling waves, feature bucolic chinoiserie landscapes: craggy Asiatic mountains, trees forked like lightning, standing figures in flowing robes.
Le goût chinois was the pinnacle of good taste at that moment in history. But like all fashions, it swiftly passed. The Exceptional Sale features a second piece that belonged to Marie Antoinette, made nearly 20 years later. It is an armchair in the pseudo-classical ‘Etruscan’ manner, which was all the rage in the late 1780s.
The armchair was part of a larger suite commissioned from the famed Parisian maker Georges Jacob. The Queen decided to completely remodel her apartments at Versailles, but she did not long enjoy her Etruscan boudoir. Within a few months the House of Bourbon had come crashing down, and Marie Antoinette with it.
The court of Versailles vanished like a dream, and all the Queen’s furniture — 17,000 separate items — was sold off by the revolutionary government in 1793. The Etruscan chair went as part of a job lot to a ‘citoyen Dumont’, who paid 3,000 livres for it.
No one at that time — not the fortunate Dumont nor any of his countrymen — would have believed that France would see a new monarch crowned within a generation. Yet, when Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804, one of the immediate consequences was a kind of art boom, as painters and architects were commissioned to refill and refurbish Versailles and other royal residences.
Among the artists to benefit from that flurry of activity was Pauline Knip, a court painter to Napoleon’s first wife Josephine, and a close friend to his second, Marie-Louise. Knip’s astonishing depiction of a bird of paradise, painted in 1811, is another of the fine lots in the Exceptional Sale. Knip devoted her entire life to the depiction of birds, and her most striking works are portrayals of exotic species.
She usually painted from life, using specimens brought back from Southeast Asia and Australia. That flesh-and-blood immediacy is palpable in this work: it is not so much an ornithological sketch as an intimate portrait of a magnificent creature.
Knip certainly benefited from her closeness to the empress. Personal acquaintance with the ruling monarch had always been the royal path to a glittering career. In the 1650s, a brilliant and flamboyant courtier named Louis Hesselin was appointed surintendant des plaisirs du roi — superintendent of the king’s pleasures — at the court of the young Louis XIV. His role was to stage ballets, firework displays, concerts and other divertissements for the amusement of his patron.
So Hesselin was a royal impresario, a man who knew how to create spectacular entertainments. But he was also a public intellectual, famous in his lifetime for his collection of Venetian art and his matchless library of books on science, mathematics and philosophy.
He turned to his library to devise some of his mises-en-scène. His understanding of engineering and optics, for example, was deployed to create theatrical effects using mirrors. On one occasion, he masterminded an illusion in which a room full of actors was made suddenly to disappear, leaving an empty room behind.
One of Hesselin’s treasured books, a copy of Descartes’s Discours de la méthode, is offered in Christie’s Livres rares et Manuscrits sale. With its marbled calf binding and gilded coat of arms, the book is every inch the property of an aristocratic 17th-century bibliophile. But the thesis of the text is vitally and surprisingly contemporary.
In the Discours, Descartes makes the case for a rigorous mode of thought, pledging only to believe things that he can prove to be true, and never to succumb to extreme views. This could almost be a modern thinker’s response to the proliferation of fake news and the excesses of social media. The Discours is a text for the ages.
One last artwork from the Exceptional Sale presents a kind of royal mystery. It is a painting of a hunting party, made by Jacques Bertaux in 1773. We know that the imposing hatless figure at the centre of the composition is Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. The enigma surrounds the figure seated to the left. Who is he?
No one knows for sure, but one theory says that he is the duke’s son, Philippe. He was a cousin of the doomed King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette’s husband. And yet he enthusiastically supported the revolution when it came, renouncing his titles and changing his name to Philippe Egalité.
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But Philippe, the aristocratic revolutionary, fell foul of the violent politics of the time. Twenty years after this painting was made, he was denounced by the new regime and sent to the guillotine. It is a peculiar irony of fate that his own son later came to the throne as Louis Philippe I, the second-to-last king in the long annals of French history.
Explore more of Classic Week, 9-28 November 2022 at Christie’s Paris