LE GOÛT LOUIS XVI:
The present torchères perfectly evoke the Beurdeley’s ability to harmoniously join celebrated designs and materials of the Louis XVI style in a single tour de force of Belle Époque expression. Perhaps the most significant source of inspiration for the ébénistes of the mid-to-late 19th century was a series of pioneering exhibitions of royal 18th century furnishings on loan from prestigious private collections, marking the first time cabinet-makers and bronziers gained such privileged access to the finest specimens of 18th century furniture and decoration. The most influential of these exhibitions was the 11th Duke of Hamilton’s collection in Specimens of Cabinet Work at Gore House in London in 1853 where André-Charle Boulle’s celebrated commode cariatide supplied in 1708 for the bed-chamber of Louis XIV at the Palais de Trianon was displayed to the delight of collectors and ébénistes alike. The subsequent Musée Retrospectif in 1865, which Louis-Auguste-Alfred Beurdeley (dit Alfred I) certainly would have attended, showcased masterworks by the ciseleur-doreur Pierre Gouthière (maître 1758), among others, from the collection of the 4th Marquess of Hertford (illustrated C. Vignon & C. Baulez, et al., Pierre Gouthiere: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court, Exhibition Catalogue, The Frick Collection, New York, 2016, p. 143).
The Louis XVI style, championed by Gouthière and his contemporaries, was the focus of François-Joseph Bélanger’s (1745-1819) legendary design for the grand salon of the hôtel particulier of Louise-Jeanne de Durfort, the Duchesse of Mazarin and daughter-in-law of the Duke d’Aumont. A pleasure palace clad floor to ceiling in luxurious blue turquin marble carved by Jacques Adan, Bélanger’s renovations to the salon began in 1778 with the decorative finishes by Gouthière and Jean-Joseph Foucou (1739-1815) continuing relentlessly until the Duchesse’s death in 1781. The figural elements of these palatial torchères are based specifically on a pair of plaster models exhibited by Foucou in the 1779 salon. A variant of their design is believed to be ordered in marble for the Duchesse to top a pair of extraordinary bleu turquin marble pedestals designed by Bélanger and executed by Gouthière, though the death of the Duchesse just three days following their installation halted the order of Foucou’s figures (op. cit. C. Vignon & C. Baulez et al., p. 318-9). With their distinctive ram’s heads and vine-entwined Bacchic thyrsus pillar, the clustered fitments on the present lot relate closely to wall-light design attributed to the sculpteur/foundeur Jean Louis Prieur (1732-1795) and often believed to be executed by Gouthière (illustrated H. Ottomeyer, P. Präschel, et al., Vergoldete Bronzen, Munich, 1986, p. 241, fig. 4.5.4).
Foucou’s models, simply fitted with barley-twist branches, were eventually cast in bronze as a set of four by an anonymous foundry and were recorded in 1793 at the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré residence of the Marquise de Brunoy and subsequently in the private apartments of Empress Josephine at the Tuileries in 1807. From 1809 to 1851, the figures graced the cavernous Galerie de Diane and, following a fire at the Tuileries, were moved permanently to the Louvre in 1901 (D. Alcouffe, et al. Gilt Bronzes in the Louvre, Dijon, 2004, pp.170-1).
THE BEURDELEY DYNASTY
Emmanuel-Alfred (dit Alfred II) Beurdeley (1847-1919) was the third generation of a dynasty of cabinet makers who exerted a profound influence on French furniture in the 19th century. His father, Louis-Auguste-Alfred's (dit Alfred I) succeeded Jean Beurdeley (1772-1853) who founded a celebrated shop at the pavilion de Hanovre in Paris in the late 18th century and established the family's reputation as a purveyor of fine furniture. In 1840, Louis-Auguste-Alfred officially succeeded his father and began to create a wide variety of furniture and objects which both reprised the work of 18th century masters and was extremely original in its own right. Known as ébénistes and bronziers of the highest order, the Beurdeleys excelled in the production of refined ormolu articles with exquisite mercurial gilding and hand chasing. These monumental torchères, executed with jewel-like detail, are illustrative of the complex relationship the Beurdeley dynasty maintained with works of the 18th century which informed their legendary production and resulted in a unique, eclectic flourishing of the decorative arts.
Beurdeley was renowned for making exquisite reproductions of celebrated pieces by the master makers of the Ancien Régime. The quality of the firm’s reproductions is such that they are often mistaken for period originals and Beurdeley predominantly owed its considerable commercial success to supplying furniture in the ‘French Royal Styles’ for the 19th century collecting elite. For example, on their stand at the Chicago World Fair of 1893 Beurdeley advertised themselves as ‘makers of furniture and decorative bronzes in the antique styles’ from ‘French Historic Castles’. A masterpiece of French furniture might remain out of reach in a noble or museum collection, but a 19th century collector visiting exhibits such as the 1865 Musée Retrospectif could commission an exquisitely crafted replica and thus show their sophisticated taste. In the 19th century, commissioning furniture in this way was a legitimate antiquarian interest which demonstrated an appreciation for and understanding of the historical important of art, a trend notably championed by 4th Marquess of Hertford. The copies were not designed to deceive, as nearly all works were prominently marked by Beurdeley, whose genius captured the true essence of the original. It might be argued that achieving this is a greater accomplishment than creating something new, particularly faced with the ‘new style’ - art nouveau - which was quickly emerging at the end of the 19th century. Throughout their history Beurdeley also innovated by employing their considerable technical and artistic abilities to create new designs or meld elements of those so greatly admired in the 18th century.
The present composition lent itself naturally to the vogue during Second Empire for grandiose figural candelabra or torchères. It was adopted by bronziers and fondeurs who often engaged prestigious sculptors of the time to model life-size figures supporting branches or lamps. As here, the most magnificent torchères have figures of Carrara marble combined with vivid polychrome marbles bases embellished with gilt-bronze mounts. Like his contemporaries, Barbedienne and Christofle, Beurdeley produced a number of large-scale porte-lumières with imposing female bacchantes or caryatids sculpted by modern-day masters. A superb pair of torchères with figures by Rougelet, illustrated C. Mestdagh, L'ameublement d'art français: 1850-1900, Paris, 2010, p. 64, were described as ‘cariatides portant sur la tête des paniers remplis de fleurs, dont la cisleur est très fine, et deux grandes torchères avec des figures des marbre blanc répresentant l’une le Printemps et l’autre l’Automne, montées sur gaine de marbre bleu turquin’ (Gazette des beaux-arts, Paris, 1878, p. 399). Partial and fully-executed watercolor and gouache designs at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs chronicle the boundlessness of Beurdeley’s genius in this form, though an exact design for the present torchères has not survived. However, through her continued research on the Beurdeley dynasty, Mestdagh points to a bronze version by the firm of the present model under the inventory heading 'torchère femme Clodion', and speculates that these extremely luxurious candelabra were almost certainly a special commission.