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A Collection of designs by Jean-Guillaume Moitte (1746-1810) for the silversmith Henri Auguste (1759-1816)
Jean-Guillaume Moitte was born in Paris to an artist father, Pierre-Etienne Moitte, who was an Academician and professional engraver. From 1761 to 1764 he trained under the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and then transferred to the atelier of Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the favourite sculptor of King Louis XV. Despite this training and various important commissions, including the decoration for Parisian toll barrières built around Paris between 1785 and 1789 to raise revenue for the government, the period that most influenced Moitte's oeuvre was his time at the Académie in Rome. Here he studied Roman reliefs, vases, urns and sarcophagi, and it was this concentration on the art of antiquity that inspired him on his return to France.
Following his return to Paris Moitte is said to have executed plus de mille dessins de ce genre (J. Lebreton, Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de Moitte, Paris, 1812, p. 30) for the celebrated goldsmith Henri Auguste. None of the known designs is dated but a related drawing of silverware signed by Moitte and dated 'l'an trois' (22 September 1794-22 September 1795) is in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris (inv. no. 1255) (M. Snodin and M. Baker, 'William Beckford's Silver I', The Burlington Magazine, CXXII, November 1980, p. 739) suggesting his designs for Auguste were executed around the same time. Some of these designs were for particular commissions such as those for William Beckford of Fonthill Abbey and Prince Vladimir Galitzin and his wife, Countess Natalie Chernyshev. Other designs would have been adapted at a later date. Auguste's most important patron was the Emperor Napoleon: in 1804 he was responsible for the goldwork on Napoleon's crown and a large service de table of 425 pieces presented by Napoleon to his wife Josephine on the occasion of his crowning as Emperor. It is evident that Moitte's classically inspired drawings contributed much to the development of the Empire style in metalwork in which Auguste's oeuvre played an important role.
Despite Auguste's success his unreliability and unorthodox business operations as well as his 'dissipations' (William Beckford described him to his agent as 'a slippery eel' adding 'you cannot pursue the shiny reptile with too much caution or perseverance') would ultimately lead to his bankruptcy in 1810 (P. Hewat-Jaboor and B. McLeod, William Beckford, 1760-1844: An eye for the magnificent, exhib. cat., The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture and elsewhere, 2001, p. 333, no. 51). It was then that the vast majority of Auguste's studio was acquired by his rival Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot who continued to realise Moitte's designs for the Emperor and his family. To this day Maison Odiot remains one of France's finest silversmiths and the influence of the Empire style spearheaded by Moitte and Auguste is still reflected in the pieces that they design and produce.