Of exceptionally grand scale and retaining their superb original Beauvais tapestry covers, these throne-like fauteuils were clearly conceived for the most magnificent setting. While the full details of their original commission are yet to be established, the tradition that had been passed on by the Counts Volpi di Misurata, as well as an intriguing find in the records of the Royal Beauvais tapestry ateliers, point towards a commission for the Hungarian prince Esterházy, a close ally and supporter of Maria Theresa of Austria and early patron of Joseph Haydn.
These chairs were originally part of a set of twelve, which by a tradition noted in the 1972 sale catalogue was reputedly supplied to the Imperial Court at Vienna. The entire suite was subsequently in the collections of Count Volpi di Misurata, at Palazzo Volpi, Rome and offered in the Volpi house sale in Rome in 1972. The chairs appear to have been taken back at the time, with six of them offered for sale again with the Volpi provenance in 1998, when they were purchased by Dr Sommer. Of the remaining six armchairs, four were subsequently sold by the Turin dealer Accorsi to a Private European collector (later sold anonymously, Sotheby’s, Monaco, 18 June 1999, lots 65 & 66) and the whereabouts of the final two were unknown until sold anonymously at Sotheby’s, New York, 18 November 2011, lot 120.
AN AUSTRIAN ORIGIN?
The chairs were long thought to be German and were catalogued as such in the above-mentioned sales of 1972 and later, in which they were compared stylistically to the furniture supplied to the Prussian King Frederick II for his palaces in Berlin and Potsdam – including Sanssouci, Charlottenburg and Monbijou. Indeed, the bifurcated tops of the front legs of these chairs do bear close resemblance to those for a design for a canapé by Johann Michael Hoppenhaupt II, circa 1753, engraved by J.W. Meil (H. Kreisel, Die Kunst des Deutschen Möbels, Munich, 1970, vol. II, fig. 742). The use of exaggerated arm terminals was also a common feature of seat furniture attributed to both Hoppenhaupt and Johann August Nahl, who preceded Hoppenhaupt as Directeur des Ornements for Frederick the Great (ibid, figs. 743 & 746-9). However, similarities in their form with a set of six chairs in the Gobelins Room at Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna, which are upholstered to the backs and seats with Gobelins tapestry panels depicting the months of the year and the signs of the zodiac, would suggest instead that they are Austrian (H. Schmitz, Deutsche Möbel des Barock und Rokoko, Stuttgart, 1923, p. 150; G. Kugler, Schönbrunn farbig, Vienna, 1986, pp. 25 & 62). The Schönbrunn chairs share the same angled, outscrolled and profusely-carved front and back legs, whilst their frames are carved overall with rippling rocaille and their crestrails are wrapped with acanthus to the upper corners, all features that appear boldly on the present six chairs. In terms of scale and form, further comparison can be made with the Royal throne of Empress Maria Theresa, depicted in several portraits of by the Imperial court painter Martin van Meytens (1695-1770), which, whilst it is evidently more opulent in its carving, displays a similarly proportioned back and overscrolled arm terminals not dissimilar to the present chairs. A pair of related armchairs of similar overall form though less detailed in the carving, again described as German but possibly Austrian, was sold anonymously at Sotheby’s, London, 3 December 1997, lot 145.
Examination of the Beauvais records reveals the probable link to the Austrian court mentioned in the Volpi catalogue. The list of commissions from Beauvais for tapestry covers for seat furniture - ‘Commandes de Meubles, de 1725 à 1790’ – notes in 1753 '1 sopha et 12 fauteuils, pour le Prince d'Esterhasy' (J. Badin, La Manufacture de Tapisseries de Beauvais, Paris, 1909, p. 68). Amongst the list are some mentions of fauteuils à fables (in 1737) and one entry even specifies ‘Sopha à fables et à fleurs (d’après Oudry), les fables de La Fontaine’ (in 1735; ibid, p. 67). It is important to note that the omission of ‘fables’ and ‘Oudry’ should not be misleading in the case of these chairs – as the covers for ‘1 sopha, pour l’Infant Don Philippe’ and ‘8 fauteuils, pour l’Infant Don Philippe’ supplied in 1750 depicted the Fables de La Fontaine after Oudry despite no mention of them in the Beauvais records (and are now in the Quirinale Palace, Rome; ill. in A. Gonzàlez-Palacios, Gli Arredi Francese, 1996, p. 154-155, p. 174-175). Furthermore, a later commission in 1754 for ‘I Sopha, 12 fauteuils, pour le Baron de Thiers’ (Baron Bernstorff’s agent in Paris) denotes a set of furniture with frames by Foliot and tapestry backs of birds and animals after Oudry, which was commissioned by Baron Bernstorff for his palace in Copenhagen and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (E. Standen, Post-Medieval Tapestries in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985, vol. II, pp. 484-498, no. 74).
Paul II Anton, 4th Prince Esterházy de Galantha (1711-1762) was the son of Joseph Anton, 3rd Prince Esterházy de Galantha (1688-1721) and Maria Octavia, Baroness von Gilleis. After the death of his father when he was young, his princely duties were undertaken by regents until 1734, the same year of his marriage to Maria Anna Louisa dei Marchesi Lunati-Visconti (1718-1782), whom he married at Lunéville. He supported Maria Theresa in the War of the Austrian Succession (1741-48) and was appointed Fieldmarschal-Lieutenant in 1747. Following the cessation of hostilities he was the Imperial envoy to Naples 1750-53. During the Seven Years’ War he was a General in the cavalry and was appointed Field Marshal in 1758, retiring from military service shortly after. The prince spoke French and German, and undoubtedly the tastes of his French wife influenced the culture of the court at Eisenstadt, where the couple appointed the young Joseph Haydn to oversee the orchestra. It is possible that these grand throne chairs were ordered for Eisenstadt.
JEAN-BAPTISTE OUDRY AND THE FABLES DE LA FONTAINE
The subjects depicted on the tapestry covers of this suite are based on the fables of Jean La Fontaine (1621-1695), which were in turn based on Aesop and Oriental fables. First published in 1668. La Fontaine's fables enjoyed enduring popularity and a second extended version was published in 1678-79, with a third addition in 1692-94. Seat furniture depicting the Fables de La Fontaine became very popular in the 18th Century. Many artists designed pictures for the Fables, including Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), most famous for his animal portraits. Oudry had been employed by the manufactory since 1726, when he replaced Jacques Duplessis as designer, under the direction of le sieur de Mérou. He later became an associate director alongside Mérou’s successor Nicolas Besnier in 1734. The next 20 years of fruitful partnership was the most successful and prosperous period in the manufactory’s history. Oudry worked on his series of two hundred and seventy-six cartoons illustrating the Fables de la Fontaine between 1729 and 1734, and he delivered his famous cartoons to the Royal Beauvais Tapestry Manufactory in 1737. Oudry's style dominated Beauvais so strongly during this period that the workshop ceased all re-weavings of older subjects, and Voltaire even called the workshop the kingdom of Oudry. The fables were such a successful tapestry design that the main series was copied no less than sixteen times by 1777, and since the subjects could be easily reduced in size, numerous weavings for chair covers were undertaken (Badin, op. cit.; D. Heinz, Europaische Tapisseriekunst des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Vienna, 1995; H.N. Opperman, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, New York, 1977).
The grand Roman Palazzo Volpi, located at 21 via del Quirinale, was built in the late 17th century by the architect and engraver Alessandro Specchi. His innovative designs were inspired by Francesco Borromini and can be seen across various Roman palaces. Specchi’s work also includes a design for Rome’s famed Spanish Steps on the Piazza di Spagna. Palazzo Volpi holds pride of place with the famous Palazzo del Quirinale, the summer residence of the Pope before the Kings of Italy took it for their living quarters. The palace fell into disrepair after being plundered at the end of the Second World War, but was later magnificently restored by Countess Volpi in 1951. Its complete refurbishment was done with the flair and style synonymous with her name and the collection amassed at the Palazzo by the Count and Countess drew admiration throughout the 20th century. The majority of the collection was moved to storage in the late 20th century, remaining unseen for twenty-five years until being sold in 1998.