Of fantastical form and inventive decoration, this magnificent chandelier evokes the neo-gothic style of late 19th century France as interpreted by one of the era’s most accomplished sculptors, Emmanuel Frémiet (1824-1910). Its sinuous script, skulking creatures and powerful iron-gloved supports are intertwined in a uniquely Belle Époque manner, which would have perfectly suited its installation in one of the most unusual and eccentric interiors in the City of Lights.
A SPLENDID NEO-GOTHIC INTERIOR
In the second half of the 19th century, French artists drew heavily on medieval architecture, manuscripts and sculpture to create works of art in a 'neo-gothic’ style. These unusual objects, of which the present chandelier is a fine example, combined the makers’ romanticized visions of the middle ages with the practicality and technology of contemporary France. While the neo-gothic style saw the construction of grand public buildings such as the Basilique St. Clotilde in Paris which was begun in 1846, it also manifested itself in the creation of more intimate interiors and works such as present chandelier. Indeed, the helmet-form corona and imposing glove supports here recall suits of armor, while the fanciful script and trefoil arches on the supports reference illuminated manuscripts and architecture. The combination of these decorative elements into a lighting fixture, however, is uniquely 19th century.
The property for which the present lot was created – 35-37 rue Fortuny in Paris’ 17th arrondissement – was purchased in 1876 by the celebrated actress, artist and writer, Sarah Bernhardt (1845-1923). 'The Divine Sarah,' as she was known on stage, " constructed a two-part mansion designed by Félix Escalier on the far edges of the property, but was ultimately unable to pay for the construction and decoration expenses. In 1886, she sold the property to the Dervillé family, who continued the expansion and decoration of the townhome over the course of the subsequent decades, largely in the fanciful neo-gothic style.
Cyr-Adolphe Dervillé (1815-1868) presided over a series of successful and lucrative marble quarries which supplied stone for the construction of many of Paris’ most important buildings – including the Opéra Garnier – as well as some of the era’s most important sculptures. With his significant fortune, Dervillé, together with his wife, Eudoxie, amassed an important art collection including Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s celebrated marble group Ugolin et ses fils today in the the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (67.250). His son, Stéphane Dervillé (1848-1925) – who had a successful career in his own right with senior appointments at the Banque de France and a membership on the planning committee of the 1900 Paris Exposition universelle – continued in his father’s footsteps. Between 1884 and 1905, Frémiet created a number of works in partnership with Stéphane for the latter’s townhome, including the present chandelier. Nearly all of these objects were placed in the dining room.
The Dervillé’s dining room contained a large fireplace and arched doorways perfectly reflecting the neo-gothic style, which actively blended the ancien with the nouveau. For this impressive and eccentric interior, Frémiet created a series of decorations and sculptures including the present chandelier, the bronze pendant figures Ravachol and Chauchard (1904) (illustrated C. Chevillot, Emmanuel Frémiet, 1824-1910, La main et le multiple, Exhibition Catalogue, 5 November 1988 – 16 January 1989, Dijon, p. 92, no. S 121-2) and the extraordinary lighting fixture in the form of a monkey blowing soap bubbles, 'singe aux bulles de savon’ (1899) (see C. Chevillot, op. cit., pp. 73, 92, no. S 120). Though the Dervillé family commissioned much of the decoration and furnishing of this remarkable residence, including Frémiet’s work there, Bernhardt’s fame has led to the entirety – including the present chandelier – being associated with her patronage. While Bernhardt was known to have maintained a close relationship with the family, and often returned to her former property where she admired the newly commissioned works of art, Frémiet’s works were the result of a partnership with the Dervillé family.
'COLIMAÇONS ET BÊTE FANTASTIQUE’
Frémiet completed the present chandelier in collaboration with the architect Émile Vaudremer (1829-1914) in 1897. Vaudremer was known for his neo-gothic and neo-Romanesque designs including the Church of St.-Pierre-de-Montrouge in Paris. Entitled 'Colimaçons et bête fantastique’, or spirals (likely referring to the snails) and fantastical beast, this chandelier was hung in the dining room of the Dervillé residence, in a room of unique decoration and design. With its snails and fantastical creatures – blending the elements of various creatures– this remarkable chandelier would, no doubt, have held a forceful presence in the hôtel particulier, and is a seemingly unique and exceptional flourishing of the sculptor’s œuvre.
In his 1898 description of the interior of the Dervillés’ townhome, Paul Vitry praised Frémiet’s chandelier, most especially its thoughtful combination of animal figures with sturdy framework : 'Sur ce fer forge un peu sévère, M. Frémiet a eu l’ingénieuse idée de faire courir des bandes d’escargots en cuivre doré d’une exécution fine et spirituelle et d’accrocher en deux endroits des bêtes rampantes, dont la forme sinueuse épouse la courbe du lustre et qui dressent, l’un une petite tête à longues oreilles comme celle d’une chauve-souris, l’autre une sorte de tête scarabée tout à fait inattendue.’ (P. Vitry, 'L’œuvre Décorative de M. Frémiet,' Art et Décoration, 1898, pp. 72-3.)
The present lot is most closely related to another chandelier Frémiet created in partnership with Vaudremer for the staircase of Dervillé’s hôtel particulier, the celebrated 'Serpent boa offrant une pomme à un masque’ (1895-1898) which offered in the same sale as the present lot (lot 20), and later sold Sotheby's, Paris, 9 November 2005, lot 148 (€314,400). The 'Serpent boa offrant une pomme à un masque' is today in the musée d’Orsay, Paris (OAO 1651). This fanciful chandelier pairs a neo-gothic frame with an exceptionally detailed serpent carefully coiled around its branches which also support a dangling mask. Though the Orsay chandelier is of a smaller scale and varied decoration, both chandeliers skillfully combine architectural framework with striking animalier sculpture in an unusual and seemingly unique manner.
Catherine Chevillot and Olivier Gabet suggest that the Orsay chandelier could have been designed by Vaudremer – whose student Louis LeGrand oversaw much of the expansion of the Dervillés’ townhome – and completed by Frémiet, thus explaining the presence of the fantastically lifelike boa (C. Chevillot and O. Gabet, op. cit., p. 70). The same could be suggested of the present chandelier. Its rigorous, structural form is very much in keeping with Vaudremer’s ecclesiastical work while its carefully chased snails and fantastical crawling creatures are emblematic of Frémiet’s finest sculptures in the animalier realm. The chandelier appears to have remained in situ through much of the 20th century until it was sold, along with other portions of the Frémiet commission, in 1970.
FRÉMIET: ANIMALIER ET DÉCORATEUR
A native of the Borgogne region, Emmanuel Frémiet is remembered, above all, as an animalier sculptor. His small-scale bronze and terracotta figures of dogs, cats, horses and birds are among the most celebrated of the Second Empire and Third Republic. Frémiet trained in the atelier of his uncle, François Rude, in Paris, and first participated in the Salon in 1843, where he showed a plaster study of a gazelle. Frémiet, however, excelled across the domain of sculpture, and created a number of large scale equestrian groups as well as free-standing figures for public monuments in Paris and beyond. Over the course of a lengthy career, he completed a number of important large-scale works including the horses in Fontaine de l’Observatoire (1870), beneath Carpeaux’s celebrated group of the four parts of the world supporting the globe, and the gilt bronze equestrian groups atop the pylons on the northern side of the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, Pégase conduit par les Arts et les Sciences (1900).
Frémiet also created a number of figural or equestrian groups in a neo-gothic style reminiscent of the present chandelier. The most prevalent examples are his gilt equestrian group of St. Joan of Arc in the Place des Pyramides in Paris and the Sculpture of Saint Michael atop the spire of the Church of Mont Saint-Michel. As the present work suggests, Frémiet’s interest in the neo-gothic style stretched across his œuvre. The present chandelier further incorporates his work as an animalier sculptor which, as Vitry has suggested, informed his production in the realm of the decorative arts: 'il a su transformer l’animal, son sujet favori, en veritable élément décoratif’ (Vitry, op. cit., p. 68.).
The present chandelier could, therefore, be considered a quintessential summation of his work, effectively combining numerous veins of his œuvre in a wildly eccentric creation. It was this very versatility and extraordinary skill that so impacted Frémiet’s contemporaries and continues to impress today. Indeed, as Vitry has stated, Frémiet was the classic 19th century artist: 'Bourguignon et gothique de race, neveu de Rude, successeur de Barye, M. Frémiet représente la grande tradition de notre sculpture française’ (P. Vitry, op. cit. p. 77).