François II Foliot maître in 1773
This magnificent armchair is the only known surviving fauteuil en bergère from the most expensive suite of seat furniture ordered by Queen Marie Antoinette, costing 20,000 livres, for the circular salon of Pavillon du Belvédère, one of her most personal retreats, in the 'Jardin Anglais' of the Petit Trianon, Versailles, in 1780.
THE PAVILLON DU BELVEDERE
The Pavillon du Belvédère (or Salon du Rocher) was one of several ornamental garden buildings or fabriques designed by Richard Mique, Architecte de la Reine, for the newly-created 'Jardin Anglais' at the Petit Trianon, Versailles, between 1779 and 1781 and remains one of the spaces at Versailles most closely associated with the queen. The neo-classical octagonal building, with its domed roof and light-filled interior, is considered to be one of his masterpieces, set amongst an alpine garden complete with artificial rocky outcrop and a waterfall conceived by the artist Hubert Robert. Internally the Belvédère is just as impressive: the window piers to the circular salon are decorated in polychrome with flower-filled Athenian vases and musical trophies by Chevalier and Le Riche; the ceiling painted by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724-1805) depicts putti frolicking amongst the clouds. An exquisite interior such as this demanded an exceptional suite of furniture to complete it.
The request for a suite of eight fauteuils and eight chaises (first published by P. de Nolhac, Trianon, Paris, 1927) is recorded in a letter dated 1780 to either Richard Mique or Jacques Gondoin from Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu, Intendant Général des Meubles de la Couronne, who emphasised to his correspondent the requirement for speed:
‘La Reine m’a ordonné de meubler le petit pavillon du Rocher à Trianon. J’ai répondu à Sa Majesté qu’il fallait que je vous voie et que nous arrangerions cela ensemble. Ainsi, mon cher Ami, voyez si vous voulez me donner un moment pour prendre un parti, car vous connaissez notre Maîtresse, elle aime bien à jouir promptement’
THE DESIGN PROCESS
Jacques Gondoin (1737-1818), dessinateur du mobilier de la couronne, was charged with the commission and produced large-scale paper designs for which he charged 500 livres for the fauteuil en bergère and 350 livres for the chaise, reduced to 350 and 250 respectively. Once they were approved they were translated into three-dimensional scale models and sent to M. de Fontanieu for his approval (at a cost of 200 livres and 150 livres, each reduced to 100 livres). A large-scale model of the fauteuil en bergère was then made and re-made several times in front of Fontanieau, in order to execute changes ordered by him. Finally a red wax small-scale model (1:7) was made by Gilles François Martin (c. 1713-1795), sculptor and model-maker at the Gaude-Meuble de la Couronne, to allow Marie Antoinette to visualise her future suite. This miraculous survival was sold at auction from the collection of the Garde-Meuble on 23 September 1797 and having been in a private collection is now on long-term loan to the Musée du Louvre (B. Pallot, et al., 18th century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces, 1650 to1790, exh. cat., Paris, 2014, p. 226).
A highly instructive model, with its swagged ‘Turkish’ draperies and six legs, it was cast from plaster applied with a wax skin which was then carved with the finest detail and decorated, to demonstrate the various design options for Marie Antoinette to consider. Thus the model is a combination of several possible chairs in one: one arm is carved as a mermaid, the other as a lion’s head and scroll; one leg is carved like a quiver of arrows, another with capitals, a third with sabre legs, some with fluting, others with stop-fluting. The wax skin enabled Gondoin and Martin to easily adapt the model to reflect the Queen’s choices or suggestions. It took four and a half months to complete the design process for which Gondoin charged the rather princely sum of 3,200 livres, so it is little wonder that the final cost of the commission spiralled to an estimated 20,000 livres, the most expensive suite of seat furniture ever supplied to Marie Antoinette (ibid., pp. 224-225).
The final choice of design differs somewhat from the scale model but with study of the five surviving chaises and this only known surviving fauteuil en bergère, in conjunction with the written records of the various tradesmen and women involved, it is possible to piece together the final refinements of this innovative design.
Both the fauteuil en bergère and the chaises have unusual curved back rests to fit against the walls of the circular salon, the uprights of which are highly sculptural and carved as the flaming torches of Hymen, the Greek god of marriage ceremonies, entwined with ivy to symbolise marital fidelity and immortality due to its evergreen nature. Like the chaises, the back and side seatrails of the fauteuil en bergère are carved with myrtle wound around a reed, however in the model the front rail was left plain and there were two additional front legs, which were presumably designed to allow for the draped upholstery. These were all unprecedented concepts in chair design in 1780 and it is difficult to appreciate from a 21st-century perspective just how innovative Gondoin’s design was.
Furniture historians were initially misguided by Hector Lefuel’s assertion in his 1923 publication that the small-scale wax model, and therefore the suite, was attributed to Georges Jacob (H. Lefuel, Georges Jacob. Ebéniste du XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 1923, pp. XII & 367). However, through extensive archival research published in 1958, Pierre Verlet was able to prove the link between the wax model, Gondoin and the Pavillon du Belvédère, upon which the current attribution is based (P. Verlet and P. Devinoy, Le siège Louis XVI, Paris, 1958, pp. 234, 240 & 246.)
In 1991 Christian Baulez published for the first time the original order dated 29 November 1780 amongst the records of François-Toussaint (II) Foliot (1748-1839?), joiner to the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne (C. Baulex, ‘Deux sièges de Foliot et de Sené pour Versailles’, Revue du Louvre, 1991, no. 1, pp. 76-81). François-Toussaint Foliot, commonly referred to as François II Foliot, came from a dynasty of Parisian menuisiers who supplied the Royal court from 1723 until the Revolution. The family included several notable carvers, including amongst them Toussaint Foliot (c.1715-1798), youngest uncle to François II Foliot, whom Baulez speculated might be the carver of this magnificent suite. Mme. Pierre-Edmé Babel, widow of the carver Pierre-Edmé Babel, is the other possible candidate as she is known to have worked with François II Foliot on several other Royal commissions including a giltwood fauteuil à la Reine, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York which was made in 1779 to furnish Marie Antoinette’s grand cabinet intérieur at the château de Versailles.
The veuve Bardou, who appears frequently in Garde-Meuble accounts from 1765 to 1786, decorated the suite. She was Marie-Catherine Renon, widow of Gaspard-Mari Bardou, peintre doreur ordinaire du Roi, and continued her husband’s business after his death. An account of March 1781 notes: ‘pour servir à la Reine dans le cabinet du Rocher à Versailles : avoir doré huit fauteuils très riches et rechampis en blanc, estimé 260 l chaque fauteuil, vaut 2,080 l (réglé à 1,920). Avoir doré huit chaises très riches, estimé 230 l chaque chaise, vaut 1,840 (réglé à 1,600). Avoir enveloppé les dits ouvrages, vaut pour dépense 6 l’ (A.N. O 3628). She had also been responsible for gilding the wax model, noted in an order dated 14 September 1780: ‘Un fauteuil de modèle pour la Reine et deux frises, le tout fait en cire, estimé 160 livres (réglé à 160 l)’ (A.N. O 3627).
Last but not by no means least, the suite was sent to the tapissier ordinaire du Roi et du Garde-Meuble de la Couronne Claude-François Capin, who covered the chaises and bergères in a stiff white, blue and yellow taffeta with painted Gros de Tours supplied by the Nau family of drapiers et marchands de soie, and with passementerie supplied by the veuve Saporito, Marie Begorrat, widow of Paul-Gaëtan-Joseph Saporito, marchand-mercier et fournisseur du Garde-Meuble de la Couronne. Capin then delivered the finished suite to the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne on 14 July 1781, where it was registered as number 4519:
‘pour servir dans le salon du Rocher de la Reine au château de Trianon - huit fauteuils, les bois de forme romaine sculptés dorés rechampis en blanc, couverts de Gros de Tours blanc peint, ornés sur le derrière de bordure de Gros de Tours bleu et sur les carreaux de bordures et plates bandes dito peintes, garnis d’une draperie aux dossiers et cinq petites à la plate forme, le tout orné de frange et de quatorze glands de soie assortie – leurs housses de toile à carreaux rouge et blanc – huit chaises de même genre, ornées sur le dossier d’une draperie et trois à la plate forme, le tout orné de frange de douze glands chaque et cordons de soie assortie’ (A.N. O 3320).
The detail with which Gondoin described the decoration of the Gros de Tours in his mémoire is astonishing – with precise descriptions the exact flowers, arabesques and colours that were painted on the silk (Baulez, op. cit., pp. 79-80). It is fair to say that the present upholstery is an attempt to re-create to some degree the beautiful painted silk described in the original order.
THE DISPERSAL OF THE SUITE
Following the delivery of the suite to the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, it entered the private Garde-Meuble of the queen, probably as a gift from the king. The suite was sold in the Revolutionary sales on 4 September 1793 as a single lot described as ‘8 chaise et 8 bergères de taffetas blanc peint avec draperie’ to citizen Sellier, for a mere 2530 livres, a fraction of its original estimated cost. Four of the chaises reappeared in the 19th Century in the legendary collection of Baron Léopold Double (1812-1881), sold at auction in Paris 30 May-1 June, 1881, lot 427, and were later in the Michigan collection of Anna Thomson Dodge, sold Christie’s, London, 24 June 1974, lot 66, where they were purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. A single chaise from the suite was in the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and was acquired in 1990 by the Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon in lieu of taxes. This chaise featured in the Versailles exhibition '18th Century, Birth of Design: Furniture Masterpieces, 1650 to 1790', October 2014- February 2015 (Pallot, op. cit., pp. 224-225). One of the four chaises in the Getty is stencilled GARDE MEUBLE DE LA REINE and the Versailles chair has the Trianon mark with no. 77/8.
The whereabouts of the other three chaises is unknown, while this example remains the only armchair to survive from the suite.