The second half of the 19th century found Europe in the middle of a mad love affair with ‘The Orient’ and with all things Eastern and exotic, as evidenced by the popularity of what has become known as ‘Orientalism’. This taste for the exotic and, by extension, for arts of the Islamic world, is exemplified by painters such as Jean-Léon Gérome who exhibited regularly at the Paris Salons works with scenes of North African landscapes, slave auctions, markets, mosques and street scenes [fig. 2]. With their enormous wealth, their love of art, and their creation of numerous palaces in the prevailing styles, it is not surprising that the Rothschilds were amongst the most prolific collectors in the field of Islamic art.
Orientalist interiors had become fashionable in the third quarter of the 19th Century, sparking a general upsurge of interest in the subject. The Rothschilds were at the forefront of this. From their bases in Paris, London and Vienna, they collected Islamic art in the areas that were most appreciated at the time. Thus they had numerous so-called 'Polonaise' carpets, woven in brightly coloured silks combined with silver and gold brocading in the late 16th century court workshops of Shah Abbas in Isfahan. They had collections of Islamic arms and armour, and a notable group of Persian miniature paintings and manuscripts including what is probably the most impressive Persian illustrated and illuminated manuscript ever created, the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp dating from around 1530. Mediaeval brass vessels inlaid with finely engraved silver set against black backgrounds, and glass vessels decorated with bright enamels combined with gold completed this range of outstanding Islamic art which they collected
The Rothschild taste was very eclectic, provided the objects concerned had quality. These items might be displayed in their collections of objets de vitrine and combined with numerous European items, either jeweled and enameled gold objects such as those in this sale, or mediaeval enameled or silver items, or indeed anything of value which took their fancy. This was the case with the items collected by Alphonse de Rothschild, which he displayed in his hôtel at 2 rue Saint-Florentin in Paris. Other members of the family went further and had an Orientalist room, such as that created in Paris by Baronne Adéle de Rothschild at 11 rue Berryer [fig. 1] and by Baron Edmond de Rothschild at 41 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré [fig. 4]. These stylish interiors incorporated an eclectic mixture of architectural elements, some copied from fourteenth century Mamluk architecture [fig. 3], others from stucco designs taken from the Alhambra. The addition of works such as a 16th century Kashan carpet, brass candlesticks, and a 14th century pendant Mamluk glass mosque lamp completed the stage set.
Many members of the French, German and Austrian branches of the Rothschild family included Mamluk glass in their collections. As a family, they certainly had more examples than any other collection. Even individually, to judge from the list of owners compiled by Schmoranz at the end of his 1899 publication, Old Oriental Gilt and Enamelled Glass Vesssels, they ranked very high in terms both of the numbers of items that they had and in terms of the individual rarity of the vessels. Thirty years later, in his survey of dated or dateable pieces of Mamluk enameled glass which forms the appendix to his catalogue of the examples in the Islamic Museum in Cairo, Gaston Wiet notes mosque lamps in the hands of four of the members of the family: Solomon, Gustave, Alphonse and Edmond. He fails to note the examples in the collection of their cousins in Vienna (two were sold through Christie’s in London 4 July 1999, one of which was in the name of Sultan Barquq and should thus have featured in the survey), nor those in the English branch of the family, who for example owned the Waddesdon beaker published by Schmoranz. Of the seven examples sold by Christie’s in December 2000 from the collection of the late Batsheva de Rothschild, he only notes two, both of which are in reality later imitations, while omitting the two authentic lamps bearing the names of Sultans.
The following three lots of enameled glass are from this group. Included respectively in the Batsheva de Rothschild sale as lots 14, 11, and 19, all three are products of 19th century European manufacture in the style of fourteenth century Mamluk Egyptian and Syrian enameled glass mosque lamps. Although not period examples, their workmanship is extraordinary and they are almost indistinguishable from their 14th century prototypes - a testament to what was possible in 19th century Europe.
Every indication is that Baron Alphonse was not aware that, while some of his Mamluk glass vessels were outstanding period examples, others were reproductions or vessels made in the same spirit but in the 19th Century and almost contemporary with their acquisition. No distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ is made in any of the family inventories, and none of the books at the time refer to any of the pieces as anything but authentic. And perhaps it did not matter. Of greater importance was the zeitgeist that the exotic interiors in which these objects were prominently displayed projected, and, by association, the knowledge and erudition of the collectors themselves.
FROM THE COLLECTION OF BARON ALPHONSE DE ROTHSCHILD (1827-1905)