Embellished with finely chased and richly-gilt sculptural ormolu mounts including tritons joined by classical garlands, tortoises and entrelac bases, these exceptional vases are a superb example of the early work of Pierre Gouthière, just after he became doreur ordinaire des Menus Plaisirs in 1767. They relate to various documented pieces executed by this artist, such as those acquired by the duc d'Aumont, who would become his most important client in these years. Only six other vases of this model are known to exist.
Pierre Gouthière (1732 - circa 1814) was the most celebrated bronzier of the Louis XVI period, and one of the handful of craftsmen of the 18th Century whose fame never diminished, along with Boulle, Cressent and Riesener. A maître-doreur-ciseleur in 1758, he was appointed in 1767 doreur ordinaire de Menus Plaisirs in 1767, but on his signed pieces generally used the title 'ciseleur-doreur du Roy' (H. Ottomeyer, P.Pröschel, et al., Vergoldete Bronzen, Munich, 1986, vol. II, p. 566). Working extensively for Marie-Antoinette, and ultimately her principal supplier of bronzes, Gouthière often worked together with the architect-designer François-Joseph Bélanger (1744-1818), the first collaboration taking place in 1769-70, when Gouthière supplied the mounts for Marie-Antoinette's jewel-cabinet which was designed by Bellanger. In 1770-71, he supplied bronzes for Madame du Barry's Pavillon de Louveciennes, for sums totaling over 100,000 livres, another indication of his position as the most prominent ciseleur-doreur of his day, whose unrivalled talent gained him much acclaim and fortune (P. Verlet, Les Bronzes Dorés Français du XVIIIè Siècle, Paris, 1987, p. 210).
DUC D'AUMONT AND LES MENUS PLAISIRS
Gouthière's principal client during the beginning of his career was the Duc d'Aumont (d. 1782), Premier Gentilhomme de la Chambre du Roy. One of his responsibilities was that of Director of the Menus Plaisirs, organizing State occasions and Royal festivals. Within the hôtel des Menus Plaisirs, there were many ateliers where many artists and craftsmen were based. The duc d'Aumont extended these ateliers in 1770 to include the production of bronzes d'ameublement and works of art, particularly those made of marble and precious hard stones, and employed the most talented architects, designers and craftsmen to produce costly and intricate objects made of Ancient and newly quarried stones . Bélanger and Gouthière were both hired by d'Aumont, and he personally signed their warrants. A great collector and connoisseur himself, d'Aumont would assemble one of the largest collections of marbles, hardstones, oriental lacquer and porcelain of the second half of the 18th Century, many of these set in superb gilt-bronze mounts by Gouthière. At the sale after his death in 1782, organized by the marchands-mercier Philippe-François Julliot and Alexandre-Joseph Paillet at the hôtel d'Aumont, both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette acquired many items from this fabled collection, and their total purchases amounted to 251,420 livres, almost two thirds of the sale total. Unusually for those days, the sale catalogue included various line drawings of vases and columns, many by Gouthière, and items made by the latter were indicated with a 'G' next to the lot description. Besides the aforementioned array of items signed by him, the duc d'Aumont sale enables further identification of many items, resulting in a sizeable oeuvre. The sale catalogue is divided into sections, starting with porphyry, hardstones and marbles, followed by a small section with coloured porcelain, a Japanese and Chinese porcelain section, ending with Japanese lacquer, furniture and clocks. Among the celadon porcelain, described as porcelains d'ancien celadon du japon or porcelains de truité fin d'ancien japon, many items are marked with 'G' denoting Gouthière's authorship. Mounting oriental porcelain, particularly celadon wares, was clearly one of his main specialities, and in the 1782 sale, these items fetched extremely high prices with many being acquired by the King, such as 110 - Deux vases, en forme de baril... le tout doré d'or mat, G... ' realizing 7,501 livres (J. Parker, Le Cabinet du Duc d'Aumont, 1986, p. 67).
GOUTHIERE'S VASES AUX TRITONS
At the sale in Paris on 18 February 1771 of the property of the painter François Boucher the catalogue listed a pair of vases as lot 807: Deux vases de la chine, à bouquets bleu & blanc, montés chacun sur un pied composé de branchages de laurier entrelacé sur quatre tortues; un Triton à côté du haut, portant le revers de la gorge et soutenant une guirlande de laurier, le tout de bronze doré' [360 livres 5 sols to the marchand-mercier Pierre Rémy]
This detailed description seems to match that of the present vases and the other known examples, and it is therefore possible that the Riahi vases are those mentioned. Only six further examples of this model are recorded:
- A pair from the collection of Lionel de Rothschild, 148 Piccadilly, London, sold Sotheby's London, 4 July 2012, lot 2012 (£577,250), also with variations the porcelain and to the chasing of the mounts, as is the case with the Riahi vases;
- A pair of vases sold Sotheby's New York, 19 November 1993, lot 19;
- A single vase from the Edouard Chappey collection, sold Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 27-31 May 1907, lot 139;
- A single vase, but without the turtles to the bases, from the collection of Baroness Burton, sold Christie's, London, 8 July 1965, lot 75.
The most striking features of these vases, besides the rare celadon porcelain, are the sculptural mounts including curved and entwined tritons, tortoises and superb bases featuring entrelac. The mounts are beautifully chased with various fine grains, and are richly gilt, creating a bold and striking contrast with the porcelain bodies. Gouthière's highly individual chasing techniques, first learnt during his training as an orfèvre and developed throughout his career resulted in his extraordinary 'dorure au mat': "The process consists of coating the gilt bronze with a mixture of salts, called 'le mat' and heating it continuously above a fire. [...] The coating is thus removed from the gilt bronze pieces and, after being plunged in cold water, these appear matte. One can then burnish certain areas using 'burnishers'" (Jacques Robiquet, Vie et Oeuvre de Pierre Gouthière, Paris, 1921, p. 87). Sculptural mounts in the form of maidens, masks and cherubs are a recurrent feature on his works, needed to balance the marble or porcelain bodies. Mythological figures appear on some of the earliest items signed by him: the pair of vases en buires, signed and dated 1767, incorporate a figure of a satyr and a naïad (with the same entwined double-fishtail as the tritons on this model), now in the Helen C. Frick Collection, Pittsburg (illustrated in P. Verlet, op. cit., p. 205); and the pair of virtually identical vases with porphyry bodies, sold from the Qizilbash Collection, Christie's Paris, 19 December 2007, lot 802 (1,264,250 Euros). Further related figures appear on the serpentine vase with maiden handles by Gouthière, sold as lot 11 in the 1782 d'Aumont sale. Even the bases, here featuring a beautiful floral entrelac motif, are superbly finished and relate to those of the porphyry campana vases by Gouthière, sold as lot 3 in the 1782 sale, which are now in the J. Paul Getty museum (A. Sassoon, G. Wilson, Decorative Arts, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 1986, fig. 206).
VASES AUX TRITONS - A TECHNICAL ANALYSIS
Comparison between the vases of this model demonstrate the highly challenging execution phases to produce this complicated and intricate objet de luxe. The Chinese porcelain vases, imported by a marchand-mercier, have minor differences, both in thickness and in decoration, and as a result, the mounts enveloping the porcelain bodies needed to be specially adapted from the chef modèle each time. Both the present vases and those from the Baron Lionel de Rothschild collection display these minor differences, also suggesting they might have originally been part of a larger set. The ormolu collars fitted around the necks, for instance, have an additional lip to one of the present vases, probably to compensate for a difference in height. The fixation of the 'triton' handles again differs between the vases slightly due to different mass and weight of the bodies: on one of the vases the heads of the tritions are solid and were used to fix the assembly rod to the porcelain; on the other the head is hollow and a different fixing position was needed lower down the body of the infant triton. Besides these small differences there are also some minor variations to the cast of the gadrooned everted lip and to the chasing of the tortoises, again suggesting a larger set, made by several craftsmen, probably within the same workshop, over a period of time.