A French Bronze Athenienne After Gouthiere

Circa 1780
Reference #: EF1249

Gilt bronze, steel, copper

Probably made for the Russian market

Height: 30 ½ inches (77 cm.)

Private collection, Stockholm

J. Paul Getty Museum, Watson & Wilson, 1982, cat. no. 17.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Watson 1966, cat. no. 71.
The Wallace Collection, Hughes 1996, cat. nos. 275-276.
Whitehead 1992, p. 67.

The athénienne, surmounted by a pinecone over a copper and steel urn is encased by an upper frieze of foliate and sunflower design. It is supported by three incurvate legs headed by horned ram heads which are joined by swags of leaf and berry designs. Below, a collar, ornamented by satyr heads and elliptical rings, unites the legs which are decorated by scale motifs and palmettes and terminate in cloven feet. Centrally ornamenting the base is a pinecone enframed by a floral wreath with foliate designs to each side. Resting upon pegged and twist-fluted feet, the base sides incorporate medusa heads, griffins and sunflowers.

Peter the Great’s opening of Russia to the West generated a passionate enthusiasm for French taste, culture and art among the upper classes. The Imperial Family, aristocrats, ambassadors and tourists visited Paris to purchase and commission fine works of decorative art. In particular the Czarina Elisabeth passionately admired the work of Parisian craftsmen and even obtained the right of first choice in preempting and purchasing any imports from France.

These factors led to the Russian objective of establishing a workshop for bronze doré production on the banks of the Neva. Peter the Great secured the services of the fondeur Etienne Sauvage and the ciseleur Noisiel, called Saint-Mauge, to educate Russian craftsmen, while Catherine the Great imported the bronzier Antoine Simon and appointed him a professor of founding and sculpting. The czarevitch Paul and the grand duchess Maria Feodorovna were also very much taken by the brilliance, charm and quality of objects made in France and traveled to Paris in 1784 where they ordered for Gatchina and Pavlovsk palaces a large quantity of bronze doré from the marchand-mercier Dominique Daguerre.

The scholar M.A. Koutchoumov proposes that many pieces of the present type, which are clearly based upon the designs of the celebrated bronzier Pierre Gouthière, were created by French or Russian craftsmen working in St. Petersburg and classifies them as Russian Gouthière. However the highly distinguished scholar Pierre Verlet, the former chief curator of the decorative arts department at the Louvre Museum, states that they are neither by Russian artisans nor by Gouthière, but rather are made by the superb craftsmen working for Dominique Daguerre. He writes, “De Paris, sont le modèle, la ciselure, la dorure.” (Their modeling, chasing and gilding are Parisian).

Daguerre’s numerous commissions for Russian palaces, primarily executed by the bronzier François Remond, were chiefly in the style of Gouthiere. The motifs of the present athénienne, based upon his designs, attest to this. The sunflower, an often used decorative element of Gouthière is depicted here three times upon the upper and lowermost frieze of the athénienne and again on the bottom of the steel urn. The pine cone, the cloven feet and the satyr masks can also be seen upon Gouthière’s pieces in the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Wallace Collection. (See related examples above).

The present athénienne is produced in the fully developed neoclassical style inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity. Derived from brazier designs of this period, it burned aromatic pastilles to scent the air of a room and was fitted with a spirit lamp in which liquid perfumes could be evaporated. Among the principle odors available were eaux d’ange, de roses, de cordoves, de fleurs d’orange and d’amaranthe. The aromatics were intended not only to perfume rooms, but also to disinfect them inexpensively and without the odor of smoke; no doubt in regard to the sanitation and hygiene of the period, they were essential.

The most common method used to gild bronze in eighteenth century France is thought to have been known at least since Roman times. Its French name, dorure d’or moulu, or gilding with powdered gold was adopted in England as “ormolu.” The technique consists of applying to the acid-cleaned bronze surface a paste made with powdered gold and mercury. These two metals amalgamate easily and the liquid mercury acts as a vehicle to deposit the gold thickly onto the bronze surface. The piece is then heated to burn off the mercury and allow the gold to seep into the grain of the bronze. The process might be repeated several times to produce a progressively richer effect. At the end of the gilding operation, to further enhance the crispness of the chasing, the matt parts were gone over again with chisels and the smooth parts were burnished with agates to achieve a sparkling appearance.

Gouthière claimed, and probably rightly, to have been the inventor of a refinement of a technique known as dorure au mat (matt gilding). This became popular during the reign of Louis XVI and involved coating the areas intended to remain matt with a special chemical, heating the piece and finally plunging it into cold water. The resultant effect is of a very finely and evenly grained surface achieved without chasing. Patination was also used at this period. The contrast between gilded and patinated bronze was particularly appreciated because of the “antique” impression it conveyed.

Classical antiquity is the prime source of this athénienne’s decorative scheme, but is adapted in this Gouthière design with such grace that austerity and pedantry have been avoided. This highly successful model, mounted entirely upon a casing of steel attests to the high quality of its craftsmanship. Of sophisticated composition, superb chasing and gilding, this piece, made for the Russian market, appears to be of French manufacture and is most probably produced by the superior bronziers working for the marchand-mercier Dominique Daguerre.

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