Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pierre Gouthière: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court

When I started in the art business the Louis XV style was in vogue.  Simply put this meant sinuous lines.  This was a style that came as a refinement of the exaggeration of the bulbous baroque.  As always happens the pendulum swings and soon people no longer want froufrou but more severe lines as in the Louis XVI style.  It is interesting that this trajectory was seen in the 17th and 18th century and came again for collectors in the second half of the 20th century.

Pierre Gouthière is about as big a name as one can muster for the Louis XVI style.  He was a master chaser and gilder making his own models, which were then cast by others.  He then performed his true magic spinning a common adornment into gold.  He worked for the Royal family of France, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette as well as many in the aristocracy.  The artist was so highly thought of that a street in Paris is named after him.

Charlotte Vignon is the first curator dedicated to the decorative arts at the Frick Collection.  She was born in France and after gaining a law degree at the University of Toulouse she studied at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris.  There she received her doctorate and came to the States to start out as a Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum from where she was lured to the Frick.

Aside from the Frick’s great paintings it has a phenomenal collection of French 18th century  decorative arts of the highest quality.  Its tradition of doing exhibitions around pieces in the collection not only makes for a good exhibition but they learn more about the works of art they own.  The best way to learn is to compare and contrast and if you can bring pieces together there is no better way to advance your knowledge.

Charlotte Vignon fell in love with the large console table at the Frick that one passes every time one goes to the museum. Since she could be sure that the bronzes on it were by Gouthière it was the perfect hook for an exhibition.

When she decided 5 years ago that this was going to be her show she immediately got in touch with the retired curator at Versailles, Christian Baulez.  Over his career he had studied and written a great deal on French gilt bronze in the 18th century.  As Charlotte said there were many very good bronze makers and gilders and she wanted to nail down attributions to show only pieces that were virtually 100% sure to be by Gouthière. To achieve her goal she asked Christian Baulez to go to the archives in Paris and trace the pieces made for the aristocracy and see what could be found where it is certain that the master worked on them.  She included these in the catalog that she and Baulez did for the exhibition. Formerly there were 300 works attributed to the artist and this has now been reduced to 49 where there can be little doubt.

Of course, there are pieces that could not be brought to the Frick for the show.  Charlotte told me of a wonderful chimneypiece with bronzes surely by the artist and made for Mme DuBarry that she found in a home of a major collector in New York but did not think she could ask the owner to chop it out of his living room!  What she did not know is that I had sold the piece to the gentleman.

As art dealers we often threw the term “Gouthière quality” around, like the auction houses said “rare and important”!  My father used to refer to the sharpness of Gouthière’s mounts but he did not mean so sharp that you would cut yourself which would indicate a machine made mount.

One small exquisite object in the exhibition was new to me.  In fact it is just a knob made for the French-windows of Mme. Du Barry at the Chateau Louveciennes.   This was lent by the Musée du Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

The Frick is currently working on an expansion program but Charlotte had to deal with what she had in terms of space, which is two medium size rooms below ground and one small room above.  It is a disadvantage in some ways but is also an advantage.  A curator’s job is to edit, to narrow down to the essence of what one is trying to show and the small spaces help in that respect.  The room on the ground floor is being used to show the method of making the gilt bronze mounts and a video explaining Gouthière’s technique.  To whet your appetite the latter can be found on the Frick’s website.

There are 21 works of art in the show and I asked Charlotte to name her favorite not including the Frick’s own console table.  She thought for a moment and blurted out two pairs: the candelabra that she first spotted in an exhibition in New York from the Galerie Kugel in Paris. Subsequently they came to the museum through a generous gift from Trustee Sydney R. Knafel. They were commissioned by the Duc d’Aumont ()1709-!782), one of the most important art collectors of the time.  She also loved the appliques (wall lights) lent by the Louvre that were made for the Duchesse de Mazarin (1759-1826) around 1780, the same connoisseur who commissioned the Frick’s table.

The incredible scholarship that goes into this kind of an exhibition is a great tribute to the curator of the show and former curator at Versailles.  They have brought us a whole new perspective of Gouthière, an artist greatly admired but not here-to-fore well understood.

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