The decorative arts of the First Empire have received international acclaim, especially in Italy, where Napoleon and his family left so prominent a mark, while the decorative arts of the Second Empire have begun to be more widely appreciated folowing both “Art in France under the Second Empire”, an exhibition held at the Grand Palais in 1979, and the opening of the Musée d’Orsay in 1986. The decorative arts of the intervening period—the Restoration and the July Monarchy—have however as yet received little consideration. The exhibition “Un âge d’or des Arts Décoratifs, 1814-48" at the Grand Palais, until 30 December, is intended to draw attention to this period and make it more widely known. The 350 or so objects on display represent the whole range of techniques: textiles (particularly Lyons silk)’ wallpaper (this period was the heyday of panoramic designs); furniture; bronzes (in both furnishing and works of art); silver and goldsmiths’ work; jewellery; weapons; ivory (which was making a comeback); ceramics; glass; gem-engraving and book-binding. Technically, the period is fascinating, with many innovations, while stylistically it corresponds to the end of neo-Classicism and the advent of Historicism. The objects in the exhibition have been chosen to illustrate this subtle transition. Since most of them can be accurately dated, they act as a series of milestones in a gradual evolution. All of the highest quality, some were commissioned by royal or princely families or by renowned art lovers, while others were created to feature in the great contemporary exhibitions of industrial design.
The atmosphere of court life is captured by a series of suites of furniture executed for the royal family. The most striking is a reconstitution of the throne room at the Tuileries, commissioned by Louis XVIII from Jean-Démosthène Dugourc, a veteran decorator who had worked for the court prior to the Revolution.
The tastes of the July Monarchy are represented by furniture drawn from the official residences, such as Pau or the Trianon, and from the private châteaux of Louis-Philippe and his family, for example Eu and Randan. They show a development from the neo-Classicism still in fashion at the beginning of his reign to a neo-Renaissance style, followed, in his last years, by revivals of the Louis XV and even Louis XVI styles.
The royal manufacturies are well represented. Although the output of the Gobelins during this period was somewhat lacking in imagination, the Sèvres porcelain factory, presided over from 1800 to 1847 by Alexandre Brongniart, was highly innovative in both forms and decorations. The gothic casket ordered by the duchesse de Berry and the enormous Chinese cabinet from the Swedish royal collections are indicative of the great diversity of sources of inspiration. Nor should we overlook the royal pietra dura factory, founded in Paris at the time of Napoleon by the Italian Francesco Belloni, who had received his training in Rome. Like his predecessors, the Florentine pietra dura workers set up at the Gobelins by Louis XIV, Belloni succeeded in reintroducing the technique of marble pietra dura to Paris, though much of his actual production still remains unidentified.
As well as royal commissions, the exhibition features products first shown at exhibitions of French industrial design. The first of these, which foreshadowed the later World Fairs, was held in 1798. There were three during the Restoration (1819, 1823 and 1827) and a further three under the July Monarchy (1834, 1839 and 1844). Manufacturers in every field strove to exhibit their very best artefacts at these events and often produced technical masterpieces which then proved difficult to sell. Some fine examples are displayed in the exhibition: the table and arm-chair in crystal and gilt-bronze acquired by the duchesse de Berry in 1849; the amazing oval bedroom furniture exhibited by Baudry, the cabinetmaker, in 1827; the massive silver vase presented to La Fayette by the National Guard in 1834; and Grohé’s ebony show-case of 1844, purchased by Queen Victoria. Finally, there are some of the objects originally shown at the last national exhibition, held in 1849 after the fall of Louis-Philippe, and at the first Universal Exhibition, which took place in London in 1851. These occasions were a triumph for French gold and silversmiths, notably Froment-Meurice, who exhibited the famous dressing table ordered for the daughter of the duchesse de Berry on the occasion of her marriage to a cousin, the crown prince of Lucca. Froment-Meurice subsequently went in person to Parma to deliver the dressing table to the princess. The exhibition charts thirty-five years of radical change which, it is hoped, will awaken the curiosity of visitors and trigger off the many research projects this period so clearly merits.