THE GREAT CENTURY
Great Laquer CABINET with oriental motifs in gold on a black background, with “fond de poire” framings and mother-of-pearl marquetry. It opens in the upper section by two drawers and two casements that illustrate the fable of “The Prince and the Bird”, with dansers, comedians, musicians and, in its interior, a scene of a hunt and a scene of triumph with a carriage. The casements reveal a facade with eleven drawers where exotic animals are represented, cercling a little door that opens to continue showing us scenes of the fable. It is constructed with resinous wood and the facade is made of walnut tree wood as support for the laquer.
The cabinet rests on a sculpted and gilded lime-tree BASE consisting of seven feet representing masculine and feminine thermes, joined together at the bottom by a varnished wooden tablet depicting a hitched ride in a garden, ending with lion feet and flat balls.
Parisian work from the times of King Louis XIV, circa 1670-1680.
Cabinet: Height. 99,3 Length. 145 Depth.49,6 cm,
Base: Height. 98,8 Length. 146,3 Depth.56,4 cm
Total height: 198.1 cms., around 6 feet and1 inch.
Former collection of José Leite da Cunha Martins BARBOT de Azevedo Mavigne, Porto (Portugal).
Daniel Alcouffe, “Les vernisseurs du faubourg Saint-Antoine sous le règne de Louis XIV”, Les secrets de la laque française, le vernis Martin, Les arts décoratif, Paris, 2014. Cabinet reproduced on pages 34 and 35.
WITH A CERTIFICATE THAT ALLOWS ITS EXPORTATION OUT OF FRANCE.
Above porcelaine, lacquer remained the best guarded secret of the East. The oldest piece of furniture on lacquer in the French royal collections arrives in 1560 under King Francis I: it is a “Little böete in the fashion of the Indies”. If we had to wait until the beginning of the18th century for porcelaine to be fabricated in Saxe, and fifty more years for it to be produced in France, we could find lacquer furniture in Europe, made in imitation of the Chinese, in the Parisian inventories from the beginning of the 17th century. Etienne Sager (died in 1633) was appointed by Queen Marie of Medici as Master creator of chinese works. Given the difficulty to buy the expensive furniture brought in by the Dutch and the Portuguese, copies were made. Soon enough these imitations achieved their autonomy and developped into an independent genre. In the 18th century, their quality rivals that of the Asian objects, with the development of the famous “vernis Martin”.
Our cabinet’s decoration illustrates the change in style regarding Japanese lacquer around 1640. We have shown this phenomenon with the Mazarin chest, conserved today in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. At that time, the style known as Nanban, with its mother-of-pearl incrustations and its cambered chests is replaced by the technique known as Urushi, with golden motifs on black backgrounds. This stylistic transtition corresponds to a doublé change in Japan: a political revolution and a commercial change, with the substitution of the Portuguese by the Dutch. Even if dated in 1670, thus, our cabinet resumes both lacquer styles. The mother-of-pearl incrustations to dissimulate the metal hinges, as in the Rijksmuseum chests, corresponds to the ancient style, whilst the decoration on black background is sympomatic of the export furniture created in Japan after 1640.
Daniel Alcouffe proposes this as the work of a family established in 1666 rue Faubourg Saint-Antoine, in Paris. Langlois’s workmakes us think of our cabinet. The Langlois excelled in the art of lacquer. They decorated, in 1666, a Poirier cabinet of the same dimensions that the one belonging to the duchess of Richelieu. Langlois the younger excelled in the creation of Chinese figures.
Daniel Alcouffe, General Honorary Curator of the Louvre Museum, was the first specialist to study and publish this cabinet. He sees in it a French work of circa 1680. Its seven feet representing divinities, the base built in sculpted and gilded wood, the lacquered drawers, are all elements that leave no doubt in the sense that we are in the presence of a French work of that period.
A small group of pieces of furniture from the end of the 17th century conserved in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, in the Magnin museum of Dijon, in the Walters Art Gallery of Baltimore or the ones lately presented at auction in different places are also of French origin. In fact, the rarity of French produced cabinets often leads us to confuse them with those of Dutch origin. Jean-Claude Battault, from the Museum of Music in Paris proved as well that a French harpsichord of the 17th century conserved in that museum had been decorated by the same artist as a small group of cabinets conserved at the Rijksmuseum that up to then had been considered Dutch.
The decoration of our cabinet presents different reading levels. On its facade, on the sides and in the inside we can read the fable of the Prince and the Bird. The eleven inner drawers show exotic animals, an evocation of the menagerie of Versailles.
Jean de la Fontaine was strongly influenced by Pilpay, a very ancient Indian fablist. The 9th century fable of the Prince of Lu, a Taoist fable arrived in Europe probably via Persia, tells the following story:
“A bird came to the borders of the villaje of Lu. The prince of Lu, who had never seen such a magnificent animal, thought it was a divine creature. He sent a cortege to receive him and installed him as a famous host in a temple of the capital.
In order to distract him, he ordered that musiciens played the flute and the drums. He ordered that every day parties were organized. But all these attentions scared the bird, and he became unhappier each day. He trembled from the morning through the evening. He stopped eating and drinking water,and after three days he died.
The prince of Lu had desired to make the Bird live as man himself liked, and not as it is convenient for a bird to live.”
Excerpt from Zhuangzi; compilation attributed to Zhuang Zou, Taoist philosopher of the 4th century B.C.
The animals that are represented individually in each one of the eleven drawers in the inner part of the cabinet are not unknown to the history of art: austrich,lion, various birds and elephants are all animals that have been represented in various times. In the library’s catalogue found after the death of Pierre Séguier in 1672, an interesting bestiary can be found: 154 designs depict domestic and exotic animals, notably an armadillo, an animal that is also present in our cabinet.
The interest for the representation of animals may be florentine, as is suggested by the marquetery work of the "Orpheus's Cabinet“, that belongs to the Queen of Sweden. Between 1660 and 1670 we arev ery likely more under the influence of the animals existing in the menagerie of Versailles. Between 1668 and 1681 the menagerie was home to an elephant that had been a gift that the prince of Portugal, don Pedro, offered to King Louis XIV to strengthen the Alliance between the two nations.
Such a cabinet, given the quality of its decor, the excellence of its varnish, the spectacularity of its dimensions and the sophistication of its seven sculpted and gilded feet could not be but the work of an artist of the first level. We have not found a trace of it in the collections of the Crown; however, it is very likely that it was commanded by a great patrón of the 17th century, either French or foreign.
Le Nôtre’s inventory of 1700 includes a Chinese lacquer cabinet with two doors on a sculpted and gilded wooden base. However, its dimensions are half as important as the dimensions of our cabinet. Similar cabinets are among the most precios pieces of furniture of the Hôtel Tubeuf, for example. In a general fashion, besides some personal passions, Parisian Aristoscrats were happy to decorate their houses with a few Chinese pieces of furniture.
Discovered at the beginning of this century in the Portuguese house of Jose Leite da Cunha Martins BARBOT de Azevedo Mavigne, we must not exclude the possibility that ou rcabinet arrived directly from Portugal in the 17th century. The commandment of exceptional pieces of furniture for foreing courts was natural at the time.
Circa 1670, France’s role is important regarding Portuguese foreign relations. In the context of the Alliance between France and Portugal to reduce the power of Spain, Marie Françoise-Élisabeth de Savoie (1646-1683) married the King of Portugal, Alphonse VI, in 1666.
But after the king’s decline in 1667 the marriage was annuled, and Queen Elizabeth went on to marry the King’s brother, don Pedro. Today, the Carriage Museum in Lisbo n(Museu dos coches) gards a carriage that presumably belonged to King Louis XIV and was offered by him as a gift that served as royal marriage car for King Afonso and her Savoyarde wife.
Between 1666 and 1683 exchanges between Portugal and France are very important and intense. Louis XIV’s kingdom strongly influences the Portuguese both politically and culturally. In the same manner, Portugal influences the French with its oriental treasures. The most important example, in 1668, is the elephant that don Pedro sends to King Louis XIV, an elephant destined to live at the Versailles royal menagerie. The cabinet could have arrived at the royal collections afterwards, being a French creation, as a thank-you gift for the paquidermic present. Its presence in Porto would explain the fact that it was not destroyed during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The Barbot family, who owned our cabinet, is related to the Ferreiras, who bought the Hôtel of the count of Wisel in Porto.
Stylistic and symbolic intrinsic elements fight for this Portuguese version of the cabinet’s origin. Even if the idea of hiding the door hinges with mother-of-pearl ornaments is found as well in other cabinets, notably in the one conserved at the Rijksmuseum, it is well known to be an esthetic resource used by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 17th century. The presence of a fable that talks of the principles of good government could be at the same time a means of thanking Portugal for its colonial exploits and a means of showing the importance of King Louis XIV’s reign during the 17th century. The presence of a woman in the Prince’s carriage remembers us the importance of the queen of Portugal in the deposition of King Alphonse XVI. Lastly, the little boy picking a lily could be a beatiful allegory of the transmission of royal power.
Translation by Diego de Ybarra-Corcuera
Thisfile has been prepared thanks to the precious help of Mr. Daniel Alcouffe,honorary curator general of the Musée du Louvre, of doctor Monika Kopplin,director of the Museum für Lackkunst, as well as of Mme. Geneviève Lacambre,Honorary general curator of the Patrimony; it has also been possible thanks tothe collaboration of Jennifer Lussea, Amélie Hajjaoui and Élodie Abad, arthistorians. My special gratitud to Mr.Calin Demetrescue, art historian, for the pertinence of his imformations and thetime he took to review this text.