Mounted Oriental Porcelain In the Getty Museum
A wide variety of ceramic wares—English, French, German, and Italian—from the Near and Far East, as well as vessels of glass, rock crystal, and hardstones, have been enriched with metal mounts in the course of European history. However, the collection catalogued here consists almost exclusively of Chinese and Japanese porcelains mounted in Paris during the reigns of Louis xiv (1643 -1715) and Louis xv (1715-1774). In the majority of cases, the mounts date from around the two middle decades of the eighteenth century. These facts call for some explanation.
The practice of mounting oriental porcelain in Europe dates back at least to the Middle Ages, and pieces so mounted survive from the early Renaissance. These mounts were a tribute not so much to the beauty of the porcelains as to the extreme rarity of the material.’ When, in the second half of the seventeenth century, oriental works of art began to reach Europe in considerable quantities, they continued to be mounted in precious or semiprecious metals (generally silver or silver-gilt), but it was their exotic character rather than their rarity that now excited interest. By the middle of the eighteenth century, lachine2 was the height of fashion in Paris, the generally acknowledged focal point of European taste at the time. Without question, more oriental porcelain was set in metal mounts (by this date, generally of gilt bronze) of European design, in Paris, between 174o and 176o than at any other period in the world’s history. Consequently, more examples from this period have survived into the modern world.A wide variety of ceramic wares—English, French, German, and Italian—from the Near and Far East, as well as vessels of glass, rock crystal, and hardstones, have been enriched with metal mounts in the course of European history. However, the collection catalogued here consists almost exclusively of Chinese and Japanese porcelains mounted in Paris during the reigns of Louis xiv (1643 -1715) and Louis xv (1715-1774). In the majority of cases, the mounts date from around the two middle decades of the eighteenth century. These facts call for some explanation.
Pieces mounted during the Middle Ages are virtually nonexistent today; we know of them only from descriptions in early inventories. A few pieces mounted during the Renaissance survive, but they are exceedingly rare; only a handful are found in the United States. Even the porcelains which were mounted in silver in considerable quantity during the reign of Louis xiv (see catalogue nos. 4 and 6) are rare. Probably the mounts of many of these oriental pieces were removed and melted down when such things had ceased to be fashionable.’
Far Eastern porcelains were also mounted in countries other than France. In Holland, much porcelain was enriched in this way during the seventeenth century (though much less in the following centuries) and is sometimes depicted in Dutch paintings of the period. Mounts were also applied to porcelains in Germany, more frequently to copies of oriental pieces. Nevertheless, more Meissen porcelain was in fact mounted in Paris than in Saxony itself. Examples of Chinese porcelain with Venetian mounts are known, but they too are very few. In England, mounts were occasionally applied to Chelsea and other native wares and, though rarely, to Chinese and Japanese porcelain (see catalogue no. 1).4 Englishmen such as Lord Bolingbroke, who collected such things, mostly purchased their mounted porcelain in Paris.s In effect, the history of mounted oriental porcelain in the eighteenth century, which might justly be called the golden age of mounted porcelain, is, for all practical purposes, the history of porcelain mounted in Paris.
Whatever may have been the intention in earlier epochs, during the eighteenth century the main reason for setting these oriental objects in mounts of European design was to naturalize them to the decoration of French interiors of the period; i.e., to modify their exotic character by giving them a quasi-French appearance.6 The men who devised these pretty things for the rich, extravagant, and sophisticated society of eighteenth-century Paris were, to some degree, the equivalent of modern interior decorators, but they were not the makers of the mounts. These men belonged to one of the city’s oldest trade guilds, whose history dates back to the twelfth century, and were known as marchands-merciers.
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The word marchand-mercier is untranslatable, for the profession itself did not exist either in England or in any country other than France. Literally translated, the term is tautological; it means “merchant-merchant,” which does not tell us very much. The marchands-merciers combined the roles of antique dealer, jeweler, frame maker, supplier of light fittings and hearth furniture, dealer in new and old furniture, and interior decora-tor.7They often were picture dealers as well. They created nothing themselves but employed other craftsmen to work on their ideas and their designs. Diderot called them faiseurs de rien, marchands de tout. As inspirers of taste and fashion, their role was to provide the world of fashion with the chic and the up-to-date, what the English of the day called “kickshaws.” A contemporary, writing of the marchand-mercier Hebert, wittily remarked, “Il fait en France ce que les Francais font en Amerique; it donne des colifichets pour des lingots d’or.”8
To embody their ideas and designs, the marchands-merciers employed furniture makers (ebenistes), bronze casters (fondeurs), gilders (doreurs), and so on. They themselves merely marketed the results. The marchands-merciers were exceedingly ingenious in devising ways of adapting rare and exotic materials, especially those from the Far East, to the decoration of the houses of the rich. It was the marchands-merciers who first thought of cutting up lacquer screens and cabinets from the Orient and veneering panels from them onto furniture of purely European design. It was they too who purchased writing boxes and other items of Japanese lacquer found on the Dutch market and employed goldsmiths like Ducrollay to cut them up and mount the fragments as tabatieres, bonbonnieres, cartes de visite, etuis, navettes,9 and other expensive toys that formed so essential a part of the social intercourse of Parisian society of the day. The marchands-merciers also encouraged the brothers Martin to devise what was by far the most successful European attempt to imitate oriental lacquer, a type of very hard varnish patented in 1744 and known by the name vernis Martin, after its inventors. Even so essentially French a device as the practice of mounting wooden furniture with gaily colored plaques of Sevres porcelain was the result of the marchands-merciers’ interest in the use of oriental materials. The earliest experiments in this field were made with plaques of Sevres porcelain imitating Cantonese enamels.1° As far as mounted porcelain was concerned, these middlemen bought the porcelain (mostly on the Dutch market) and employed fondeurs and doreurs to create the mounts, which the marchands-merciers probably designed.” We may note in passing that from time to time lacquer, generally Japanese lacquer bowls, boxes, etc., was also mounted.12
We are fortunate that the Livre-journal, or sales ledger, of the marchand-mercier Lazare Duvaux has sur-vived.13 It covers the decade of 1748 to 1758, the peak years of the fashion for mounted oriental porcelain. Literally hundreds of examples of mounted porcelain, both European and oriental, passed through Duvaux’s hands during this period. He was an important figure in the commerce in such things, a marchand suivant la Cour (the equivalent of a tradesman “by Royal Appointment” in London today), and all the most important figures in Parisian society came to his shop, Au Chagrin de Tur-quie, in the fashionable rue Saint-Honoré. The marquise de Pompadour, one of Duvaux’s most regular clients, purchased more than one hundred and fifty pieces of mounted oriental porcelain from him during the period covered by the Livre-journal. Louis xv patronized Du-vaux’s shop; so did the queen. Many of the most important members of the court of Versailles were his clients, as were foreign royalty and visiting Englishmen and, in fact, the entire European world of fashion; and most of them bought mounted porcelains.
The Livre-journal is a mine of information on the subject of mounted porcelain, as shown in the quotations in this catalogue. The ledger describes a wide variety of types of mounted porcelain and their prices, as well as the price of unmounted porcelain and the cost of the mounts. From this book we learn who collected mounted porcelain (practically every one of Duvaux’s clients), and occasionally even the names of the craftsmen who actually made the mounts (see p. 16).
Ingenious and inventive as the marchands-merciers were, they did not invent the idea of setting oriental porcelain in metal mounts of European design. They simply developed this practice and gave it fresh life. Emphasizing the rarity (and sometimes the beauty) of small and exotic objects by mounting them in precious or semiprecious metals has a very long history. Certain great cathedral treasuries included pieces of this kind, but none have come down to us; we know them only from inventory descriptions. The greatest surviving assemblage of this type is in the Treasury of St. Mark’s in Venice, where the visitor can still see bowls and goblets of classical and Byzantine origin that were mounted in gold, silver, and silver-gilt, partly to emphasize their rarity but also to adapt them for ecclesiastical use as chalices, patens, and so on. Amongst them one bowl of opaque green glass, mounted with silver-gilt and set with jewels, was long thought to be of Chinese porcelain (fig. 1). Today it is generally agreed to be glass of Persian origin created under Chinese inspiration.
Those Far Eastern porcelains that occasionally passed into secular hands during the late medieval and Renaissance periods were mounted and treasured as great rarities. Thus as early as 1365, Louis duc d’Anjou is known to have possessed a bowl of blue-and-white porcelain of Yuan dynasty ware which was particularly richly mounted with silver-gilt and enamel. It was an object of some size, for it is described in an inventory of 1379 —80 as an escuelle pour fruiterie.” The mount had a distinctly ecclesiastical flavor, since the foot was surmounted by six busts of apostles. The silver rim, however, was secular and enameled with hunting scenes. From this rim depended three rings with enameled shields displaying the duke’s arms, which were attached by gilt knobs set with pearls and garnets. Less than a decade later we learn from the will of Jeanne d’Evreux, queen of Navarre, that she possessed: “Un pot a eaux de pierre de purcelleine a un couvercle d’argent et bordee d’argent pesant un marc iiii onces, prisiee iiij francs d’or.”
Porcelain must have been becoming a little less rare, for a little later, the duc d’Anjou’s brother, the great Maecenas Jean duc de Berry, possessed several pieces of both mounted and unmounted Chinese porcelain. In the inventories of his possessions drawn up between 1401 and 1416, we find mention of:
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