You may have noticed that some of our past “From the Collection” posts have highlighted new acquisitions. Just in the last year we explored a pair of paintings by Alexandre Cabanel and a painting by Franz Ittenbach.
When museum curators buy new artwork for the collection, they often look for things that will make a strength of the collection stronger or fill a gap in an important story we want to tell.
One recent acquisition that does both of these things is a Monumental Ormolu-Mounted Enamel Vase created in France in 1867.
The vase, designed by Louis-Constant Sévin (French, 1821–1881), brings together different elements from what he would have considered the exotic Orient. Today this is known as the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and Asia.
This combination of styles is indicative of an art movement known as Orientalism, which first became popular in mid-19th century France and then spread through Europe, England, and the United States.
This eclectic mix of inspiration creates a composite work drawn from a number of “exotic” influences, such as
- the curving forms of ancient Greek ceramics
- the ancient Egyptian iconography such as cats
- the decorative patterns of Persian pottery
- the jewel-tones of Byzantine art
- and a medieval type of enamelwork called champlevé, in which the cells are carved out from a piece of metal and then are filled with colored enamel.
Let’s take a closer look at our Monumental Vase to get a better sense of just how Sévin integrated all of these different elements.
The elongated body of the vessel pulls upward and inward to a thin neck which contrasts from the swelling bottom. The surface of the body is split up into five decorative registers, or friezes, which were popular in ancient Greek vases, like the one in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection shown below. Each frieze is decorated with abstract, intertwining floral patterns made possible through champlevé enamelwork.
The belly of the vase is supported and accentuated by the curvilinear torso of three Egyptian felines, the heads of which are braced by a tall rectilinear shape that resembles an Egyptian obelisk. The torsos of the cats curve down the body of the vase and transform into three extended paws.
Sévin’s historicizing design is powerful and beautiful. But this large-scale showpiece was made possible only due to the technological prowess of the French foundry Maison Barbedienne.
Maison Barbedienne (French, 1858–1955) was a firm founded by Ferdinand Barbedienne (French, 1810-1892), a man who invented a machine that would create miniature bronze replicas of classical artworks so they could be more easily disseminated to the masses. But Barbedienne’s quest to be at the forefront of technical innovation in metalworking did not stop there.
For instance, in 1858, Barbedienne began to experiment with the champlevé enamelwork mentioned above, which had become popular during the reign of French ruler Emperor Napoleon III (1808–1873). Also, Barbedienne was an expert in the technique of ormolu, which developed in the 18th century in France. The word ormolu comes from the French term, or moulu, which translates to “ground gold”. As the term implies, ormolu employs gold gilding, leaf, or powder to cover the less visually pleasing metal parts of an object. Barbedienne moved with the times, and to create his high-quality ormolu, he adopted the 19th century technology of electroplating, which uses electricity to bond gold to the surface of metal work.
Barbedienne’s expertise in these techniques made his foundry one of the most respected in France. In fact, when he exhibited a pair of vases of the same design as ours at the London International Exhibition of 1862, it met with great critical acclaim. That particular pair of vases is now in the collection of the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. The quality of our vase is clear from the fact that the foundry wrote “Maison Barbedienne” prominently on the center band—it is essentially signed by the company.
As we stated at the beginning of this post, the Monumental Ormolu-Mounted Enamel Vase is a new acquisition. Why did we make this acquisition?
- It strengthens a strength of our collection. We already had a wonderful selection of Orientalist paintings by artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904), Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845–1902), Eugène Fromentin (French, 1820–1876) (left), and Christian Adolf Schreyer (German, 1828–1899).
- It fills a hole in the collection. Although the Orientalist paintings are high-quality and instructive, adding a piece of decorative arts from this important period gives the visitor a better sense of the complete aesthetic that was used to decorate whole rooms.
- And it offers a bonus: the vase serves as a way to study the importance of technology during the 19th century.
Make sure you take a look the next time you visit!
–Samantha Landre, Curatorial Intern and Catherine Sawinski, Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art