PROPERTY OF A BUFFALO FAMILY
Over the past three decades, as much of the greatest furniture and artwork by Ruhlmann, Dupas, and Dunand for Normandie and other great liners owned by the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) has been rediscovered and sold at auction in New York and Paris, it is easy to blur the boundaries between the commissions when it comes to understanding Ruhlmann’s exact contributions to each of the ships. Ruhlmann’s collaboration with the architect Pierre Patout at L’Hôtel d’un Collectionneur in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes led to the CGT hiring each of them to design major rooms for the liner Île de France (1927), with Ruhlmann creating the first-class Salon de Thé, noteworthy for its monumental urn-form lamps with porcelain shades produced by Sèvres. Patout then served as the chief interior designer of L’Atlantique (1931), but Ruhlmann did not participate at all. It is at this time, when leafing through the period articles devoted to this “curiously neglected”[ii] liner that one sees photographs with the byline Ruhlmann, but this in fact refers to an unrelated ferronnier, André Ruhlmann, who was responsible for ballustrades on both this ship and later Normandie.
It is has been written that Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann was meant to be part of the team of France’s most prestigious designers assembled to design the interior of Normandie in 1932,[iii] but his death in 1933 was prior to any of the furniture being designed and produced for the interiors. Instead, his spirit was present in the overall layout and extravagant decorative schemes of the ship’s main areas of entertainment. Ruhlmann’s friend, collaborator, and designer of his tomb, Pierre Patout, once again served as a principal architect of the interior, along with Richard Bouwens de Boijen and Roger-Henri Expert. The latter two architects co-designed les petits salons, which were located in the forward corners of the Grand Salon. Nicknamed “Melody and Milady,” these spaces were meant to be lounges of rest and letter-writing, where one could enjoy a quiet cocktail or gather around a piano for an intimate sing-along[iv]. Expert’s preliminary sketch for Petit Salon des Dames (lot 124A) depicts elegantly dressed couples in a spacious setting, having drinks around a central grand piano; the principal decoration is a landscape panel of the Seine. The furniture, including the piano, looks rather traditional, with Aubusson upholsteries and Directoire styling.
The final result, as seen in several period photos including one in Art et Decoration (fig. 2) shows a much smaller room, cramped with Art Deco furnishings, with the only connection to the original sketch the river landscape, which was painted by Louis Graux. The caption that appears in Art et Decoration, “Bouwens de Boijen et Expert. Arch. Décoration de Ruhlmann,” is slightly misleading, since Ruhlmann had died in 1933, and his firm had been dissolved. However, according to Louis-René Vian, furniture from Ruhlmann’s estate was provided by his former employees in homage to their departed chief. Examination of all period views of les petits salons shows the piano and at least four other major pieces by Ruhlmann, of the type that would have been produced by his atelier during his lifetime, outlining the rooms, while the chairs, side tables and especially the piano bench appear to be pieces produced by Ruhlmann’s nephew Alfred Porteneuve, who was awarded the rights in his uncle’s will to execute a small number of his designs.
During Normandie’s brief reign as “Queen of the Seas,” among the many American passengers were Mr. and Mrs. Edward Butler of Buffalo. Accompanied by their daughter Kate Butler Wickham, they made several crossings of the Atlantic, and after the liner’s tragic demise in New York Harbor, they attended one of the auctions held in New York starting in 1942 to disperse the contents of the ship. They acquired a few of the furnishings, bidding on pieces that they personally remembered from their voyages, including the present lot, a magnificent grand piano. Surviving records of these auctions are scarce: There were virtually no descriptions of the furniture, none of the designers were mentioned by name, and in some cases there were literally hundreds of chairs sold in a single lot. In the first 1942 auction, six pianos were sold, their prices ranging from $80 to $700[v]. This number includes the present lot; a monumental Concert Grand piano (designer and present whereabouts unknown) from the Grand Salon; and pianos from the four Appartements de Grand Luxe, each unique and executed by the designers of the suites: Leleu, Süe, Dominique, and Montagnac.
Following the purchase of the Ruhlmann piano at auction in 1942, it resided for decades in the opulent Georgian-revival Butler Mansion in Buffalo, designed by Stanford White. But family members could not make out the signature on the ivory plaque, and in 1993, they submitted a photo of the piano to Maxtone-Graham, who was editor of The Ocean Liner Gazette. John Maxtone-Graham could not identify the signature either, but believed the piano to be from the Grand Salon[vi]. In a subsequent issue, the historian David Powers correctly identified it as the lost piano by Ruhlmann from the Ladies’s Drawing and Music Room. Maxtone-Graham would also prove to be partly correct, as Louis-Rene Vian in his 1996 book illustrated a period photograph of the present lot being used as a second piano in the orchestra in the Grand Salon.
Now that this masterwork, never before photographed in color, has appeared on the market, it finally can be compared to other known examples of Ruhlmann’s pianos, of which there are several distinct designs. It is clearly the same model as the iconic piano sheathed in macassar ebony designed for L’Hôtel d’un Collectionneur, (Fig. 3)[vii], which was placed under Dupas’s famed painting, Les Perruches in arguably the most influential room of the French Art Deco period, the Grand Salon designed by Patout. And in many ways, this makes sense. The Grand Salon of L’Hôtel d’un Collectionneur serves as the prototype for every spacious salon of the great French liners, including Normandie. It is only fitting, and fortuitous, that Ruhlmann’s estate had this piano available when it was determined to decorate a room on board in homage to the master.
It remains unclear exactly how many pianos were produced by Ruhlmann, and how many of each design. Estimates range from six to nine, but there are only six pianos which have been fully catalogued and photographed in the past three decades, of which three (including the present lot) are the exact model. In Ruhlmann’s second numbering system, the present piano’s model, no. 2488, is listed being owned by two French families, but it is unclear if these families still own them, or if they are accounted for in the examples that have appeared at auction[viii]. The other known identical example of the model, its case veneered in American walnut like the present lot, but with a sycamore interior (fig 4) was sold ten years ago at auction[ix].
In addition to these three documented pianos of the same exact design with works by Gaveau (differing only in their employment of veneers and decoration), a fourth piano, also with Gaveau movement, of similar design but with an exaggerated geometric case and squared legs, has surfaced at auction in recent years[x]. A fifth piano, with more traditional supports and forms, the works by Erard, and with a delicate ivory lattice pattern cover, was also shown by Ruhlmann in the 1925 Exposition in the Ambassadre Française. It is now in the collection of the Musée de Montauban, in the south of France[xi]. The sixth and final well-documented piano, of more traditional S-shape but finished in Ruhlmann’s favored modernist black lacquer and silvered metal of his later years, and with works by Pleyel, was exhibited in the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1929[xii]
There are several other Ruhlmann piano mysteries yet to be solved. What for example, to make of the grainy photograph showing a Ruhlmann-esque piano in his interior scheme for the Salon de Thé of the Île de France?[xiii] What family originally ordered the present lot from Ruhlmann in the first place, only to not finalize the purchase, thus letting it languish in his inventory until it was brought onto Normandie? But what is clear about the present piano from Normandie is that it epitomizes the finest refinements of Ruhlmann’s contribution to 20th Century furniture design. In exploding the traditional s-shape piano form, and creating a voluptuous convex modern case, from the elegant lyre-shaped pedal support to the sumptuous use of ivory trim on the case and legs and the solid macassar ebony on the interior, it is a superb variation of the piano from the most important room of French Art Deco. It is also blessed with the provenance of the most revered ocean liner of the era, and after being lovingly preserved by the descendants of the Butler family for 70 years, is now ready to find its next port of call.
[i][i] John Maxtone-Graham, Normandie: France’s Legendary Ocean Liner, New York, 2007, p. 33
[ii]Ibid., p. 38
[iii]Philippe Rivoirard, “Ruhlmann, Architecture, and Architects,” Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco, Montreal 2004, p. 88
[iv]Louis-René Vian, Arts Décoratifs à Bord des Paquebots Français. Paris, 1992, p. 200
[v]Harvey Ardman, “The Ship That Died of Carelessness,” American Heritage, December 1983, p. 69
[vi]“The Grand Piano from Normandie’s Grand Salon is Alive, Well and Playable in Upstate New York,” The Ocean Liner Gazette, John Maxtone-Graham, Editor, Winter/Spring 1993, p. 16
[vii]The 1925 Exposition piano has been sold twice at auction. First appearing in Christie’s New York, November 29, 1999, Lot 102, it was recently sold in Sotheby’s Paris, June 4, 2009, Lot 89
[viii]For example, the provenance of the iconic 1925 example can only be traced back a few decades
[ix]This example of the model has also been sold twice at auction: First appearing in Sotheby’s Monaco, March 11. 1984, Lot 216, it was later sold in Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, New York, December 11, 2002, Lot 27
[x]Formerly in the Foulk-Lewis Collection, this piano has been sold twice at auction: Christie’s New York, May 26, 1983, Lot 281, and Christie’s New York, December 10, 2002, Lot 95
[xi]See Florence Camard, Ruhlmann: Master of Art Deco, New York, 1984, p. 262
[xii]Ibid., p. 263. According to the catalogue entry for the 1925 Exposition piano in Christie’s New York, November 29, 1999, Lot 102, this piano is in a private Philadelphia collection
[xiii]Henri Clouzot, “Le Pacquebot Ile-de-France,” La Renaissance de L’Art Français et des Industries de Luxe, February 1928, p. 101 for this photograph. Present whereabouts of the piano are unknown.
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