PROPERTY FROM THE FORBES COLLECTION, NEW YORK
THE S.S. NORMANDIE: A BRIEF HISTORY
The Normandie was the ultimate trans-Atlantic ocean liner—assuredly of the 1930s, and perhaps of the entire 20th Century. She was also a ship of abundance—she was novel, innovative, glittering, exceptionally advanced, truly sensational. She was, of course, the result of a successive series of always bigger and better French liners, beginning with the France of 1912 and continuing to the Ile de France (1927) and L'Atlantique (1931). Even the far smaller Champlain (1932) has often been called a prelude. Her design also drew from existing big Atlantic liners, ships such as the Bremen, Europa, Empress of Britain, Rex and Conte di Savoia. Her French creators, designers and decorators sought perfection and then, or so it would seem, went one step or even two steps further.
Her purpose was distinctly threefold: to be the largest, fastest, and most luxurious liner ever built. Indeed, the Normandie was an extraordinary floating center of "everything French", from food to decor to style and fashion. In buoyant foresight, her Parisian benefactors and owners realized that such an incredible feat of engineering, design, and artistry would become a modern symbol of French ingenuity and opulence. The French government was very enthusiastic and subsidized much of the $60 million construction cost, itself then the greatest amount paid for a passenger liner. The Normandie succeeded in all three intentions and left a long-lasting legacy that had an extraordinary and far-reaching impact on decoration, dining, films and even children’s toys, becoming without question the most important and certainly the greatest and grandest of all French liners.
The Normandie entered service in the spring of 1935 with great success, celebrated with gala receptions and with the further triumph of winning the prized Blue Riband for speed. With a record of 29.98 knots, translating to an impressively fast 3 ½ day journey between New York and Le Havre, she beat out the previous winner, Italy's Rex and her speed of 28.92 knots.
The interested public, especially in New York, marveled at her very contemporary, even advanced, raked silhouette of three funnels, each diminished height moving aft. Her outdoor decks were meticulously cleared—there was not a ventilator, deckhouse or chain locker out of place. Everything was thoughtfully hidden below. The bow was finely raked. But if her exterior appearance was striking, the interiors were the true masterpiece.
Carrying 1,972 passengers (848 in first class, 670 in tourist and 454 in third), the Normandie was certainly the most extravagantly decorated liner of her day, perhaps of all time. It garnered an overwhelming amount of media attention leading up to its inaugural voyage and later overachieved in seducing its passengers such as Salvador Dalí, Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich with its spectacular interiors. The main dining room, for example, was decorated with hammered glass, bronze and works by René Lalique and was slightly longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It rose three decks in height. The theater was the first ever fitted to a liner and included a complete stage. The indoor pool was 80 feet of tiled, graduating levels. The Winter Garden included exotic birds in cages, sprays of water and live greenery, and altogether creating an almost tropical jungle retreat. Each first class cabin was done in totally different decor, resulting in 400 different concepts and themes altogether. Two deluxe apartments, located on the Sun Deck, headed the first class section. Each had four bedrooms, a private terrace, attached servants' quarters and a private dining salon with an individual serving area and warming kitchen. The main salon featured the largest Aubusson carpet afloat and was decorated with glass panels by Jean-Théodore Dupas.
Long revered as the holy grail for Art Deco and ocean liner collectors alike, the Dupas panels were the highlight of the Normandie’s exceptional decor. They not only spoke of Art Deco—they yelled it out! Quite simply, they were sumptuous, rich and luxurious.
The son of a sea captain and himself a short-term seaman, Bordeaux-native Jean-Thèodore Dupas turned to art in a subsequent career that brought him fame and notation. He was invited to create a huge mural for the Normandie's luxurious Grand Salon. When asked by the French Line for a composition extolling the delights of Normandy, he chose an allegorical theme of The History of Navigation instead, which would become one of its most accomplished masterpieces.
The Normandie’s Grand Salon was distinguished by its soaring 32-foot high ceilings and cruciform layout. The walls were broken up by five tall windows on each side and a set of sliding doors opening to the adjoining Smoking Room. As a result, Dupas was obliged create a composition that would accommodate the complex architecture of the space. He did so by dividing the mural into four separate, right-angled segments which he conceived as a series of four thematic murals, offering a continuous glittering scene that blended classical mythology with maritime history. The four scenes—The Birth of Aphrodite, The Chariot of Poseidon, The Chariot of Thetis, and the Rape of Europa—presented an eclectic fleet with Egyptian dhows, Chinese junks, 18th Century man of wars, and 19th Century paddle steamers. Dupas’ figures came from Greek and Roman mythology: sea serpents and dolphins and dramatic human figures, with mannerist long necks and flowing hair.
Adding to the uniqueness of his work, Dupas created his images not on canvas but on glass panels, which were later assembled as a giant, glorious, and imposing mosaic. The process was specially named verre églomisé, a term derived from the work of 18th Century ébéniste Jean-Baptiste Glomy who had perfected this technique for decorating picture frames. The process was time-consuming, laborious, and complex, requiring that highlights be applied prior to the layering of black paint. Dupas was invaluably assisted by specialist Charles Champigneulle, who enriched the artist’s outlines with layers of black, gold, silver and platinum washes. The result was heroic in scale and gloriously luminescent. Each mural was a mosaic, assembled from a hundred panels anchored by bronze brackets at their corners and covering four hundred square meters. When the lights of the Grand Salon were illuminated, the golden surfaces of the murals glowed uncannily, as if releasing imprisoned sunlight. “The larger my work, the happier I am” declared Dupas, stating that the panels had been conceived “with the desire to create an abundant, splendid effect,” referencing Versailles’ Galerie des Glaces and competing with the richest gallery in the richest of all palaces. Dupas’ compositions combine antique figures, medieval architectures and baroque sailing ships, in a glittering dream which evokes a golden age. As written in Bruno Foucart’s Normandie, Queen of the Sea, “These great golden panels have about them a joyousness, a humor and a sophistication that now seem the very embodiment of the 1930s, a between-the-war world that, in the middle of the ocean, could appear like an interlude between pleasures.”
The Normandie’s last crossing took place in August 1939, months before the fall of France to the Nazis that would prevent her return from New York to Le Havre. After Pearl Harbor, the United States commandeered the ship for naval use and starting in December 1941 the decorations were stripped away. In February 1942, an accidental fire burned the ship and the tons of water used against the blaze caused the ship to capsize. Its hull was later salvaged and sold for scrap in 1946.
The composite form of Dupas’ murals was, in a sense, its salvation in that the completed work could not only be removed from the ship before its fatal fire, but could also be dispersed in small groupings. In 1976, the main part of the Chariot of Poseidon mural was donated to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, preserving for posterity an entire corner of Normandie's Grand Salon. In 1981, one of the largest assemblages of continuous panels known was acquired at auction by Malcolm Forbes as a surprise wedding present for his son. The panels were subsequently the centerpiece of the main entry of the Forbes Magazine Galleries, within the historic Forbes Building in Manhattan.
Originally installed in the proper right top of the Birth of Aphrodite, these eight continuous panels depict classic architectural elements which are reminiscent of De Chirico’s enigmatic arches and towers and contrast wonderfully with the rhythm of the tangled sails, filled by the wind. The mysterious angel brings a reassuring sense of calm to Dupas’ chaotic storm. We can speculate that perhaps she personifies the zephyr which pushed Aphrodite to shore and protected the passengers of the Normandie.
This offering presents collectors with a rare and unprecedented opportunity to acquire one of the largest assemblages of Normandie panels ever to appear on the market from a legendary American collection.
—Bill Miller, known widely as "Mr. Ocean Liner," is the author of over 100 books on passenger ships, a frequent guest speaker on modern-day cruise liners and was curator of Decodence: The Art & Style of the Normandie at New York City's South Street Seaport.
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