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French & Continental Furniture

West Meets East in the Finest Examples of Blanc-de-Chine Furniture

By Sotheby's
This May, Style: Private Collections will offer an outstanding selection of blanc-de-chine porcelain figures and lacquer commodes bringing to light the important moment in French furniture design when the West met the East, and vice versa.

T he European interest for non-Western art was first stimulated by trade with the East in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thanks to new commercial networks, the West was introduced to new objects and materials, such as porcelain figures and lacquer that fascinated, for their novelty, beauty and simplicity.

Two commodes in this sale are splendid examples of the taste for exoticism under the reign of Louis XV and of the use of Chinese lacquer panels on furniture pieces, a practice much promoted by leading marchand-merciers of the day. Just like porcelain figures, the commodes were mounted with gilt-bronze, here elegantly framing the landscape scene in Chinese lacquer according to the Louis XV taste.

While the commode stamped 'Dubois' epitomises the fascination for the Orient from the first half of the 18th century and is a superb example of a rare red lacquer furniture executed by one of the most distinguished ébénistes, the black lacquer commode stamped 'Delorme' equally stuns with the quality and aesthetic of the lacquer panel.

Often the case with gilt-bronze mounted lacquer commodes and other lacquer objects like boxes, they were collected by royalty and aristocrats such as Queen Marie Leszczyńska, Queen Marie Antoinette, whose collection of small lacquer boxes at Versailles remains one of the finest assembled in Europe, and the Rothschilds. The marchand-mercier Thomas-Joachim spearheaded the taste for Oriental lacquer mounted furniture amongst collectors, having supplied a famous lacquer commode by Bernard Van Risenburgh to Queen Marie Leszczyńska for the Château de Fontainebleau in 1737.

Just like these two commodes, mounting porcelain figures responds to the desire of paying tribute to the beauty of a material, adapted to French taste and most importantly, to the decoration of the interiors of the period. Unlike the earthenware or stoneware to which Europeans were accustomed, Chinese porcelain was lustrously white and smooth, and was also enticing because of the mysteries of their creation.

Whilst Chinese potters increasingly tailored their production to European tastes, craftsmen researched techniques to imitate porcelain and Western aristocrats and European royalty established porcelain factories to create similar wares.

The lustrously white surface of porcelain is best exemplified by to two pairs of blanc-de-chine porcelain figures from the sale, which are typical of the production from the beginning of the 18th century of the porcelain factories of Dehua, Fujian province, in southeastern China.

Indeed, the Dehua potters made great use of light and shade to create stunning effects to the hairstyle, robe, all sharply modelled as found with lot 80, a pair of Régence gilt-bronze mounted blanc-de-chine porcelain figures. The men who supplied finely incised mounts to the porcelains were marchands-merciers, ingenious in devising ways of adapting precious materials from the East to the interiors of the French aristocracy.

Following a commission or his individual purchase of porcelain figures, the marchand-merciers needed someone to design models of the mount, a ciseleur (chaser) to file and finish the raw cast mount by adding detail and texture, and finally a doreur (gilder) to gild the bronze mounts and burnish them. This is probably why Pierre Verlet claims in 1958 that without the marchands-merciers transforming the long tradition of setting precious objects in metal, the fashion for mounted porcelains would not have occurred in France.

Thanks to the Parisian marchands-merciers who successfully promoted an appreciation in the East for the West, we are able to encounter once in a while extraordinary gilt-bronze mounted Chinese lacquer commodes and gilt-bronze mounted blanc-de-chine porcelain figures such as those offered this May.

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