Lot 18
  • 18

A gilt-bronze and patinated-bronze inkstand by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier Louis XV, circa 1735

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
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  • bronze
  • 17cm. high, 27cm. wide, 24cm. deep; 6¾in., 10½in., 9½in.
the patinated bronze globular spiral twisted inkpot with an acanthus leaf and scroll cast gilt-bronze cover above a boldly scrolled leaf cast base with running water motifs, acanthus leaves and two foliate and flower cast scrolled pen supports; one pen support re-gilt


European Private Collection;
Sold Sotheby's, London, 12th December 2001, lot 42, for £245,500
where bought by the present owner.


In overall excellent condition. The gilding is less greenish and more golden and the patinated bronze slightly darker and much more attractive than in the catalogue photographs. The quality of the casting and chasing is superb. The body is produced in one piece by sand-casting using a technique called: "fonte tirée à noyau".The two garlands are mounted by screws – on one the original screw is missing, on the other the fixtures have been changed. One pen support has been professionally regilt.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A full expertise is available on request from the department. It has been compiled by Fernando Moreira, International Expert Advisor in XVIIth and XVIIIth century Gilt Bronze and Antique Furniture, Supplier to the French National Museums, Member of the Grands Ateliers de France.

Meissonnier and inkstands:
This splendid encrier embodies all elements of Rococo opulence. 
There is a model in terracotta for an inkstand which can be attributed to Meissonnier, illustrated for the first time in the article by Dr. Peter Fuhring in Sotheby's New York, The Thyssen Meissonnier Tureen, 13th May 1998, catalogue p. 21, fig 14. That inkstand was created between 1730-1735, probably a few years before the present inkstand. The small holes on the underside of the terracotta encrier indicate that the original intention was to fit the finished porcelain inkstand onto a gilt-bronze base. The present encrier is made in the same spirit with the patinated bronze inkwell sitting on a gilt-bronze base, thus also combining two different materials.

Another inkstand, this time executed in silver, was made by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier in 1731 for the Comte de Maurepas who was Sécretaire d'Etat à la Marine. Thought the piece itself has unfortunately not survived, the design is known from an engraving of the side view (see fig.1). It is certain that the silver example was executed as it is mentioned in the record of a visit to Meissonnier's atelier by the company of goldsmiths in 1731 and more than likely referred to again in his demande de privilege of 17th November 1733 noting 'Un Dessein d'ecritoire'. This design does not only reveal similarly boldly sculpted scrolls and acanthus motifs, but above all the presence of a virtually identical spiral-twisted patinated bronze inkpot.

Meissonnier and modelling the encrier:
The artist almost certainly captured a leaf in a mould as the starting point for creating and shaping the present inkwell. Subsequently from that mould a detailed wax could be made. He then used several of these wax leaves together for his transformation, distillation and recomposition of nature. So once a wax had been poured and extracted from the mould, it could be bent and twisted at the artist's will, beyond nature's will, by slightly heating it in warm water. This explains how in our encrier the coquille, the water motifs and various acanthus leaves turn in space to create perfect imaginary C- and S-scrolls, encompassing all the latest aesthetic innovations. The harmonious orchestration between the rough shell, tactile simulation of water falling, finely chased leaves, rockwork in high relief and bold smooth scrolls on the encrier reflect its magnificent quality and inventiveness.

The lost wax casting technique:
The lost wax casting technique, or cire perdue, was used by Meissonnier not only in his bronzes, but also in his silver pieces. It was a complex process, but one which offered him total freedom in modelling. The very specific final result makes every component appear distinct with a clear separation between the elements. Meissonier undoubtedly favoured this technique as each demarcation creates undulating shades that play with and counterbalance reflecting areas, enhancing chiaroscuro effects.

The technique consists of making a wax model round a core of burnt clay and enclosing it within an envelope of clay mixed with plaster. The whole is baked and the melted wax runs through a vent. Subsequently melted bronze is run in to take the place of the wax. The clay envelope can then be cut away and the core broken up inside. The result is a bronze exactly reproducing the original wax model. The technique ha sthe advantage of giving a very fine finish, of allowing the cast to be taken as a whole and of requiring the minimum of bronze. But it has the disadvantage of allowing only one cast to be taken. Further bronzes can only be obtained by taking a cast of the first one, but of course something of the original's directness is lost with each recast. The sharpness and crispness of the present encrier indicates that it is undoubtedly an original lost wax cast, and in this sense unique.

Meissonnier and gilt-bronze in early 18th century France:
There was a great revival of the use of gilt-bronze under the reign of Louis XIV. This probably originated with the installation of a foundry for Domenico Cucci at the Manufacture des Gobelins. This opened the door for Pierre Gole, Philippe Caffiéri and André-Charles Boulle to expand and develop their use of gilt-bronze. First found as mounts on furniture and around mirrors, artists further embellished their chandeliers, chenets, scientific instruments, accessoires de toilette and carriages with gilt-bronze. After a rather unstable period of melting gold and silver and a decree prohibiting temporarily the production of silver, silver and goldsmiths were looking for other less precious materials. Gilt-bronze lent itself marvelously to their needs, especially as the end result after the gilding and chasing is virtually identical in appearence to objects in gold and silver. It is therefore not unusual to find pieces that were originally conceived to be executed in silver made in gilt-bronze. Little is recorded about Meissonier's gilt-bronze production, but various examples survived which have been executed in both materials.

By the early 1730's Meissonnier was conscious of how influential and desirable his designs were. Therefore it is thought that he might have sold off some of his drawings and sketches to be executed by other metal-workers. However, his own production really stands out next to contemporary objects manufactured by other workshops. The present inkwell is a living proof of this excellence in quality, finish and chasing which could only be achieved by Meissonnier himself. It is not known where Meissonnier executed his gilt-bronzes.

Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier and the Rococo:
The new style-the Rococo - took its name in the nineteenth century from the word rocaille, originally meaning forms of irregular shape and which were found in nature and often decorated garden grottos and fountains. The word never lost its original meaning and it was only in colloquial French that it was used to describe a new ornament inspired by the irregular or asymmetrical shape of a shell, and in a broader sense of leaves too.
The present encrier is therefore a perfect early example of this Rococo vogue. Although many individual elements of the Rococo were already known, Meissonnier audaciously pushed the design to its extremes, surpassing anything known in the field before, replacing the hierarchic with an organic unity. The present encrier combines with supreme skill gilt-bronze together with bronze and a spiral geometric twist with a large loose realist leaf motif. Irregular, rather than regular shapes were preferred, replacing older symmetrical forms which were perceived as traditional and conventional. For a tabatiere of almost identical outlineto the present encrier, see fig. 3. In this sense his object must be looked at as pieces of sculpture. Jean-Bernard Le Blanc, when he spoke about the activity of goldsmiths in England wrote: "Le plus habile orfèvre de Londres n'est qu'un ouvrier. Un Germain, un Meissonnier, sont tout autre chose, se sont des dessinateurs, ce sont des sculpteurs, ce sont des grands Hommes en leur genre" (see P. Fuhring, op.cit., p. 422, no. 10). This remark is pretty telling and shows that Juste-Aurele's reputation rested upon artistry beyond mere craftsmanship. Also the element of water became very important in Rococo designs. Meissonnier made various designs where fountains and falling water were predominant elements in conveying this new Rococo style, (see fig. 2). Considering his various achievements, one can only conclude that Meissonnier belonged to a very small group of artists who were able to combine inventive design with excellence in execution and craftmanship.

Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (1695-1750):

Born in Turin on 17th March 1695, he was baptised the same day in the metropolitan church of St. Giovanni Baptista in the presence of his godfather, Giusto Aurelio from Nacona, and his grandmother, Maria Felice Farinona. Nothing is known of his godparents nor of their relationship with the child's parents, Etienne Meissonnier and his wife Antoinette Margerita Bavera (1672- before 1728). Etienne II Stefano Meissonnier (or Stefano as he was called in the Italian documents) was a goldsmith from Aix-en-Provence and son of Claude Meissonnier (1613- circa 1700), a master goldsmith and dealer. Claude himself fullfilled a very important role in the corporation of goldsmiths at Aix where he was garde and jure in 1680-1681 and again in between 1686-1692. In 1693 he returned his poinçon for reasons of age and failing health. Unlike his father, Etienne II is not recorded in the ledgers of the goldsmiths' company at Aix and it appears that he moved to Turin, the capital of Savoy, before he became a master goldsmith, at a time possibly coinciding with his father's retirement and shortly before the bitrth of his son, Juste-Aurèle.

In Turin, Etienne II Meissonnier worked for numerous churches and distinguished clients. One of his masterpieces was a life size Madonna and child executed in 1716 with Giuseppe Balla for Countess Scarnafiggi. He also made in 1726 a crucifix commissioned by King Victor-Amedeo II as a gift the following year to Pope Benedict XIII. Very little is known about Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier's training as a goldsmith and metal engraver, skills he more than likely learned in his father's workshop. Juste-Aurèle first recorded commission was for the engraving of several dies for the Turin Mint, although none of the coins can positively be identified.

His second commission, to engrave the die for a medal commemorating the naval battle of Malaga and dating from February 1715, is much better recorded. It was part of a famous set of medals commemorating major events of Louis XIV's reign, called the "Histoire Métallique du Roi". This commission from the French Royal Mint testifies the Juste-Aurèle's presence in Paris in the last year of the King's reign.

From 1715, young Meissonnier stayed in Paris, although it seems certain he travelled once again to Turin and possibly to Rome in the presence of Jean-Baptiste and Carle Vanloo. He must have made a successful start to his own career there as around 1718 he took a pupil, though we don't know exactly what he was supposed to teach him. What is important however, is that in the notary's document relating to the last payment for training Louis Dubois, Meissonnier is described as ciseleur and dessinateur, living on the Île de la Cité. The mention of this double activity is the earliest documentation of his capacity as a professional craftsman and as a draughtsman designer.

At the height of his career
From then onward his career exploded. Meissonnier started to work for major noble families such as Louise-Françoise de Bourbon, known as Madame la Duchesse, mother of the Prime Minister Louis-Henri, Duc de Bourbon, later Prince de Condé and owner of the Château de Chantilly; and for Louis II de Rochechouart, Duc de Mortemart, Pair de France and First Gentleman of the Bedchamber. In 1725, shortly after entering the company of the goldsmith's in Paris, Meissonnier obtained his first Royal commission. He was paid 7,000 livres for five gold sword hilts to be used as royal presents commemorating the marriage of Louis XV and Marie Lecszinska. It is in this same period that Meissonnier enlarged his activities by becoming more interested in related art, such as painting, stage sets and architecture. It is therefore not surprising to find him among the seven participants of the contest organised to find a successor to Jean II Berain, designer of the King's Cabinet. In December 1726, Meissonnier was appointed Dessinateur de la Chambre du Roi. This eminent position stimulated interest from many further clients. King John V of Portugal's commission to design the throne room and the throne itself at the Royal Palace in Lisbon confirmed Meissonnier's status.

In the 1730's, the decade in which the present encrier was executed, the artist was at the height of his career and was able to boast considerable experience in all domains of the arts, from designing and making models in silver and gilt-bronze to mastering architecture and painting. Several contemporaries acknowledged Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier's genius, stating that he should be granted membership to the Royal Academy as an architect. But he faced the same problem as Thomas Germain, as it was impossible for a goldsmith to enter the academic sphere, as both their activities were rooted in manufacture and trade rather than in the fine arts. His workshop continued to flourish and he moved on from one success to another till his death in 1750. In the same year the Comte de Caylus wrote an obituary of the artist: "On peut assurer que les morceaux d'orfèvrerie qu'il est donne la peine de terminer, sont de la plus grande beauté...Il vouloit trouver du nouveau, paraître singulier, produire du piquant et en un mot devenir original et surtout ne ressembler à personne".