SAN FRANCISCO — The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is presenting “Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette,” an unparalleled collection of decorative arts from the Musée du Louvre, Paris through March 17.
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Many of the objects in the exhibition have never been shown in the United States and indeed, several have never left France, including some of the most exquisite treasures of the French monarchy from the time of Louis XIV until the Revolution of 1789.
“Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette” is a dazzling illustration of the story of French royal patronage, displayed for the first time in the United States in this exclusive presentation.
One of the greatest treasures of the Louvre, the Gemmes da la Couronne — Louis XIV’s personal collection of hard-stone vases mounted in gold and gemstones — is one of the most significant loans in this exhibition.
Made of rare hard-stone — amethyst, agate, amber, jade and rock crystal — and representing the highest technical achievement, many of these objects were displayed in rooms specifically designed to receive them in the royal apartments at Versailles.
“These vases were the height of princely collecting,” noted Martin Chapman, the Fine Arts Museum’s curator of European decorative art. “They’re very precious and very fragile and they’ve only been loaned once before, to the Kremlin in 2004.”
As Louis XIV was building his palace at Versailles, he called on his court workshops at the Gobelins manufactory to furnish his new building. At its height, as many as 800 artisans, directed by Charles Le Brun, first painter to the king, produced mosaic tabletops of semiprecious stones, sumptuous wool and silk tapestries, carpets, silver furniture and other luxury goods representing the country’s finest workmanship.
Some of these expensive and elaborately designed objects were presented by the king as diplomatic gifts known as the présents du Roi. In the 18th century, finely worked gold and jeweled snuffboxes were added to the list of items given by the king to acknowledge exceptional service, friendships and alliances.
By the time of the next monarch, Louis XV, the making of porcelain had become an important symbol of a country’s prestige, and the manufactory at Sévres, still producing porcelain today, was acquired by the king in the late 1750s.
“While the Seven Years’ War was raging across Europe, Sévres emerged the victor in European porcelain manufacturing,” said Chapman.
The factory was to dominate the production of porcelain in Europe in terms of its innovative designs and sumptuous schemes of decoration enhanced with gilding. These objects would also play an important role in statecraft, by being presented to foreign rulers as examples of the finest objects France could make.
“A large dinner service decorated with green ribbons would cement the alliance of France with its traditional enemy, Austria, an alliance that would eventually lead to a significant realignment of the great powers of Europe,” said Chapman.
This alliance would also result in the Austrian archduchess Marie-Antoinette being given in marriage to the future French king.
By the late 18th century, Paris was acknowledged as the cultural capital of the world, and royalty and the aristocracy developed an unprecedented taste for luxury and comfort.
“They lived in smaller rooms and the objects produced for them were finely and intensely decorated because they were so close to the viewer,” said Chapman.
Rather than living in public in grand state rooms, the king embraced a more private, less formal mode of entertaining, often without servants. Many of these objects were designed to be used by the owners themselves, such as the magnificent solid gold coffee grinder made for Madame de Pompadour, the famous mistress to Louis XV.
Louis XVI continued to support both the Sèvres porcelain factory and the Gobelins manufactory (which by this time produced tapestries exclusively) — among others — after his coronation in 1775.
His queen, Marie-Antoinette, commissioned elaborate furniture and decorative objects for her tiny private apartments at Versailles, and also revived the princely tradition of collecting hard-stone vases. Guided by Enlightenment ideals, the king put parts of the royal collection on view to the public and also acquired the most important hard-stone vases and furniture of the day for the foundation of a new museum in the Louvre.
Unfortunately, events overtook him before this project could be realized. Economic hardship, caused by years of bad harvests, foreign interventions, and resistance to reform, fomented unrest in France, and public opinion began to turn against the king and the royal family.
This unrest eventually led to revolution and Louis XVI was executed in January of 1793. Just eight months later, the Louvre, now designated as a collection for the people of France, opened to the public.
The story of “Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette” describes the era when the power and prestige of France’s monarchs was directed toward the creation of the finest and most elaborate examples of the decorative arts.
These objects reflected the monarchs’ personal tastes, but they also represented France at an aesthetic zenith, which the rest of the world would emulate. Although much was lost due to the French Revolution, a nucleus of objects, Louis XIV’s hard-stone vases in particular, was preserved for the new museum.
“The Louvre’s Department des Objets d’Art was originally founded during the French Revolution with objects from the former royal collections. It has, however, worked strenuously ever since to find many of the treasures of France that were lost. We are fortunate today to be able to see some of these magnificent royal objects that have been recovered in this exhibition,” Martin Chapman said.
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco with the exceptional collaboration of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Grand patron is Cynthia Fry Gunn and John A. Gunn. Major patron is the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums and generous support is also provided by the Richard B. Gump Trust.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, “Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette,” published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The volume reveals the story of patronage and collecting among the French kings and queens with some of the greatest examples of decorative arts from the royal palaces and collections, alongside illuminating essays describing the history and background of these beautiful objects. Drawing from the works in the Musée du Louvre’s extraordinary Département des Objets d’Art, Royal Treasures from the Louvre examines the full breadth of decorative arts in 17th- and 18th-century France, offering readers copious views into the splendor of the French court. It is available in the museum stores or online at shop.famsf.org.
The Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue and Clement Street in San Francisco, displays a collection spanning more than 4,000 years of ancient and European art and houses the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts in a neoclassical building overlooking Lincoln Park and the Golden Gate Bridge.
For more information call 415-750-3600.