August 8, 2011
By Mary Jo Gibson
Today’s Museum Monday takes a virtual tour of the main Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A great place to visit, with hours spent looking over riches of the past and present, the building itself is a jewel rising above the city. The Getty has embraced the technology wave propelling all museums into a future of new visitors with a virtual museum experience that engages all the senses with unique exhibitions. In my Cabinet of Curiosities I shared their recently closed exhibition Paris: Life & Luxury featuring 3 ringtones of antique clocks to download.
I have chosen three examples from the European furniture collection to share in this post. The first, a cabinet acquired by J Paul Getty in 1971, against the advice of his curators. It was in pristine condition although the surface coating is colored wax, suggesting that someone had tried to make it look older than it really was. The curators concluded the cabinet was a product of the Renaissance Revival of the 19th century when many American industrial magnates purchased fake reproductions from cash-poor European aristocrats. Getty paid $1,700 for the cabinet. It was not displayed in the museum until 2006, after a thorough examination by experts in 2001. Using dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, they discovered the oak tree used in production was from late 1574 in Burgundy, France. The Museum has put together a wonderful video on their detective work, from the information obtained from the wood, to a small nail left inside by the craftsman that provided a wealth of historical information.
The collection of European furniture features many pieces by Andre Charles Boulle, 1632-1732, Paris. Christened by his contemporaries as ‘the most skillful artisan in Paris,’ Boulle’s name is synonymous with the practice of veneering furniture with marquetry of tortoiseshell, pewter and brass. A great practitioner of this art, referred to as boulle work, he specialized in floral marquetry in both stained and naturally colored wood. Many of his designs are illustrated in a book of engravings published in 1720.
Prior to 1666, Boulle was awarded the title of master cabinetmaker; in 1672 the king granted him the royal privilege of lodging in the Palais du Louvre, while achieving the title of cabinetmaker and sculptor to Louis XIV. This allowed him to produce furniture as well as works in gilt bronze such as chandeliers. Although strict guild rules usually prevented craftsmen from practicing two professions simultaneously, Boulle’s favored position allowed him protected status and exempted him from these statutes.
Viewing items on line is a personal experience; the stories behind the pieces not shared in basic attribution information can give greater depth to a virtual tour. Case in point is the Planisphere Clock, an elaborate timepiece over 9 ft. tall, demonstrating the level of astronomical knowledge of 18th century French scientists.
The large main dial is composed of overlapping circular plates and three hands that indicate the time with a 24 hour chapter ring, months of the year and zodiac signs, days of the lunar month, and local time in various French and British ports, such as Dunkerque, Le Havre, Siam and Saint Malo. Four smaller dials show the phases of the moon, a tidal calendar for the ports of Northern France, days of the week, and time of the eclipses of Jupiter’s first moon, Io. On top of the case, a gilt wood orrery shows the relative positions and motions of bodies in the solar system. This data was useful to the clock’s first owner, the Prince of Conti, Louis Francois de Bourbon, the king’s minister of secret diplomacy. Orchestrating clandestine operations, the Prince needed to know when his messengers were arriving by ship in the ports of France and when vessels were embarking for negotiations or wars.
The mechanics were designed by Alexandre Fortier, 1700-1770, a gentleman of leisure, whose fortune allowed him to pursue a variety of scholarly interests, among them experimenting with scientific instruments. A lawyer in the Parlement de Paris, science was his real interest. He published treatises on thermometers, barometers, and the movement of the earth based on the theories of Copernicus. The instruments he built were collected by the foremost scientists of the day, including Bonnier de la Moisson.
This clock eventually came into ownership by the Ephrussi family, banking scions of Europe prior to WWII. Their contributions to art and their collections of antiques are described in the book, “The Hare with the Amber Eyes”, by Edmund de Waal, one of their remaining descendants. On a visit to the Getty, he discovered this piece, once owned by his great-great uncle, over a hundred years ago. Asked if he ever felt regret on encountering museum objects that once belonged to his family, “No, its wonderful, it is extraordinary that things survive.”
I enjoyed researching the many pieces in the European Furniture collection at the Getty Museum. As always, my research revealed several surprises that added to the history of the piece beyond mere side panel information. I look forward to bringing you more of the Getty Museum in future Museum Mondays.