Friday, July 9, 2010

A Tureen Fit for a French Queen

Friday, July 9, 2010
Susan reports:

Every so often, I come across an object in a museum that so captures a past time and place that it stops me cold. This wonderfully baroque tureen is one of those pieces.

Made of ormolu-brass between 1720-1750, the tureen was most likely made in France. It's very large, even for a serving dish: I could probably just circle my arms around it.  The tureen was commissioned by Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon (1679-1754), below, connetable de Lorraine et vice-roi de Toscane. The son of the Marquis de Beauvau, the prince was a well-connected and powerful nobleman, and he was expected to represent both his king and France by entertaining lavishly.

To me this elaborate tureen seems to epitomize the life of the Ancien Regime at its most extravagant: exquisite craftsmanship and taste, elegant hospitality, and a reverence for fine food are all combined in a single piece. Imagine this as part of a magnificent dinner service, carried in from the kitchens by a liveried footman to guests eager to taste the delicious dish that deserved so grand a presentation.

Yet as alluring as this image may be, I have to add a few less pleasant facts about that gleaming ormolu. Also called gilt bronze in English, ormolu is everywhere in 18th c. decorative arts, from jewelry to cradling porcelain vases to the clawed feet of marble-topped bombe chests. But just like hatters and dyers, the gilders who created these masterpieces paid a deadly price for their art. Mercury was used in the process of bonding pure powdered gold to the brass or bronze base, with the result that few gilders survived their fortieth birthdays. The fatalities were so widely acknowledged that France banned the manufacture of ormolu in the 1830s, among the first legislature to protect workers from industrial hazards.

In that light, the tureen becomes an even more poignant (and more ominous) symbol of pre-Revolutionary France: artisans giving their lives for the gilded glory of aristocrats.

Above: Ormolu-brass tureen, c. 1720-1750. Gift of John T. Dorrance, Jr., Winthertur Museum.
Below: Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon by Hyacinthe Rigaud, Nancy, Musee Lorrain


Mme.Tresbeau said...

How very beautiful!

Rowenna said...

Why ever did we stop using soup tureens? I have my grandmother's proudly displayed, as it's the loveliest bit of china from her collection, but of course never actually put soup in it...

Margaret Porter said...

It's quite an artistic piece, but as overhwhelming as it is impressive! I've seen lots of silver and silver-gilt tureens but I don't think I've seen an ormolu one like this, not in person anyway.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

This tureen really is a show-stopper! Not only is it very large, but I image it must be quite heavy as well. When filled, it must have required the strongest footman on the staff to carry it -- or maybe two.

It's part of a large collection of soup tureens at Winterthur that was (appropriately!) a gift from the Campbell Soup Company Museum. Here's more info about the collection and historical tureens in general:

ILoveVersailles said...

(My comment disappeared so I'm trying again.)

This golden tureen is magnificent! It does look like it belongs on Marie Antoinette's supper table. Souhaitez-vous soin de soupe à la tortue de xérès, Votre Majesté ?

Flutterby said...

Wow, was there mercury in everything? If the workers died from mercury poisoning, how about the people who ate the food that was in this tureen?

Merline Lovelace said...

Hi, Susan -- Seems like I remember ormalu from one of my all-time favorite Georgette Heyer books. Friday's Child, I think it was. Seems I recall her clutching an ormalu clock and a bird cage??? Anyone else remember????

Finegan Antiques said...

It's breathtaking. Opulent doesn't quite describe the tureen.
It always seems that the rich use and abuse the common folk. Slavery in the Southern states, the factory workers during the Industrial Revolution and currently the mortgage bankers on Wall Street and the BP's executives. History just seems to repeat itself.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely gorgeous....sigh!

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