Friday, December 17, 2010

Parisian Marchands-Merciers; 18th century one stop shopping

Commode by Baumhauer, Joseph commissioned by marchands-merciers  Darnault, François-Charles 1755-8

Let's take you back to one of my favorite periods in history the Ancien Régime of 18th century France. Lets say you are a high European aristocrat moving to Paris to live for a year. You have a agent find you a fashionable place to live, a large grand hotel newly built in the NeoClassial style on the rue Saint-Honoré one of the nicest streets in Paris. You have one problem, You want to decorate and furnish it in a timely manor.

You could bring your furniture with you if you were moving to a place like England. As most Royalty and aristocrat's traveled with there furniture but not to a place like Paris, the capital of fashion, taste grace and style of the world. Not if you wanted to go places in France and move up the social latter.

Armchair by Georges Jacob, (upholstery is in the style of: Philippe de Lasalle, 1780-85,

Carved and gilded walnut, covered in embroidered silk-satin. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Armchair by Georges Jacob, (upholstery is in the style of: Philippe de Lasalle, 1780-85,

Carved and gilded walnut, covered in embroidered silk-satin. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Once in Paris you could go the normal route and order new fashionable French decorative arts and furniture but it would take months sometimes years before you get your items due to the French Guild system. Many hands worked on one piece meaning a piece would be sent out to many different shops before it could be completed. If you visited a Parisian cabinetmaker or any furniture maker's shop you could not buy ready made furniture as we can today. He would show you examples of his work and what he could make for you. If you wanted gilt bronze or porcelain mounts, the furniture gold leafed and upholstered it had to be sent out of his shop to theses different shops that only specialized in doing there craft.

Copy of a 18th century French Lyon silk in my collection. In the 18th century fabrics like this were hand woven on a loom only at a few inches a day.

Copy of a 18th century French Lyon silk in my collection. In the 18th century fabrics like this were hand woven on a loom only at a few inches a day.

You would have to visit a fabric house for upholstered pieces and they would also show you examples of high end hand woven Lyon silks. They might have some yardage of plan fabrics but if you want to empress you want to order hand woven hand embroidered Lyon silk that is only woven a few inches a day by hand. So it might take six months to a year just to have the fabric made for your custom made furniture. Working with the guilds was a great thing if you had the time and the money. But we don't, our furniture would be arriving at the end of our years stay in the French capital.


Circa 1770-1775, The ormolu mounts executed by Pierre Gouthire, the design attributed to Franois-Joseph Belanger, the cutting attributed to Augustin Bocciardi, commissioned by the duc d'Aumont and purchased at his sale in 1782 by Louis XVI

The domed stepped covers with berried finials, the tazze-shaped bodies mounted with superbly chased and gilded d'or mat bifurcated laurel handles, on spirally-reeded spreading socles bordered with oak foliage and sunflowers, one vase incised A in the interior, the alabaster probably ancient, on circular stepped verde antico marble bases, the socles possibly replaced in the late 18th century

Option two would be to buy fine furniture and decorative arts of the latest fashion at auction. Someone rich and fashionable was always dieing just as to day and there cherished objects come up for auction. Aristocrats lose money and have to sell off coveted items. The problem in the 18th century with buying at auction is that you might not get such a great deal on fine items as you might have to stand in line behind French king Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette bidding against you, in that case you might lose.

When the collection of the duc d'Aumont was sold by auction in Paris in 1782 so many objects mounted by Gouthière were bought for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The duc's sale catalogue is, however still, in existence, with the names of the purchasers and the prices realized. The auction was almost an apotheosis of Gouthière work. The precious lacquer cabinets, the gilt bronze and rock crystal chandeliers and candelabra, the tables and cabinets in marquetry, the columns and vases in porphyry, jasper and choice antique marbles, the porcelains of China and Japan were nearly all mounted in gilt bronze by him. More than fifty of these pieces bore Gouthière's signature.


LATE 18TH CENTURY,  The fruiting finial with a lid opening to the clock works, above two enamelled rings with Roman and Arabic numerals, the porcelain imitating lapis lazuli, supported by three term figures terminating in hoof feet, on a futher plinth base and fluted feet

The duc d'Aumont's cabinet represented the high-water mark of the chasers art, and the great prices which were paid for Gouthière's work at this sale are the most conclusive criterion of the value set upon his achievement in his own day. Thus Marie Antoinette paid 12,000 livres for a red jasper bowl or brule-parfums mounted by him, which was then already famous. Curiously enough it commanded only one-tenth of that price at the Fournier sale in 1831; but in 1865, when the marquis of Hertford bought it at the prince de Beauvais's sale, it fetched 31,900 francs. It is now in the Wallace Collection, which contains the finest and most representative gathering of Gouthière's undoubted work. The mounts of gilt bronze, cast and elaborately chased, show satyr's heads, from which hang festoons of vine leaves, while within the feet a serpent is coiled to spring.


Circa 1785, the case attributed to the fondeur Franois Vion, and chased and gilt by Jean-Claude-Thomas Duplessis, the dial signed Robin

In two-tone gilding, the circular glazed white-enamelled dial with Roman and Arabic chapters, alternating with fleur de Lys, signed Robin, within a foliate-cast surround, the rectangular case surmounted by cooing doves and laurel wreathes representing Love's triumph, flanked by volute uprights draped with floral and laurel swags and mounted with fruit and flower-filled cornucopiae, on a breakfront rectangular base edged with beading mounted with acanthus and berried foliage centered by a panel of scrolling grape vines and a sunflower, on bun feet, the case stamped with Palais de Tuileries inventory numbers 5547.TH, 8776 and a fleur-de-lys with a crown and the letter 'T..', the dial with Horloger du Roi effaced, the movement with anchor escapement, thread suspension to pendulum striking the hour and half-hour by means of crossed-out count wheel, the hands cast with an R. Provenance

Delivered by Robin for the Comte de Provence at the Palais de Luxembourg circa 1782-3

Confiscated by the Revolutionary Government in 1792 and recorded at the Palais de Luxembourg in the 1793 Inventory

Recorded at the Palais de Tuileries in 1807 in the bedroom of the Grand Marchal's apartment (Marchal Duroc)

Last recorded at the Tuileries in the 1855 inventory

After being out bid by the King and Queen of France on Objects d'art and furniture your best bet would be to go to a marchand-mercier. The Marchand-Mercier was one stop Parisian shopping for luxury goods in 18th century France. Upon visiting a shop one would find already made everything one would need to furnish a mansion in the latest fashion. From art from the finest artist, furniture, decorative arts, jewelry, tapestries rugs and much, much more The Marchand-Mercier working outside the guild system of craftsmen and working closely with France's top craftsmen. In the 18th century marchands-merciers were fancy shopkeepers but they also played an important role in the interior decoration of Paris homes. In fact, they served as general contractors, designing and commissioning pieces of the most fashionable furniture, and often, in addition, worked outside of their shops as interior decorators, responsible for many aspects of a room's decor.

This secretary and its companion commode stood in Marie Antoinette's private apartment at the château de Saint-Cloud; her initials appear three times in the gilt-bronze frieze under the marble top. The opulent refinement of this secretary, made about 1784 by Riesener, responds to the taste of his royal client. Cascading down the front are exquisitely chased gilt-bronze flowers, while fruit, wheat, flowers, and symbols of princely glory spill from the cornucopia mounts along the lower edge. The black-and-gold panels of Japanese lacquer reflect the queen's fondness for this material.

Princes and aristocrats in Europe had collected Japanese lacquer with enthusiasm since the seventeenth century. By the 1750s the skills necessary to re-shape panels of lacquer to create more fashionable objects were finely developed, particularly in Paris. The production of such pieces was controlled by the marchands-merciers (dealers in luxury goods). They were generally richer than cabinet-makers and it was they who laid out the capital to buy the expensive materials which were fashioned into furniture by the cabinet-makers. Baumhauer was one of many cabinet-makers from the German states who came to Paris, drawn by the opportunities offered to fine craftsmen by the strength of its luxury market. He made a number of commodes of this pattern, some of which bear the trade label of the marchand-mercier François-Charles Darnault.
In Paris, the guild system, in place since the late Middle Ages, prohibited craftsmen from working with any material with which they had not undergone a formal apprenticeship. Only a marchand-mercier who worked outside of the guild system, therefore, could mount Chinese porcelains with gilt-bronze handles and stands, fit the cabinetmaker's furniture with Japanese lacquer or Sèvres porcelain plaques, and supply furniture with opulent gilt-bronze or ormolu mounts.

A marchand-mercier ordered from craftsmen and sold to the public pictures, prints, candelabras, wall-lights, girandoles of gilded brass and [patinated] bronze, crystal chandeliers, figures of bronze, marble, wood and other material; cabinets, coffers, armoires, table, little tables, and candlestands put together of wood and gilded, marble tables and other merchandise and curiosities proper for the ornament of lodgings.

These extravagant entrepreneurs helped guide and even create new fashions, such as that for Chinese porcelains, mounted in purely French Rococo Louis XV style gilt bronze, transforming a Asian vase into a masterpiece a elegant ewer with rococo lip and handle, or reversing one bowl over another, with an open-work gilt-bronze rim, to function as a perfume-burner. Only a marchand-mercier could marshal the resources required to create such objects. Marchands-merciers bought exotic Japanese lacquer screens and boxes, had them dismantled and their wooden backing shaved down, then commissioned ébénistes like Bernard II Vanrisamberg or Joseph Baumhauer to produce furniture veneered with exotic lacquer panels shaped to fit the complex curves of Louis XV surfaces, and perhaps completed with French imitations, or entirely japanned in Vernis Martin, which might imitate Chinese blue and white porcelain decors, such as the blue-on-white ensemble of furniture Hébert delivered in 1743 for Mme de Mailly


Circa 1781, delivered by Claude-Jean Pitoin on 25 May 1781, the casting and chasing attributed to Louis-Gabriel Feloix. Delivered on 25 May 1781 by the marchand-fondeur Claude-Jean Pitoin to the Garde-Meuble for Marie-Antoinette's Cabinet Interieur de la Reine at the Chteau de Versailles.

In two-tone gilding, each with backplate in the form of a spirally-fluted and reeded staff wrapped with trailing grapevines and surmounted by a bifurcated thyrsus finial, the arms with cylindrical bobches wrapped with fruit, flower heads and foliage and with pearled drip-pans, drilled for electricity, the backplates originally swagged with pendant chains from the patera roundels to the pierced drip-pans

The influence of the marchands-merciers on French porcelain is also considerable. Lazare Duvaux alone bought three-fifths of the total output of Sèvres in 1757, representing a total of 165,876 livres. Certain forms in the Sèvres archives carry the names of well-known marchands-merciers in their designations.

POTPOURRI "AUX PERROQUETS", Louis XV, the porcelain China, 18th century, the bronze Paris, 18th century. Matte and polished gilt bronze with turquoise blue porcelain.

Membership in the corps was carefully controlled. A new member, born in France, had to undergo an apprenticeship of three years, followed by another three as a compagnon, during which time he was bound to remain unmarried. His master could take on but one apprentice at a time, and the apprenticeships were duly enregistred at the corporation's offices in rue du Petit-Lion (rue Quincampoix). A sum changed hands, estimated by Guillaume Glorieux as averaging about 1720 500 or 600 livres, and a larger sum was owed to the corporation when the individual was received master (maîtris), some 1700 livres. There were two exceptions to this rule, made for purveyors to the Court— marchands privilégié suivant le cour— by decree of the king, and for those who married the daughter of one of the accredited merchants.

Executed after designs by Belanger and Chalgrin, two of the leading architects of the day, and ornamented with exquisitely crafted gilt-bronze mounts by Gouthière, this lavish bleu turquin marble table represents the artistic culmination of late eighteenth-century furniture-making.

Commissioned by Louise-Jeanne de Durfort, Duchesse de Mazarin, the table was to be part of the furnishings for the grand salon of her seventeenth-century Paris mansion on the Quai Malaquais, which she was renovating under Belanger’s supervision. It would stand on a long wall under a mirror, opposite a blue marble chimneypiece also designed by Belanger. The sudden death of the Duchess in 1781, at age forty-five, brought the renovations to a halt, and the table, still unfinished, was never installed. It became the subject of litigation that lasted eight years. The use of marble as a material for furniture reflects the nostalgia in the last decades of the eighteenth century for the luxury and formality of the reign of Louis XIV, when mounted hardstones were popular. Six other late eighteenth-century tables made entirely of stone and mounted with gilt bronzes are recorded, but only one survives. The simple shape of the Frick table, with its tall, square, tapering legs, is characteristic of the neoclassical style that had become fully established by the 1770s. The mounts display a rich array of classical ornament, including the beautifully modeled central bacchante mask, the long, double-ended thyrsus fitted within the recessed frieze on the front apron, Ionic capitals at the tops of the legs, vertical panels outlined in pearl moldings descending the legs, and feet shod with tall acanthus leaves. The contrast of the matte finish — which was introduced into the mercury-gilding process by Gouthière — with the burnished highlights on the finely chased mounts attests to this bronzemaker’s complete mastery of his craft, one in which he reigned supreme during the period of Louis XVI.


The oval jasper bowl with reeded rim wrapped with trailing grapevines terminating in naturalistically-cast grapevine handles, the oval base pierced with rosettes and interlaced strapwork, on incurved supports with trailing husks enclosing a central acanthus-cast, fluted stem, on an oval base with outset corners engraved with scrolls and bellfowers, probably originally with feet
The Parisian marchands-merciers congregated in rue Saint-Honoré, marking their establishments with catchy and amusing signs; there Hébert, Simon-Philippe Poirier— and later at the same premises at the sign of the Golden Crown his partner Dominique Daguerre and Martin-Eloi Lignereux— Hébert, Mme Dulac, Julliot, Lebrun at the King of the Indies, Tuard, au château de Bellevue. Nearby, in rue de la Monnaie, the street where the manufacture royale of Sèvres eventually chose to open its porcelain shop, were Darnault, father and son at the sign of the King of Spain, and Lazare Duvaux. Edme-François Gersaint, for whom Watteau painted L'Enseigne de Gersaint as a shop sign had premises, following an old tradition, in a house on the Pont Notre-Dame. There, he advertised in 1740, he

"Sells all sorts of new and tasteful hardware (Cainquaillerie), trinkets, mirrors, cabinet pictures,pagods,lacquer and porcelain from Japan, shellwork and other specimens of natural history, stones, agates, and generally all curious and exotic merchandise".

Paris marchands-merciers were so popular that French Royalty also patronized them. The aunts of Louis XVI, princesses Adélaïde and Victoire ordered luxury goods from them.

Candelabra Lucien-François Feuchère French, Paris, 1784 - 1786 Blued metal; gilt bronze

Candelabra such as this pair would have been placed on a mantelpiece, a commode, or a secrétaire in a salon of a stylish Parisian townhouse.

Scholars use various decorative details to identify and precisely date an object like this. The gilt bronze figures of women with Egyptian headdresses and acanthus leaves clustered with fruit and flowers are of the same form as the mounts on three Chinese porcelain vases now in the Musée du Louvre. The aunts of Louis XVI, princesses Adélaïde and Victoire, ordered these vases from the marchand-mercier François-Charles Darnault in 1786 for their château of Bellevue. The candelabra may have been produced at the same time.  
French, Paris, 1751 - 1753 Painted and gilded oak; modern mirror glass

Palm leaves wrapped with floral garlands surround this tall mirror's frame, probably echoing the design of a carved console table that originally stood beneath. Above the frame, a plain wooden reserve now replaces a lost painted canvas. The two narrow side panels indicate that the walls of the original interior may have been hung with fabric, rather than fitted completely with paneling. Two paper trade labels for the marchand-mercier François-Charles Darnault, who had several shops and supplied the French royal family with furniture, are still pasted behind the mirror and one panel.

By the middle of the 1700s, tall mirrors were common features in interiors. During the day, they improved lighting in large rooms by magnifying daylight from windows, while at night they reflected the candlelight from the surrounding chandeliers and wall lights. Mirror-makers in the 1700s were unable to produce single sheets of glass large enough to fill an entire frame, forcing them instead to use two pieces fitted together.

                                          The paper trade label of the marchand-mercier (dealer) François-Charles Darnault is pasted behind the mirror. The label explains that "Darnault, merchant, sells all that is most beautiful and newest." at his shop "A la Ville de Versailles."



  1. I would normally expect buyers to support the guild system since the guild system was responsible for maintaining high standards (by prohibiting craftsmen from working with any material with which they had not undergone a formal apprenticeship).

    If a marchand-mercier worked outside of the guild system, there could be no guarantee of top quality standards. However the Japanese lacquer or Sèvres porcelain plaques could certainly be beautiful.

    Is there any way of knowing who sold the pair of Royal Louis XVI ormolu-mounted Egyptian alabster vases? Ditto the late Louis XVI ormolu-mounted jaspter bowl. Both are to die for.

  2. You are right no furniture could be made in Paris outside of the guild. Outside of Paris it was a little bit loser. Plus head member of the guild could drop in on your business to check on your wares. If they were not up to top quality standards they would destroy your piece. Marchand-mercier worked outside of the guild system as far as selling items, they could not make anything but worked with the Guild system when ordering & commissioning a high end piece that they would sale.

    Furniture and art commissioned by them are top of the line quality so fine that Royalty patronized marchand-mercier's taste and items instead of going to the craftsmen to order . Furniture makers in the guild might not go to the best gilt bronzer to put mounts on there furniture, They might use a friend or family member that they worked with in the past who might be a good bronzer but not the best. A marchand-mercier would only use the best and knew the best people in there fields. The two pieces you inquire about were sold at Christie's New York for over a million. I wish I could find something like this at a garage sale!!