Committed to promoting European culture and history, whether it is horology or the decorative arts, Breguet has made it possible for the new display of 18th-century French decorative arts in the Louvre Museum in Paris to see the light of day, with the reo
It was the golden age of the French decorative arts, a time when everybody who was anybody had one wish: to make their way to the City of Light to make their fortune. The French capital was the epicentre of creativity and savoir-faire in every sphere of art in the 18th century (what has been called “a moment of grace in French art”), when all of the best artists and designers from around France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands flocked to Paris to work. By the middle of the century, when the French court had shifted permanently to Versailles, royal manufactories and ateliers were based in the Louvre Museum, which today houses one of the most prized collections of French decorative arts. Largely from the 18th century it ranges from furniture, tapestries, woodwork and paintings to ceramics, clocks and silverware, most originally commissioned for royal or princely residences. These priceless pieces are testimony to the blossom- ing of ideas and inventiveness that characterised the Age of Enlightenment, and Breguet played a lead role in ensuring that the more than 2,000 treasures of French art and design are preserved for the enrichment of future generations. The company backed a complete revamp of the Louvre’s Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI rooms, presenting in 2,200sqm of exhibition space these masterpieces by the artists and craftsmen from that bygone era previously hidden away in museum storerooms.
Nayla Hayek, Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of the Swatch Group, gave a moving speech to 300 VIP guests during a gala dinner held under the museum’s glass pyramid to celebrate the galleries’ relaunch. The daughter of the late Nicolas G. Hayek, founder and former Chairman of the Swatch Group, who in 2009 initiated the brand’s sponsorship of several million
euros of the Louvre’s €26 million renovation of 18th-century decorative art galleries (the museum’s first major project entirely funded by private donors), but didn’t live to see its completion, Nayla noted how proud her father would have been. Nicolas G. Hayek once said, “Preserving world cultural heritage is an investment for all of us, for our children and for our grandchildren. It is our duty to do so, as much for the future as for the past. We are responsible for caring for and preserving the beauty of Europe.” He believed that Breguet was an integral part of European cultural heritage, viewing watchmaking as a combination of science, technology and the decorative arts.
The links between Breguet and the Louvre are numerous: founder Abraham-Louis Breguet had exhibited his timepieces at the second Exhibition of Industrial Products held at the Louvre; Vivant Denon, the Louvre’s first patron, acquired a Breguet minute repeater and a biscuit porcelain clock in 1810 and 1811 respectively; the museum owns a fine collection of Breguet creations like the No. 1391 subscription pocket watch and the No. 2585 half-quarter repeating watch in a gold hunter case with a silver-plated back engraved with a map of nine Italian administrative regions; and, in 2009, the museum held the exhibition Breguet at the Louvre: An Apogee of European Watchmaking.
Furniture- making reached its peak during France’s Ancien Régime. In the 18th century, for the first time in history, an exceptional desk and an exceptional painting could be considered equals in terms of artistry and price. An extensive collaborative project between collector and artisan, each bespoke piece of furniture called for the skills of least five master craftsmen – each a member of a trade guild awarded the exclusive right to practice a métier in a given city and its surroundings, enjoying royal protection. They included a cabinetmaker, marquetry artist, bronze caster, silversmith, chaser, gilder, painter, clockmaker, locksmith and marble, leather or fabric worker.
Mikaël Kraemer, fifth-generation antiquarian of the prestigious Paris-based, family-run Kraemer Gallery, which houses the world’s largest privatelyowned collection of museum-quality 18th-century French furniture and objets d’art, says, “Before the time of King Louis XIV, there was no creativity in furniture. It was plain wooden furniture that was only useful – there were no carvings or ornamentation. But Louis XIV understood the prestige of the art world, so through his high profile and power, he convinced the best artists from around Europe to come to Paris to work for him. Then at the end of the 18th century, we had, more or less at the same time, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, so no more pieces were handmade. Furniture in the 19th century after Louis XVI was industrially made and there was no more artistry; they were copies of works made in the 18th century. That made a real difference between 17th- and 18thcentury art and 19th- and 20th-century art.”
The master cabinetmakers of the time furnished the court, royal households, châteaux of the nobility and beautiful residences of rich financiers. Think King Louis XIV, Queen MarieAntoinette, the Marquis de Marigny, Madame de Pompadour, Madame de Mailly, Comte d’Artois and Lazare Duvaux – France’s elite who competed with each other to have the most beautiful modern pieces of art. They were often in their 20s when they purchased these pieces, as the life expectancy then was about 50 years old. It was a time of relative peace with no wars or crises, and this happiness was reflected in the furniture’s artistic creativity.
A Journey through the 18th Century
The Louvre’s 18th-century galleries adopt a chronological approach, taking visitors through a natural progression of the major stylistic periods, from the flamboyant Louis XIV aesthetic and the Regency style to the elaborate but lighthearted rococo art, followed by a return to the antique taste and neoclassicism with its pure, geometrical proportions, straight lines and refined colours. I witnessed master works on display by the greatest artisans of their day, whose workshops served not only the French court, but also its European counterparts, thus contributing to the spread of French culture: cabinetmakers Charles Cressent, Jean-Henri Riesener, Jean-Baptiste-Claude Séné and Bernard II van Risenburgh; silver- and goldsmiths Thomas Germain, Jacques Roëttiers and Robert-Joseph Auguste; and painters and decorators Charles Lebrun and Charles-Antoine Coypel.
The museum’s collection has grown from donations from benefactors like Comte Isaac de Camondo, Baronne Salomon de Rothschild, Basile de Schlichting, René Grog and MarieLouise Grog-Carven, J. Paul Getty, the Duchess of Windsor and the Kraemer family. A top-quality, perfectly-proportioned Louis XVI garden with dolphins vase with a blue background in Sèvres porcelain made for the son of the king, painted by Pierre Joseph Rosset l’Ainé and gilded by Jean-Pierre Boulanger, caught my eye.
In a neoclassical space at the heart of the new galleries, a cupola fresco depicting mythological subjects painted in 1774 by Antoine-François Callet and Pierre-Hyacinthe Deleuze for Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, which was fully restored, reassembled and installed, drew my attention. Another exceptional piece was AndréCharles Boulle’s armoire for the royal furniture depository in oak, softwood, ebony veneer, marquetry of tortoiseshell, brass, pewter and stained horn, and gilt-bronze mounts. Thus, today at the Louvre, visitors need no longer be deprived of one of the world’s finest collections of 18th-century French decorative furnishings and objets d’art – all thanks to Breguet.