Published: November 13, 2012
MaryLou Boone was an accidental collector. For years, she was immune to the collecting bug, but in her 50s, she found herself transformed.
Enjoying a visit to Brittany, France, she picked up several colorful plates, planning to give them to friends back home as gifts. Back home, she found herself captivated by the plates, which brought back memories of the villages where she bought them. On display in her kitchen they went, charming her anew every time she looked at them.
“As I admired them, I found myself discovering their similarities and differences. I appreciated their diversity. I suppose that in my subconscious I was beginning to think like a collector,” she said. On later vacations to France, she was taken with a blue and white, wet-drug jug (chevrette), circa 1630, with an elegant shape, and also a mustard pot she saw in an antiques shop that she admired but did not have time to buy. Back home, she kept thinking about the mustard pot, and since she did not have the shop’s business card, she did what any collector would do, she flew back to France and bought the pot. Thus, a collection was born.
Boone took to collecting like the proverbial fish to water, and while acquiring a first-rate collection of French ceramics, she began a new career as a scholar, reading everything she could get her hands on regarding the subject †written in English and French †and amassing a library of hundreds of reference books. She also went back to school and earned a master’s degree in art history and began giving talks on her collection.
Continuing the Boone family tradition of philanthropy to support the art community in her native southern California, she has over the years given a number of wonderful pieces from her collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), as well as to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, where her own mother had often taken her as a child to admire the English and French collections there.
LACMA is now exhibiting some of those pieces in “Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics From the MaryLou Boone Collection,” on view through March 31 in LACMA’s Ahmanson Building, showcasing nearly 130 choice examples of French faience and soft-paste porcelain from Boone’s collection, said to be the finest such collection on the West Coast. The exhibition and its accompanying catalog not only serve to survey this wonderful collection, but also acknowledge a generous gift Boone made in 2010 to both institutions: 27 pieces to the Huntington and 26 to LACMA, invigorating their permanent collections and considerably expanding their holdings of French ceramics.
Encompassing objects made for dining and taking tea, for storing toiletries to make the Eighteenth Century man or woman attractive and for apothecary needs to store and prepare mixtures for the sick, the exhibition marries the functional with the elegant, often adding a dose of wit and whimsy. “Daily Pleasures” tells a key piece of the story of European ceramics and how they developed there long after Asian potters had mastered hard-paste porcelain, a feat mastered in France only after a crucial ingredient, kaolin, was found there around 1770. Organized thematically, the exhibition also offers a unique view into the customs and lifestyles of French people in the Eighteenth Century.
“This is a collection that absolutely stands on its own,” said Elizabeth Williams, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at LACMA, noting the museum had been talking about exhibiting the collection since 2009, even before Boone made her latest gift to the museums. “This exhibition reveals and celebrates both the artistry that exists in the service of the utilitarian and the ability of this discriminating collector to bring together remarkable examples of that artistry,” Williams added.
Boone’s faience collection includes examples of grand feu (high fire) and petit feu (low fire), named for the temperature at which a piece it is fired. Grand feu faience typically allowed ceramists greater freedom in creating detailed decoration, but limited their color palette to blue, green, yellow, purple and iron red, since other hues could not withstand the high temperature. Making its debut in France in the mid-Eighteenth Century, petit feu faience was made by using second firing at a lower temperature so a broader range of pinks, greens, blues and violets could be used. Boone’s collection includes pieces from the leading centers of grand feu production: Rouen, Nevers and Moustiers, as well as from the two major petit feu centers of Marseilles and Strasbourg, and regional factories that were influenced by these centers.
A highlight among the dining wares in the exhibition is a rococo-shaped sucrier decorated with vivid pinks. The circa 1780 covered sugar bowl is a standout among petit feu faience. When Boone bought it, she noticed the notch in the lid where the spoon would go but was told the delicate spoons rarely survived. Browsing an antiques fair in Paris some time later, she found a powdered-sugar spoon that she thought had the same decoration. Back home, she found it to be a perfect fit. “Nothing is more satisfying than being able to reunite examples of objects that have been separated for many years,” she said.
The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century saw great technological advances in France that transformed the dining experience. Ceramics factories responded to changing fashions and produced more varied and sophisticated collections of dining wares for the table and buffet. Owing to the importance of olio as a soup, it was always served in the largest and fanciest tureen so it stood out from the other soups. One can well imagine the elegant dinners that an elaborately decorated tureen in Boone’s collection must have partaken. The footed tureen on display was made in Marseilles or Moustiers in the middle or the second half of the Eighteenth Century.
A banette-form tray with handles, mid-Eighteenth Century grand feu, is brightly decorated with Chinese motifs and symbolic imagery surrounding a gu vase filled with flowers in front of a harp that has been wrapped in fabric. Part of a small group of objects with Chinese-derived symbolism, a nearly identically decorated tray is in the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rouen.
Ceramics made for medicinal purposes on display here include the chevrette mentioned above that Boone purchased early on. The ovoid vessel likely held medicinal syrup, whose contents would have been identified by attaching a paper label to the jar. A blank cartouche on its side amid trompe l’oeil gadrooning and floral sprays is provided for that very purpose.
Among the many ceramic objects created for the dressing table is a vividly colored potpourri dish that exemplifies the East-West sharing of influences. Made in Chantilly, France, the circa 1740 dish is heavily influenced by the Japanese Kakiemon porcelain with its distinct color palette of opaque iron red and translucent yellow, blue and green enamels. The piece features a potpourri bowl topped with a squirrel nibbling at grape leaves, a motif that first showed up in Chinese paintings in the Thirteenth Century. The bowl itself rests on a base that features a full-bodied bird on a branch.
Another standout and necessary item on a man’s dressing table would be the powder box that held a man’s wig powder. A covered powder box here, circa 1760, is unmistakably Moustiers in origin from its pure white enamel to its very form. The box is cleverly decorated with grotesques, birds and flora.
Naturalism and trompe l’oeil were popular styles in the Eighteenth Century and made their way into ceramics from a charming and very realistic dish with trompe l’oeil almonds to a petit feu teapot decorated with roses and its handle and pout molded and painted to resemble branches. The teapot was made between 1745 and 1755 in Nideviller, but until recently had been attributed to the Strasbourg faience center because of its very fine painting style (fleurs fines).
The French ceramicists also showed they had a sense of humor with a whimsical Eighteenth Century pitcher known as a puzzle jug that had been inscribed with a sardonic phrase about a cuckolded husband, which is echoed by a painted stag standing next to its fallen antlers. “At first I was only attracted to the acquiring the faience of the grand feu. This type of ceramic was rather crude and heavily potted, though the forms could be quite ornate. Some tell stories of life in the French countryside 300 years ago. Often these are rather earthy and irreverent. Some were named faience parlante, or ‘speaking faience.’ I loved trying the decipher the messages they conveyed and I enjoyed the sense of fun they exhibited,” Boone said.
The puzzle jug also boasted an unusual form as it was for drinking not pouring, but there was a trick to be mastered. If one merely attempted to drink from it through one of the many strawlike spouts along the rim, one would find himself soaking wet, Boone recalls in the catalog. The trick is to use one’s finger to plug a nearly-hidden hole under the top of the handle, and drink from the center spout, which creates a vacuum, and lets one drink without spilling a drop.
A 405-page hardback catalog, detailing each piece in the exhibition, in full color, accompanies the exhibition and includes essays and contributions by curators at both LAMCA and the Huntington and an art historian.
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