Published: February 27, 2007
In its first special presentation on Frick porcelain in 15 years, the Frick Collection will present, “Rococo Exotic: French Mounted Porcelains and the Allure of the East,” on view March 6–June 10.
In 1915, Henry Clay Frick acquired a group of Eighteenth Century objets d’art to complete the décor of his new home at 1 East 70th Street. Among these was a striking pair of large mounted porcelains, the subject of an upcoming decorative arts focus presentation on view in the Cabinet gallery.
Quintessentially French, the jars fuse Eighteenth Century French collectors’ love of rare Asian porcelains with their enthusiasm for natural exotica. Assembled in Paris before 1750, the Frick jars are a hybrid of imported Chinese porcelain and French gilt-bronze mounts in the shape of bulrushes (curling along the handles) and shells, sea fans, corals and pearls (on the lids).
Displayed alongside these objects are French drawings and prints as well as actual seashells and corals, all from New York collections. Together, the objects illustrate the convergence of the natural and the humanly wrought in the production of such luxury wares and probe the fascination with the exotic that lies at the heart of rococo design.
“While Henry Clay Frick’s eye as a collector of paintings has been a major focus of scholarship and public attention for decades, his taste for the decorative arts — particularly Chinese ceramic objects — has received somewhat less attention,” said Director Anne L. Poulet, adding, “Not since the 1992 installation of blue and white porcelain from the estate of Childs Frick have we created an exhibition and publication devoted to the ceramic arts.”
The cobalt-blue porcelains were produced in China in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, when dense, homogeneous monochrome glazing was perfected. Because porcelains glazed with a single color were manufactured primarily for the domestic Chinese market, relatively few of them made their way to France in the Eighteenth Century. Those that did were particularly prized and especially costly.
Originally, the Frick porcelains were probably tall vases or jars but, on their arrival in Paris, they were cut — at the neck and again at the shoulder — to form lidded jars. These modifications may have been undertaken to salvage a chipped or broken porcelain, although at this time in Paris it was common practice to saw apart Asian porcelains in order to create new forms that could then be fitted with finely chased gilt-bronze mounts.
Embellished with gilt bronze to conform to Eighteenth Century French taste, the jars most likely graced the home of a French nobleman or a wealthy financier before traveling, at some point, to London, where the dealer Joseph Duveen purchased them at auction in 1913 from the estate of Henry M. W. Oppenheim and subsequently sold them to Frick.
In their reliance on natural forms, these objects are exemplars of rococo design, which emerged in Paris in the 1730s and remained in vogue until the 1750s. Eighteenth Century artists and collectors were fascinated by nature’s wonders, especially shells, the most spectacular of which were believed to come from the East (like porcelains).
This interest in shells was a significant factor in the development of the rocaille. (The term rocaille originally referred to the shell and rock work decoration of garden grottoes, but, by the mid-1730s, it was used to describe the asymmetrical and irregular forms of the rococo that were inspired by shells and other natural forms.)
Equally important was the contemporary appreciation of works in which the marvels of nature and human ingenuity were conjoined. Actual shells and corals were frequently set into gilt-bronze mounts, as were Asian porcelains in the shape of shells.
Like these objects, the gilt-bronze imitations of marine life and freshwater bulrushes found on the Frick jars blur the boundaries between the natural and the artificial, dazzling the senses with their artful play between the beautiful creations of nature and the inspired invention of the artisan.
“Rococo Exotic: French Mounted Porcelains and the Allure of the East” is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication.
The Frick Collection is at 1 East 70th Street. For more information, 212-288-0700 or www.frick.org.
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