Baltimore adds glitz to a blockbuster - again Three Walters Art Gallery Sevres vases have traveled from revolutionary France to Baltimore to Jackson, Miss.

August 02, 1998|By John Webb | John Webb,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JACKSON, Miss. - In 1792, with King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette herded off to Paris for a date with the guillotine, the furnishings of their opulent palace at Versailles were auctioned off and eventually scattered across the world.

Now, more than 200 years after the start of the French Revolution, many of those artifacts - including three vases from the 18th-century porcelain gallery of Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery - are being reassembled here.

The glitzy blockbuster exhibition "Splendors of Versailles" is billed as the largest single collection from Versailles ever to leave France. As such it is a rare family reunion for the 141 royal heirlooms in the "Splendors" catalog, not to mention an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of visitors to see the Walters vases in the context of other porcelain, family portraits, jewelry, furnishings, tapestries and sculpture from the royal chateau.

The show, which spans the reigns of Louis XIV to Louis XVI, includes Hyacinthe Rigaud's state portrait of Louis XIV, a dazzlingly ornate "Creation of the World Clock," floor-to-ceiling Gobelin tapestries, Savonnerie carpets, a Pierre Puget bust of Louis XIV, Elisabeth Vigie-Lebrun's 1788 portrait of Marie-Antoinette, and the centerpiece, a 10-ton marble replica of Lorenzo Bernini's equestrian statue of Louis XIV.

For the three delicate neoclassical vases from Baltimore, it has been a long, uncertain road from Versailles to Jackson, fraught with the politics of war and the politics of art. It is a journey that began among skilled artisans at the monarch's prized Sevres porcelain manufactory, left to Louis XVI by his father Louis XV.

"Even after he abdicated and before he was executed, he still felt proprietary toward Sevres," says William Johnston, associate director and curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters. "He regarded Sevres as his personal property."

The Sevres factory served the king's vanity well with the lavish, ornate set of five so-called "vases des ages" (1781), representing the three stages of man. Standing about 13 inches tall and featuring allegorical illustrations by painter Antoine Caton, the pair belonging to the Walters have handles shaped like infants' heads. The Walters' third entry in "Splendors," the so-called "Cinnabar" (cinnamon-colored) vase (1782), stands about 22 inches tall and features ornate arabesques of gilded bronze.

Made of "soft-paste" porcelain, the vases are among the most costly pieces made in France at the time, says Johnston. Louis XVI was a devoted porcelain enthusiast, and the works he purchased for Versailles have been considered the most elaborate ever made - certainly the most costly.

"The 1760s and '70s were a moment of perfection in the history of taste, a consummate expression of French culture," says Johnston. Soft-paste porcelain required numerous firings for texture, shape, color and the "jeweled" enamel effect. "It was a porous, glassy material that could be scratched easily, but people appreciated it for the sumptuous, almost spongy colors."

After Louis purchased the vases, they were most likely displayed as a set on a mirrored mantle, says Johnston, "so you could see their backs."

But not for long.

No one knows who bought the vases at the 1792 estate sale at Versailles, after it had been vacated by the royal family, but we do know, says Johnston, that British King George IV was a principal buyer, and many of the pieces landed among English collections.

Eventually, the vases found their way into an obscure catalog called the Park Heirloom Collection, and were in turn purchased by E.M. Hodgkins, an Englishman living in Paris in the 19th century.

Enter Henry Walters, the son of Baltimore's wealthy arts patron William Walters. The younger Walters bought the vases in 1928 as part of the 74-piece Hodgkins collection, from New York and Paris art dealers Arnold Seligmann & Rey.

He was building on a tradition of appreciation for fine porcelain that his father had established, for, in 1891, William Walters had purchased the "Cinnabar" vase from Paris dealer Philippe Sichel, for 20,000 francs.

"That was a lot to pay in those days for a piece, so we suspect that he knew it was from Versailles," says Johnston. "We know where it was used, because when Henry Walters opened the gallery in 1909, it had a series of re-created period rooms including one devoted to Louis XVI, and he had this vase in that room."

Upon Henry Walters' death in 1931, the Henry Walters collection was bequeathed to the city of Baltimore, where the Sevres vases have since resided at the Walters.

In 1996, when Jackson was planning its first blockbuster exhibition, "The Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style," Jack Kyle, executive director of the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange, turned to the Walters Gallery to borrow a Faberge egg that featured a representation of Russia's Gatchina Palace.

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