Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Rockefeller Collection: Napoleon's 'Marly Rouge' Service

Auction news making the headlines recently concerned the record breaking sales at Christie's auction house in New York last month when the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection of art and design came up for sale and broke records achieving a mind boggling $832m when all lots sold. All of the proceeds of the sales will be going to charity, which is an amazingly generous act from the Rockefellers. Record prices were achieved for important lots by Picasso, ($115m), Matisse, ($80.8m), and Monet ($84.7m), all below, which hadn't been seen in public for decades, and had that special cachet because of their association with the Rockefeller collection. 

 Pablo Picasso, Fillette á la Corbeille Fleurie, (1905)

Claude Monet, Nymphéas en Fleur, (c.1914-17)

Henri Matisse, Odalisque Coucheé aux Magnolias, (1923)

 Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Also among the lots were 22 pieces of what was originally an amazing 256-piece 'Marly Rouge' dessert service commissioned from Sèvres by Napoleon Bonaparte, which sold for $1.8m - a world record for 19th-century porcelain.

Napoleon was at the peak of his powers when he commissioned the 256 piece service for his palace in Compiegne. On completion in 1809 though, the service went to the palace of Fontainbleau where Napoleon had retired to after negotiating The Treaty of Vienna which saw the end of hostilities between France and Austria. The reputation of the Sèvres name was also at its peak, and unrivalled when it came to luxury porcelain. Its director at the time of the commission, Alexandre Brongniart, was a keen naturalist and it was his influence that led to insects becoming common motifs in Sèvres porcelain designs. As you can see from the pictures here this particular service is decorated with a finely painted butterfly at the centre of each plate, surrounded by a wreath of flowers set within a gold band, and red borders, with gilt berry leaves.

The eagle was a well-known symbol of Napoleon and appeared atop the standards carried into battle by his armies. This symbolism was acknowledged in the service with the addition of handles in the form of gilt eagle heads on the sugar bowls. 

The imaginative porcelain service also features elephant heads (to demonstrate strength?), and a tiny eagle chick hatching, below. 

A sign of how much the ‘Marly Rouge’ service meant to Napoleon is that in 1814 he insisted on taking it into exile with him on the island of Elba. The service also meant much to collector David Rockefeller. As a child David developed a fascination with insects and became a passionate collector of beetles, so it should have come as no surprise that he would make it a priority to acquire these pieces of the 'Marly Rouge' service. The collecting of beetles was a pastime that he continued into adulthood, and which eventually numbered 150,000 specimens. A rare scarab beetle discovered in Mexico in the 1950s was even named Diplotaxis rockefelleri in his honour.