From the Exhibition:

Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Focusing on a remarkable but little-known collection that entered the Metropolitan Museum as a gift of J. Pierpont Morgan in the early twentieth century, Salvaging the Past features more than 200 objects of primarily medieval art and French eighteenth-century paneling, furniture, metalwork, textiles, paintings, and sculpture, as well as late nineteenth-century art pottery, most of which have rarely been viewed since the 1950s. The fourth in a series of collaborations between The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the BGC, the exhibition provides the first comprehensive examination of Georges Hoentschel—a significant figure in the history of collecting—and illuminates an understudied and critical chapter of the Metropolitan’s history.

This unique desk chair, possibly of royal provenance, is a very fine example of French furniture made in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Its elegant and austere mahogany construction, utilizing the still-novel swivel mechanism in the seat, is enhanced by finely cast and chased gilt-bronze mounts adorning the back, seat, and legs. The mounts feature an acanthus and palmette motif, with a rosette at the center back surrounded by scrolling foliage and acorns. Directly above, two griffins whose tails morph into arabesques hold in their beaks ribbons tied to a flaming torch.

The grandeur of this chair is not necessarily evident until one sees these details on the back, as well as the peculiar princely mark on the underside of the seat: the monogram “CMJ” surmounted by a crown, probably the stamp of Joachim and Caroline Murat, King and Queen of Naples (r. 1808–15) and the brother-in-law and sister of Napoléon Bonaparte.

Extant Empire desk chairs are typically minimally embellished, like a similar high-back swivel model made for Napoléon’s Cabinet de l’Empereur in the Palais de l’Élysée by the cabinetmaker François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter (1770–1841). The clean lines and unadorned wood on Napoléon’s own desk chair are a far cry from this example, which is encrusted in gilt bronze. Such ornamentation was popular on furniture made during the revival of the Empire style in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although a singular, elaborate desk chair could have been commissioned by Joachim Murat, the curious mounts are likely a later addition, which would explain why the bronzes and their layout, particularly the flanking griffons on the back of the headrest, more closely resemble bronzes on Empire revival furniture than on furnishings made during Napoléon’s reign. If the bronzes do postdate the chair, then this exemplifies the practice of altering furniture according to changing tastes.

The seat cover is probably original to the frame, dates to the same period, and is closely related to textiles executed for Napoléon by the Lyon–based silk manufacturer Camille Pernon (1753–1808) 1. The forest green velvet pile has worn down to its burgundy silk ground, with the exception of the border along the seat, leaving only a shadow of the textile’s initial opulence. This dilapidated state is visible in photographs taken around 1906 of the chair in Georges Hoentschel’s galleries at the boulevard Flandrin.

The 1892 inventory of the Ernest Leys workshop, which enumerates the merchandise later acquired by Hoentschel from the family upholstery firm in which he was trained, lists just one “modele de fauteuil Empire.”2 Given the lack of nineteenth-century furniture in Hoentschel’s collection, it is tempting to identify this example with the description in the inventory. If that were the case, Hoentschel would have inherited the chair when he acquired the Leys workshop stock. Regardless of its source and its possible royal provenance, the chair was undoubtedly special to Hoentschel, who placed it prominently on its own base in his galleries. In this way, he encouraged visitors to examine the chair in the round, a testament to the high level of craftsmanship that Hoentschel, a designer and upholsterer himself, understood in the chair’s joinery, textile, and bronze mounts.

Martina A. D’Amato received her Master’s degree from the BGC in 2012 and was part of group of BGC students who researched and wrote on objects formerly in the collection of Georges Hoentschel for the exhibition and publication Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1.See a set of damasks for chairs made for the Bureau topographique, Palais de Saint-Cloud, now in the collection of the Mobilier national, Paris; see Soieries Empire (Paris: Éditions de la réunion des musées nationaux, 1980), 363–66, no. 117.

2.Inventory of the workshop and merchandise of Maison Leys at 3, place de la Madeleine, June 2, 1892, Archive nationales, Paris, MC/ET/CXVIII-1216, p. 4, no. 5.