Georges Hoentschel. ca. 1745. Oil on walnut panel. 25⅝ x 22½ in. (65.1 x 57.2 cm).

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 whimsical grisaille panel, painted entirely in shades of blue, depicts three figures wearing vaguely Eastern–style robes in a verdant setting. The central figure, a lady seated before an architectural element topped by a vase with flowers, holds in one hand a fan made of feathers while she gestures with the other to her maidservant, who proffers a flower. A young boy, seated on a grassy patch below the lady, holds and points to a canvas depicting a Chinese figure. The scene is framed in scrolling arabesques with floral and foliate motifs that incorporate fruit-filled cornucopias, urn-shaped fountains spouting water, feathers, floral garlands, and wings. This French representation of an exotic Eastern land exemplifies the mid-eighteenth-century fashion for chinoiserie and can be attributed to the studio of François Boucher or a close follower.

The panel’s size and shape suggest that it came from a sedan chair, most likely one made in Paris, the center for luxury carriage manufacture during the period.1 Unlike horse-drawn carriages with wheels, sedan chairs are rectangular-shaped wooden boxes with rails that pass through brackets on the sides of the vehicle, which can thus be carried by porters in front and behind. Sedan chairs usually have windows and provide luxuriously upholstered seating for one occupant. Individuals with the means to do so could have sedan chairs decorated to match their larger horse-drawn carriages.2 Although the construction of all transportation vehicles would have been carried out under the official supervision of the sellier-carrossier (saddle and carriage maker), it was not uncommon for celebrated artists or their apprentices to be engaged to paint the wooden panels of coaches.3 In 1752 the art critic Etienne de La Font de Saint-Yenne noted that in Paris one would find colorful paintings on carriages that were of a higher price and a greater perfection—or at least equal in quality—to the paintings found in luxurious apartments.4 A recently discovered inscription on the reverse of this panel links it to Jean-Baptiste Leprince, an important painter and engraver who trained under Boucher.5 A blue grisaille painting attributed to Leprince, conserved at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris, closely resembles this panel in style and subject.6 In addition, a drawing attributed to the school of François Boucher corresponds to the maidservant figure in the sedan chair panel.7

If the panel does indeed derive from a sedan chair, it is a rare fragment from the mid-eighteenth-century realm of transportation–an area of the decorative arts that is seldom discussed, possibly because of the relatively low survival rate of such objects and their utilitarian nature. A lavishly decorated sedan chair, especially one with freshly painted panels (this one’s bright blue hues are now darkened with age), communicated its passenger’s high status and in a sense functioned as a mobile work of art that bridged the interior and exterior realms of its elite occupant. Unlike decorative paintings in private residences, the chinoiserie motifs on this vehicle would have been carried out onto the city streets of France, perhaps projecting a public image of worldliness and exoticism associated with Asia. Lest they go unrecognized, coats of arms identifying the owners were usually painted on the back of these vehicles.

Although sedan chairs are associated with luxury travel, it should be noted that they were also very economical and practical compared to horse-drawn carriages. Described as the urban vehicle par excellence, a sedan chair could easily navigate the perilous streets of ancien régime Paris, which were crowded, narrow, and badly paved (if paved at all), and had unregulated traffic flow.8 The chairs kept their occupants safe from the chaos of the street and did not require the expense of maintaining an equipage and horses. Additionally, sedan chairs did not need to be stored in stables and were often kept indoors, stashed in vestibules, hallways, landings, or behind staircases.9

Sedan chairs fell into disuse during the French Revolution, but they experienced a new popularity during the nineteenth century, when they were displayed as family heirlooms or evocations of a bygone era and were often used as telephone booths or showcases for bibelots.10 Today they still have a special appeal for those interested in everyday life, transportation, and decorative arts of the eighteenth century. Likely drawn to the sedan chair panel for its decorative quality, Georges Hoentschel did not frame it to make it look like a complete composition. As is the case with most of the works of art from his collection, the panel’s fragmentary, broken nature was not disguised, and the viewer can easily grasp that it is only a part of what was once whole.

Katrina London 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.Monika Kopplin, Europäische Lackkunst: ausgewählte Arbeiten (Münster: BASF, 1998), 100. Two extant sedan chairs suggest that the blue grisaille decoration would have covered the entire chair and that this type of decoration would not have been uncommon for such vehicles at the time: one painted with grisaille rococo landscapes sold at Christie’s in 2012, and one painted with pastoral scenes is in the collection of the Château du Haut in the Domaine de Villarceaux, attributed to the studio of Boucher. See Christie’s, Steinitz: New York, sale cat., June 21, 2012, lot 516, and a description of the restoration of the sedan chair in the collection of the Château du Haut on the website of Les Amis du Domaine de Villarceaux.

2.According to Marie Maggiani, it was customary to acquire new carriages on the occasion of an election to a new post or a marriage. Marie Maggiani, “Les Belles Oubliées de la Carrosserie: les Chaises à Porteurs,” in Béatrice Saule et al., eds., Roulez Carrosses!: Le Château de Versailles à Arras (Paris: Skira Flammarion, 2012), 64.

3.Monika Kopplin, Europäische Lackkunst, 100; Saule et al., eds., Roulez Carrosses!, 27. Both publications mention several famous artists who apparently painted coaches, including Jean Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Nicolas Lancret, and Christophe Huet. This became less common during the second half of the eighteenth century, when painters began to specialize in carriage painting. It is only toward the end of the century that the title “painter-varnisher-decorator of vehicles” appears in records.

4.“[…] pour l’embellissement des Carrosses, on y a vu, et l’on y voit encore des Tableaux coloriés d’un prix & d’une perfection supérieure, ou du moins égale à ceux qui ornaient les appartements des maîtres de ces maisons.” Etienne de La Font de Saint-Yenne, L’Ombre du grand Colbert, le Louvre et la ville de Paris, dialogue: Réflexions sur quelques causes de l’état présent de la peinture en France avec quelques lettres de l’auteur à ce sujet (Paris: Michel Lambert, 1752), 204–6; quoted in Saule et al., eds., Roulez Carrosses!, 27.

5.There is a faint inscription in black ink on the reverse of the panel that reads “J.B .Leprince.” Because sedan chairs and other decorative paintings are rarely signed, it is likely that this attribution dates from the nineteenth century. However, it is not inconceivable that Leprince painted the panel, as he did work in Boucher’s studio. For more on Leprince, see Jules Hédou, Jean Le Prince et son œuvre, suivi de nombreux documents inédits (Paris: Baur & Rapilly, 1879).

[6]Les Oiseleurs, Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, inv. no. 14197.

7.This red chalk drawing is Chinoiserie: l’Air, Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. no. 24792.

8.Maggiani, “Les Belles Oubliées de la Carrosserie,” in Saule et al., eds.,Roulez Carrosses!, 64.


10.Ibid., 69.