Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette

Exclusive Interview with

Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture  at
The California Legion Of Honor Museum in S.F.


Illustrations courtesy of: The Legion of Honor Museum

Royal Treasures 1
Lapis Azuli  covered  vase with handles (1630) 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA— Over one hundred years of  French art created by the master royal craftsmen of the period, is now on display in the galleries of the  ROYAL TREASURES FROM THE LOUVRE,  LOUIS XIV to MARIE-ANTOINETTE exhibition at  the CALIFORNIA PALACE OF THE LEGION OF HONOR MUSEUM in this city.

The unique exhibition was made possible by the cooperation of  Mr. MARC BASCOU, Director of the Department des Objets d’Art and MICHÈLE BIMBENET-PRIVAT, Chief Curator in the Department des Objets d’Art at the Louvre in Paris, who worked to assemble the exhibition  and Mr. MARTIN  CHAPMAN, Curator in charge of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums in this city, who initiated this project and led the installation.


A Royal gift of gold and diamonds with the painting of King Louis IV

The opening of ROYAL TREASURES FROM THE LOUVRE in San Francisco, is a gem for the city if one considers the number of French Royal objects that the visitor can see touring through its galleries.

These art objects include “private” royal items belonging to the treasures of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV (l661-1690) and King Louis XVI (l754-1793) known as “Patron of the Arts” for his vast art collections, eclipsed only by the collections of his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette (l755-l793), whose “personal possessions” are included in the exhibition. Among the Royal Treasures are jewelry, tapestries, carpets, vases, statues, silver and gold objects and furniture belonging to the French Royalty which had never before been exhibited to the public by the LOUVRE.


Roll top desk (l784) made for the apartments of Queen  Marie-Antoinette

To give our art-lovers readers an authoritative description of this majestic exhibition, CULTURAL WORLD BILINGUAL interviewed Mr. MARTIN CHAPMAN,  Curator for European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the LEGION OF HONOR.

Mr. CHAPMAN, who worked previously at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, had worked  with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco since 2006, specially at the LEGION Of  HONOR because it has a  wonderful collection of European Decorative Arts, his particular expertise as a curator.  He has curated major exhibitions in the city and in  2010,  he supervised the reinstallation of the Porcelain Gallery at the LEGION OF HONOR. Mr. CHAPMAN  has lectured in the United States and in Europe on various decorative arts topics, appeared in television shows, and recently served on the International Indemnity Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also authored, the books Cartier in America and  Marie Antoinette and the Petit Trianon. He has contributed articles, essays, and catalogue entries including two for the Royal Treasures from the Louvre catalogue. 

“In my area, I have been particularly interested in France in the XVIII century” he tells us at the beginning of our interview.  “And we have a beautiful late XVII Century room here at the LEGION, which we are also working on at this time. We have a lot of French projects going at THE LEGION OF HONOR including this exhibition.”

CWB: How did the exhibition happen?

M. C. “Since the end of last year, we have been talking to THE LOUVRE about having an exhibition together and ROYAL TREASURES FROM THE LOUVRE is the result of those discussions.” 

CWB:  In the article that you wrote in the catalogue you call King Louis XVI  “Patron of the Arts,” could you elaborate on the subject?

 M.C.Louis XVI  has been a man who had a tough ride by history because after all, he was the man who lost his throne and lost his head.  But he was a significant patron of the arts influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment (a movement of intellectual change that swept through Europe during the XVII Century. It encouraged the abolition of torture, serfdom and tolerance for the Jews and Protestants among other things) Mr. CHAPMAN continues:

“As soon as Louis XVI came to the throne, ( l774-l792) he ordered the objects from the Royal Collection to be put in view of the public in the  Garde Meuble de la Couronne, in what is now the Palace de La Concorde (The Naval headquarters) so he was already thinking about opening his art collections to the public. He also took his idea one step further when started working in a plan to turn THE LOUVRE  into a public museum.”

CWB: Are any of these objects in the exhibition?

M.C. “Yes. Included in this exhibition are some pieces that the King bought specifically to be in his new museum (THE LOUVRE).  These are decorative art Serpentines, porcelains, even a pair of cabinets which were brought by the King from the man who was considered the greatest collector and connoisseur of the period, the Duc Aumont, and what the King was doing was buying this objects from the sale, upon the death of the Duc in l782, to show off the best of contemporary  French workmanship. He also bought some vases, some objects  that were meant to be shown along side the paintings in the new Louvre Museum, which as you know, did not open during the reign of  Louis XVI; he was executed six months before it was opened. Nevertheless the idea was there and the willingness was there and these are not very well known aspects of Louis the XVI.

C.W.B.  The King’s name that appears in the name of the exhibition, however, is Louis XIV, can you tell us something about him?

M.C. “It all started with Louis XIV (1680-1690). It was during his reign that the scale of his acquisitions made the French Crown collection of precious and semi-precious hard stones the most complete among any Western ruler since the Middle Ages. It included an unparalleled overview of Glyptics (carved and engraved stones) including works of rock crystal and semi-precious colored stones, some of them dating from the later part of the Roman Empire to the Late VII century.”

“The collecting of  hard stones, generally in the form of vases, was very much the activity of princely collectors in Europe in the XVI and XVII centuries, so Louis the XIV was reflecting a tradition of collecting among the Royalty. He had some 823 of these pieces which he collected as generally existing objects, meaning that he did not necessarily commissioned them, they were already existing. Some of them were owned by his predecessors, and they reflect one of the grandest collections of social objects that existed anywhere in Europe. 

His collection of vases, which included Byzantine, Medieval and Oriental hard stones was unique and represented the most exuberant creations of the goldsmiths of Paris. A selection of these objects was displayed in the Grand Apartment du roi (the Royal apartments) but others, his “private” ones, remained hidden in the rooms of his palaces so most people never got to see them.


Shell-Shaped cup Byzantium (l0th to 11th century)

CWB: Could you describe three objects in this exhibition that in your opinion are more important than others?

M.C.  One is a pair of doors, which had never been shown before, from the collection of THE LOUVRE.  They come from the Palais des Tuileries and this was de Royal Palace that used to connect the two arms that stretch forward from  THE LOUVRE and we know  today as Tuileries. This was the Palace where Louis the XIV lived and it was essentially his royal palace in Paris, rather than THE LOUVRE.  Unfortunately, it was burned so it disappeared from the radar, except from the gardens which everybody know.”

“These doors were re-discovered in the collections of THE LOUVRE.  They were from the chamber of Queen Marie Thérese, who was the queen of Louis the XIV. We know that fact because there was a painting showing (the doors) in position in the XIX century. THE LOUVRE has conserved these doors that contain painted panels with the likes of vases of flowers and arabesque gilded scenes with panels in the middle.  They are very impressive and they represent something entirely vanished.”

“We need to say that the French curators are very anxious to reconstruct the French Royal collections because so many objects belonging to them have been lost, either during the revolution or after.  It is really important for them to recover what they can.”

Mr. CHAPMAN continues.

M.C. “The  next object I consider  important is really a group of objects.  These are  the hard stones I mentioned before, collected by Louis XIV  and when I say hard stones I mean semi- precious stones generally in the form of vases. “

The exhibition at the LEGION OF HONOR MUSEUM will show 14 of those pieces, among them the vase (pictured bellow) which is a vase made out of Agate with enamel gold mounts.  It dates from the year 1650.

M.C. “These objects had never left Paris before. This is the first time they have been seen  in the United States. Most of the objects have been in the collection of THE LOUVRE since the early days of the museum, l793, because they were recognized by the revolutionaries as being very important objects. So essentially, the entire collection was not lost, although they are far less objects than they were in Louis XIV time.  He had 823 objects which were inventoried in l713 before his death.

Agate Vase with enameled gold mounts (1650)

M.C. “What I have been describing , are objects from the “private collection” of Louis XIV.  These were not necessarily objects for public display and this is the opposite side of the story of his own patronage, because he was a patron of the Gobain (St. Gobain Manufacuture Royale, a company founded in the XVII Century which produced luxury products for the upper classes) which made furniture, silver objects and tapestries for the Royal palaces."

“The collection presented (at this exhibit) is usually referred as “Gemmes de la Couronne” (Gems from the Crown) because they come from the personal collection of the King. It includes hard-stone vases made from rare hard-stones: Amethyst, Agate, amber, Jade and Rock Crystal, that represent the highest technical achievements of the time. Most of the objects were presented in display rooms, specially designed to receive them in the Royal Apartments of Versailles."

M. C. "My third object comes from the private collection of Queen MARIE-ANTOINETTE (1755-1793) Who was very keen in collections and preferred objects made with the most rare and exotic materials. She kept her precious collections in her very small sitting rooms and boudoirs in her many palaces. These precious objects were the antitheses of the proper life that she was meant to lead in her great State and Chambers and many rooms of the Queen’s apartments at Versailles."

"Around  her she had a room of hard stones which were the reflection, or the continuation, of the collection of  what King Louis the XIV had and among them, I mention one in particular: it is a jewel coffer made for the queen (in the year 1726 to 1787) by the two most prominent goldsmiths in Paris, Charles Ouizille (l744-l830) and Pierre-Francois Drais (l726-l788).  The coffer looks like a little box on a stand with figures, which are drawn from Antiquity,  lions’ heads gilded, (covered with gold) and the side decorations in agate with fossilized moss entrapped in it."

"This very precious object was kept by the Queen in her private apartments. In l789, when the revolution came, she gave these objects to a man called Daguerre and he took possession of these objects and had new cases made for them with the expectation that the Queen was going to regain possession of them. When it came to her execution, in 1793, Daguerre successor found the handling of these objects so much burdensome that he handled them to the revolutionary commission."

"Interestingly, some of them, became part of  THE LOUVRE’s collection while others have been acquired from 1793 until quite recently.  This mounted Jewelry case, is one of the most precious of these objects.  Sadly, in its long odyssey to THE LOUVRE again, it lost its lid, because it did not go directly into the collection. Rather charmingly, along the edge of the lid we can see the names of Onizzile and Drais, so each time the Queen opened the box, she could see their names. “  

Royal Treasures 6
Porcelain Bust of Marie-Antoinette (l782)

For making this unique exhibition possible, Mrs. DIANNE B. WILSEY, President of the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and HENRY  LOYRETTE , President-Director of Musée du Louvre, Paris, acknowledge their gratitude to Mr. CHRISTOPHER FORBES , Chairman of the American Friends of the LOUVRE.  The Exhibition and the catalogue are dedicated to the memory of JOHN E. BUCHANAN, Jr..

The ROYAL TREASURES EXHIBITION will be in The LEGION of HONOR MUSEUM until March 17, 2013.  The museum is located at  number 100 34th Ave. in San Francisco, For information about tickets you can call (415) 750-3547.