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French Literature and its Influence on Decorative Arts

by | Oct 12, 2018 | Blog Post

The eighteenth-century was a time of revolution in France, and not just in terms of politics and war. Outside of the actual French Revolution, the eighteenth-century brought a change to the world of fine art. Of all the avant-garde movements in late eighteenth-century France, Neoclassicism and Rococo styling flourished. The influence of the Revolution did not stop with visual arts, but also shaped the world of literature.

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s 1788 short novel Paul et Virginie (Paul and Virginia) is a romantic tragedy that is regarded as one of the most historically significant pieces of 18th century French literature. The novel recounts the story of two youth raised as brother and sister on the Ile de France, the modern-day island of Mauritius. As they age, their Island paradise fades away as their growing love for one another complicates their teenage years. In opposition of Paul and Virginie’s relationship, Virginie’s mother sent her to Europe in hopes of ending their young love. Virginie’s return to Mauritius was stopped short when her ship was caught in a storm ending her voyage – and her life. Awaiting the return of his love, Paul witnessed the demise of Virginie from the coastline. This tragic but powerful love story later found itself the topic of many visual and decorative arts in France.

Before we go any further, the reason for relaying this story is because when it comes to antiques the story can be more important than the item itself when determining a value. A perfect example is this French circa 1830 Charles X ormolu and silvered bronze mantel clock, in the attached photo. The bright ormolu clock topper of the shipwreck sits in beautiful contrast of the silvered bronze ocean wave base. The rim of the clock body is decorated with a repeating Rococo stylized shell pattern in high relief. The corners of the body are decorated with stylized open work cornucopia patterns with gilt highlighting. The base is decorated with swirling floral patterns with a central crest depicting a dragon and phoenix. The clock is supported by curled feet adorned with Rococo shells. The dial is silvered with black Roman numerals. Without knowing the story of Paul and Virginie, this clock would be unidentifiable and considered a general French clock to most. But having that story is what gives an item the ability to be marketed. Over a year ago I got to handle this clock and the reason why it’s stuck in my brain is that it was literally brought back to life. Let me explain.

When we first received this clock at our gallery it displayed over 150 years of neglect with its bright ormolu masked by numerous layers of soot, grime, and dirt. With a little tender loving care from the team, Paul and Virginie looked brand new with bright ormolu as if it were 1830. And no, we didn’t refinish it; that’s their original gilt surface. When it comes to choosing an antique professional, you want someone who can find the story. It makes the difference of a $500 clock versus a $2,000 one