Musée d'Orsay: Decorative arts

Decorative arts

A Place for the Decorative Arts?

Henry Van de VeldeChairs© ADAGP, Paris © Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Sophie Crépy
"In what place and at what price will the Louvre in the future seek to maintain the special section – so rich in wonders of all kinds – devoted to bronzes, gold work, enamel, ivories, and so on?" With rare foresight, Léonce Bénédite, the curator of the Musee du Luxembourg, asked this question in an article published in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1892. The answer did not come until much later, when the Musee d'Orsay was opened in 1986. Devoted to the arts of the second half the 19th century, and endowed with a programme designed to enhance the links which developed between architecture, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts from the beginning of the Second Empire, the Musee d'Orsay was indeed destined to be a logical extension of the Louvre's Department of Objets d'Art which stops at the end of the reign of Louis Philippe.

And yet when it was decided to create the Musee d'Orsay in the 1970s, the collections of objets d'art in French national museums proved too small for this ambitious programme to be brought to fruition. The works commissioned for the imperial palaces or major government departments had usually stayed in situ and many others had been destroyed during the fighting in 1870 or in the fires, frequent during the Commune of 1871. The Musee d'Orsay's collections of decorative arts were therefore built up around an initial core which came from the former Musée du Luxembourg and its descendants, augmented by a few pieces from the Louvre. Even before the museum was opened to the public, ten years of work were required to draw up an inventory of other available works belonging to the state, bring them together and carry out a major acquisition campaign.

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The Musée du Luxembourg, the Galerie du Jeu de Paume and the Musée National d'Art Moderne

In 1818, Louis XVIII decided to create a museum for the work of living artists in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. Apart from presenting porcelain from Sèvres and tapestries from the Gobelins and Beauvais, between 1874 and 1882, the Musée du Luxembourg was long closed to the decorative arts. The institution's administrative status largely accounts for this: the Musée du Luxembourg depended on the Department of Fine Arts and not on the administration of the National Museums. State purchases for the Musée du Luxembourg were made at the annual Salons so nothing changed until the decorative arts were admitted to the salons. This happened in 1892 for the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and

Georges-Henri Lemaire
 La mort de Narcisse [The Death of Narcissus]
 Cameo on agate in several layers
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Georges-Henri LemaireThe Death of Narcissus© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
in 1895 for the Société des Artistes Français. Despite some objections to exhibiting the "minor" arts in the Musée du Luxembourg, an objets d'art section was added to the collections of painting, sculpture and graphic arts from 1892. However the lack of a special acquisition fund and cramped premises prevented the desired extension of the section to include furniture.

Although it was enriched by gifts from contemporary artists (a stoneware dish given by Jean-Charles Cazin in 1895, and two glass vases donated by Tiffany in 1919) and a few gifts by art lovers (a series of painted enamel by Charles Hayem in 1898 or a hanging by Blanche Ory-Robin, given by Mrs Stern in 1914) the collection's scope was narrow. Many major artists were missing, such as Guimard, Majorelle, Gaillard, De Feure and Colonna, to mention only French designers. Apart from a few pieces of glass by Tiffany, no space was given to foreign craftsmen and decorators.

Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat 
 Between 1893 and 1894
 Enamelled stoneware, blackened poplar
 H. 300; W. 230; D. 50 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, Adèle LesbrosMantelpiece© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean Schormans
The long purgatory are suffered by Art Nouveau from the early 1920s cut short any growth in the new section and the still embryonic collection was quickly broken up. In 1910, no doubt through lack of space, the Dalpayrat mantelpiece was sent on loan to Besançon. Other loans were later made, particularly after 1931, to provincial museums (Marseilles, Montpellier, Nantes) and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Nevertheless, gifts by David David-Weill and Jean Schmit in 1938, then by Ambroise Vollard's brother in 1943, brought Gauguin's pottery and wood carvings into the national collections. In the early 1970s, some of these items found their way into the Musée de l'Impressionnisme, which had been housed in the Jeu de Paume since 1947.

When the Musée National d'Art Moderne, the heir to the former Musée du Luxembourg, opened its doors in the Palais de Tokyo in 1937 it had no decorative arts section whatsoever. A huge shipment of ceramics was made to the museums of Sèvres and Limoges, leaving a little over 300 items, mainly dating from 1890-1914, which were later allocated to the Musee d'Orsay. To these were added loans of several tens of pieces made by artists born after 1870, and items retrieved from loans to provincial institutions. Most of them also came from the former collections of the Musée du Luxembourg, particularly The Story of Water by Cros, which returned from Narbonne.

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1977-1986: The Birth of a Collection

 Porte monumentale [Monumental gate]
 Carved oak and walnut, inlaid ebony, box and violet-wood; antique red marble; gilt bronze and varnished bronze; enamel painted over copper
 H. 480; W. 280 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
FourdinoisMonumental gate© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
The creation of the Musée d'Orsay was a unique opportunity to bring together works scattered through various museums and government departments (the Mobilier National, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, the Musées-châteaux de Fontainebleau, Compiègne and Malmaison, the Louvre and the Musée de Cluny, etc.) where they were often not in public view. More than a hundred pieces were brought together without counting a number of long-term loans mainly from the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers and the Musée Christofle.
These negotiations focused on creations from 1850-1880, such as furniture by Diehl (including a large medal cabinet decorated with bronzes by Frémiet), Roudillon and Fourdinois, wood carvings from the Guérêt brothers, bronze ornaments by Barye, Crozatier and Barbedienne, etc. For the Art Nouveau period the most important contribution was an outstanding large piece of woodwork made by Jean Dampt for the Countess of Béarn about 1900-1906, brought out of the store rooms of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, along with several stained-glass windows by Carot, Coulier, Healy and Millet.
Alexandre Charpentier
 Dining room panelling
 Between 1900 and 1901
 Mahogany, oak, poplar, gilt bronze, glazed stoneware
 H. 346; W. 621 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Alexandre CharpentierDining room panelling© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
An active acquisitions policy designed to complete the existing collections was implemented as soon as plans for the Musee d'Orsay were finalised in 1977. Nearly 800 works were added to the collections, although that included two large groups of more documentary interest: about a hundred moulds for gold work and plaster models by Carlo Bugatti, and over a hundred objects from the Eiffel collection given by the Granet family. The most spectacular acquisitions were the creations of the interior designers (architects, decorators, sculptors or craftsmen) who spread the Art Nouveau style throughout Europe in the 1890s. The first example of a lucky series of purchases was a rare complete set of woodwork by Alexandre Charpentier which was pre-empted at a public auction in December 1977.

As the years went by, other remarkable sets of furniture came to fill in the worst gaps: works by Guimard (1979), Horta and Majorelle (1980), Gallé and Vallin (1982), Gallé, Carabin and Adolphe Loos (1983), Serrurier-Bovy (1984), Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright (1985), Otto Wagner, Hoffmann and Van de Velde (1986). Other more occasional purchases of furniture or objects complete this panorama of Art Nouveau and testify to its rapid spread in France: faïence and glasswork by Gallé, stained glass by Gruber, stoneware by Carriès and Hoentschel, silver by Follot, etc. Foreign artists are represented by a vase by Otto Eckmann, chairs by Carlo Bugatti, a cabinet by Gimson, hangings by Voysey, gold work by Hoffmann, glasswork by Kolo Moser, and many more.

For the earlier period, 1850-1880, the museum bought a series of masterpieces presented at the Universal Exhibitions by the great factories or craftsmen who refused to use any kind of machinery. An outstanding example is the sumptuous dressing table made for the Duchess of Parma by the goldsmiths Froment-Meurice, finished in 1851 and sent to the Crystal Palace in London. There was also a small group of English works, painted woodwork, furniture, hangings, pottery and silver which recall the role played by Pugin, William Morris and their followers in promoting an aesthetic better suited to modern life.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
 Louis Comfort Tiffany
 Au Nouveau Cirque, Papa Chrysanthème [Papa Chrysanthemum at the New Circus]
 Circa 1894
 Stained glass: "American" glass, cabochons
 H. 120; W. 85 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Henry Dauberville on behalf of his children, Béatrice and Guy-Patrice, 1979
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Comfort TiffanyPapa Chrysanthemum at the New Circus© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
Among these acquisitions, donations of nearly 190 works have pride of place: the friends of the Musee d'Orsay, the heirs of patrons who commissioned the works, collectors, antique dealers, and art galleries have made a powerful contribution to the rapid growth of the collections. Three prestigious donations brought the museum an exceptional stained-glass window by Tiffany after Toulouse-Lautrec (gift of Henry Dauberville and his children Béatrice and Guy-Patrice, 1979), about fifty cast iron ornaments by Guimard (gift of Mrs de Menil, 1981) and a rare set of white furniture by Mackintosh (gift of Michel David-Weill, 1985). Lastly a special tribute is due to the descendants of artists who have agreed to part with works kept in their families: the Auscher, Boule, Bourgogne, Dufresne de Saint-Léon, Guilleminault, Haguenauer and Humblot, Hirtz, Lomon-Hawkins, Ruprich-Robert and Saint Saulieu donations.

When the museum opened in December 1986, the inventory of decorative arts at the Musee d'Orsay listed over a thousand pieces, complemented by a little under a hundred works loaned by other institutions. An on-going acquisitions policy gives the public an increasingly complete panorama of the decorative arts in the second half of the 19th century. The collections have benefited from the system of acquisition in lieu of payment of estate duties through the donation of works of art. This system has brought the museum some exceptional pieces such as the Stagnant Waters urn by Gallé (1995) or the Water Lily lamp by Majorelle and the Daum brothers (1996).

Emile Gallé
 Raisins mystérieux [Mysterious grapes]
 Bottle, double layer glass with gold and platinum inclusions, cabochons, engraved decoration, stopper of opalescent blown glass, base of carved, stained pear tree wood 
 H. 40; W. 12.5 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, gift of Mrs Jean Bourgogne and her children, in memory of Jean Bourgogne, Emile Gallé's grandson, through the Société des Amis du Musée d'Orsay, 2000
Emile GalléMysterious grapes© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Purchases have focused on the production of countries that are still poorly represented in the collections, such as Germany, Scandinavia or Central Europe, in an attempt to give a glimpse of the whole gamut of design in the period covered by the museum.
Lastly, without a steady flow of private donations, a number of prestigious works would not be in the collections today; among them are The Hand with Seaweed and Shells (1990) and Mysterious Grapes (1998) given by the descendants of Emile Gallé, Carabin's Fountain and Bowl (2003) given by la Société du Musée d'Orsay or more recently the 250 Art Nouveau objects in the incredible Rispal donation (2005).

Recent acquisitions

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