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Wilfried Zeisler: A Curator of 19th Century Art at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

The exhibition Splendor and Surprise at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC is the first major exhibition by French curator Wilfried Zeisler, curator of 19th century art. More than 80 remarkable boxes, coffers, chests, and other containers reveal the beautiful and unexpected ways that cultures have contained their most treasured items and everyday objects from the 17th through the 20th century. The intimate setting of Hillwood's Dacha offers the chance to see these precious objects more closely than ever. 

Zeisler was appointed associate curator at Hillwood in February of last year, having served as the Museum’s first curatorial fellow in early 2013. He is a graduate from the Sorbonne University and from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris, and is a scholar of French and Russian art. His dissertation was titled The purchases of French ‘objets d’art’ by the Russian Court, 1881-1917.

Before coming to the District, Wilfried Zeisler worked as a research lecturer at the Ecole du Louvre and at Sorbonne University in Paris. Zeisler has written widely on decorative arts in France and Russia, including a 2010 book on ceramics and several articles. He has contributed to more than 10 exhibition catalogs, and has curated exhibitions in Paris and Monaco. 

An interview with Dr. Wilfried Zeisler

How does a French academic find resonance in the field of History of 19th century Art and becomes a curator for 19th century art at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC? Do you consider that your research on the influence of French taste on objects of art and luxury naturally leads you to experiment another form of cultural influence, for instance, that of transmitting and sharing the French savoir-faire and expertise?

WZ: My first trip to DC was in 2011, when I came to visit friends. I was aware of the connections between Hillwood’s collection - French and Russian decorative arts - and my own area of expertise. At first, I just planned to visit the museum as a tourist, but a Russian colleague from the State Hermitage Museum encouraged me to contact Hillwood’s chief curator, Mrs. Liana Paredes. I did so and received a warm welcome. During my visit, I recognized many objects I knew through books but I discovered many other interesting items as well, especially French silver and porcelain, that were displayed in the Mansion or found in Hillwood’s storage. After this first term in Washington, I was not only thrilled by Hillwood’s collection, but also impressed by the beauty of the city with its magnificent monuments, museums and art collections and the charm of its parks, whose urban and social organization reminded me of the European concept of Residenzstadt. Invited to participate at another conference in the United States the same year, I came back to Hillwood where I spent time in their extraordinary library, a dream place for a scholar in my field and where I found documents that were only available in Russia! In 2013, I became Hillwood’s first curatorial fellow and when the museum offered me a position, I immediately accepted. 

One of my interests in 19th century Art history is the history of collecting French art abroad, especially in Russia. That makes Hillwood’s collection of French and Russian art particularly remarkable. When I started my PhD at the Sorbonne University, my supervisor, Professor Barthélémy Jobert, understood how my research topic coupled with a French PhD would be appreciated abroad. Speaking about my future after one of our meetings, he told me: “this will end in Russia or in the USA”. A few years later, our executive director, Mrs. Kate Markert, introduced me at the first lecture I gave at Hillwood on 19th century French Luxe with these words: “he was made for Hillwood”.

What does the attractiveness found in an object of art and French luxury represent in today’s globalized world?

WZ: For a long time now, there is a fascination for France in the world and I notice to what extent it is strong here in DC. French art, French food, French luxury are actually highly appreciated. Although it sounds a bit cliché, this success is a fact based on a historic marketing well-orchestrated by France since the late 17th century. In the beginning, French luxury goods were highly appreciated abroad because such products weren’t available in foreign countries. One had to order them from Paris to obtain them. Possessing this kind of objects was a sign of distinction. For this matter, speaking of luxury goods in the context of globalization is actually nonsensical since the traditional definition of luxury conveys that it was shared exclusively between restricted elites such as monarchs, aristocrats or magnates from all over the world. 

Today's marketing of luxury goods like brands and development of entry-levels products changed the definition of luxury in making some of its products widely accessible to an increasing number of clients. Part of this marketing is based on French history for when you purchase a French luxury good you are told that you are buying a part of French heritage. As a client of French luxury goods, you become an heir of the Versailles court’s members, the Parisian aristocrats and the Russian grand dukes, for example. Given that luxury goods became a matter of profit, they subsequently became subject of scholar works, studies and various specialized courses. Nonetheless, there is a lack of a strong definition of luxury means and especially today, with the development of standardization and mass consumption. 

His newest publication

Wilfried Zeisler's new publication L’Objet d’art et de luxe français en Russie (1881-1917) Fournisseurs, Clients, Collections et Influences (French ‘Objets d’Art’ and Luxury goods in Russia (1881-1917) Suppliers, Clients, Collections and Influences) was published in France last year. An adaption of Zeisler’s doctoral dissertation, this book is dedicated to the study of decorative arts in the context of political, social, commercial, and artistic interactions between France and Russia. 

Around 1900, when the decorative arts received new recognition as true works of art, the Russian elite contributed to this appreciation with their purchases of “artistic luxury”. In this context, the publication analyses the role of makers, merchants and clients in the dissemination of French luxury taste throughout Russia. It also addresses questions on the French influence on Russian decorative arts. Studies devoted to cultural exchanges at the time of the Alliance between the young Third French Republic and the old Russian Empire – during the reign of Emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II – are quite rare. 

The publication L’Objet d’art et de luxe français en Russie (1881-1917) Fournisseurs, Clients, Collections et Influences will be available for purchase at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens shop, as well as online. 

The book is richly illustrated by more than 320 images including furniture, bronze, textiles, silver, ceramic, glass or jewelry masterpieces, historical portraits, or never before published interiors of Russian palaces and mansions. 

Drawing from hitherto unpublished documentation, the book reveals the story of a large number of little-known works of art disseminated all over the world, some of them lost since the Russian Revolution and studies them in the broader context of the history of collecting and of material culture. Dr. Zeisler’s book contributes a new perspective on the history of taste and collecting in France, Russia and Europe.

French and Russian luxury goods including historical pieces by Aucoc, Boucheron, Cartier, Fabergé and Vuitton are part of the exhibition Splendor and Surprise: Elegant Containers, Antique to Modernon view from February 15 through June 7, 2015 at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC.