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Interview with Charlotte Vignon, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Frick Collection

  1. Dorothée Charles (DC): Who was Pierre Gouthière and what was his virtuoso art?

Charlotte Vignon (CV): Pierre Gouthière was an eighteenth-century chaser and gilder whose skills were so exceptional that his creations commanded amounts equal to, and sometimes greater than, those asked by the most talented painters and sculptors of the era. He made his own models (like a sculptor), and once they were cast in metal, he used specialized tools to create patterns and textures on their surfaces. Then he gilded them. Although these objects were often utilitarian—clocks, wall lights, doorknobs, etc.—in his hands, they took on the appearance of finely worked gold.

Almost nothing is known of Gouthière’s early life, except that he was born in 1732 in the Champagne region of France, where his father was a master saddler. Most of his training took place in the Paris workshop of the chaser-gilder François Ceriset, who died in 1756. Two years later, Gouthière took over Ceriset’s workshop and also married his widow. During the following thirty years, Gouthière created extravagantly rich and exuberant gilt-bronze objects for an elite group of clients.


DC: Who was Gouthière’s clientele?

CV: His clientele comprised the powerful and wealthy members of Louis XV’s and Louis XVI’s courts, including Louis XV’s mistress, Mme Du Barry. He also worked for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s younger brother, the Count of Artois, who, in 1775, had appointed Gouthière as his own chaser and gilder. Gouthière produced some of his masterpieces for Louis-Marie-Augustin, the Duke of Aumont, who directed the Menus-Plaisirs et Affaires de la Chambre du Roi, an administrative body of the king’s household that managed the monarch’s personal effects and organized his entertainment, creating sets for theatrical productions and significant occasions such as marriages and funerals. Several of Gouthière’s most impressive works were commissioned by Louise-Jeanne de Durfort, Duchess of Mazarin, who was the daughter-in-law of the Duke of Aumont and heiress to the vast Mazarin fortune. All these pieces are reunited in the exhibition for the first time since the eighteenth century.


DC: Can you tell us more about Gouthière’s collaborations with other celebrated artists of his time?

CV: At the beginning of his career, Gouthière did a considerable amount of work for the silversmith to the king, François-Thomas Germain, who played a definitive role in his early success. Gouthière famously made the gilt-bronze mounts for two incense burners and a vase (in the exhibition) that were purchased in 1764 in the Parisian workshop of Germain by the Polish merchant Casimir Czempinski, on behalf of Stanislas-August Poniatowski, the future king of Poland. Later in his career, Gouthière collaborated almost exclusively with a few celebrated architects, who provided him with innovative neoclassical models that he masterfully interpreted into gilt-bronze objects. He was influenced by drawings of the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who created the pavilion of Louveciennes for Madame Du Barry, as well as designs of the architect Jean-François Bélanger. Bélanger notably supplied Gouthière with designs for all his mounts for the rare hardstone and porcelain pieces belonging to the Duke of Aumont. Gouthière also worked after models by sculptors such as Louis-Simon Boizot, Philippe-Laurent Roland, and Jean-Joseph Foucou.


DC: Gouthière was considered by collectors, critics, and art dealers, as one of the most important eighteenth-century French artists. How do you explain this recognition? 

CV: Gouthière was a gifted and passionate craftsman and artist who drove his art to the point of perfection. He had an extensive clientele but seems to have operated in a workshop small enough to allow him to keep a close eye on all the pieces produced. He was recognized at the time for his enormous talent—as a very good modeler, an excellent chaser, and an innovative gilder (he developed the now famous dorure au mat, or matte gilding, which gives a soft hue to the metal). These skills brought him to the attention of a select clientele—including Mme Du Barry, the Duke of Aumont, and the Duchess of Mazarin, among others—and provided entrée to the greatest architects, sculptors, and designers of his time, a number of whom supplied him with innovative and sumptuous models.


DC: What happened to Gouthière during the French Revolution and why isn't he better known today?

CV: Despite his success, Gouthière suffered a series of financial setbacks—including enormous fees owed to him by the Duchess of Mazarin and the Duke of Aumont that were unpaid at the time of their respective deaths. This forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1787, and he worked very little after that. Because of his connection with the French Royal court, he spent a few months in jail during the French Revolution (in the company of the painter Huber Robert and a few other famous artists). Gouthière died in poverty in 1813 and subsequently fell into obscurity among all but specialists in the field. It is my wish that with this exhibition, this incomparable chaser-gilder will be introduced to the general public.


DC: The exhibition will open at the Frick Collection [November 2016-February 2017], then a version of it will travel to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris [March-June 2017]. How did this collaboration come about?

CV: The idea for a major exhibition on Gouthière came to me in 2011. From the beginning, I worked in close relationship with Christian Baulez, former Curator at the Château de Versailles and an expert on French eighteenth-century gilt bronze, who is also the main author of the publication that accompanies the exhibition. Initially, most of this 400-page book was written in French by Baulez, myself, and two other French scholars. For these reasons and of course because of the French subject, I wanted the exhibition to been seen in Paris. Olivier Gabet, Director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, was very enthusiastic about the project and made sure that a version would be shown at his museum. The Parisian version is organized by Anne Forray-Carlier, Curator of Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Decorative Arts, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and will include many drawings and more objects than the New York venue, with some objects made by Gouthière’s rivals.

Charlotte Vignon is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Frick Collection, as well as a Visiting Associate Professor at the Bard Graduate Center, New York. Vignon has organized a number of exhibitions at the Frick, including Exuberant Grotesques: Renaissance Maiolica from the Fontana Workshop (2009); Turkish Taste at the Court of Marie-Antoinette (2011); Precision and Splendor: Clocks and Watches at The Frick Collection (2014); Coypel's Don Quixote Tapestries: Illustrating a Spanish Novel in Eighteenth-Century France (2015); From Sèvres to Fifth Avenue: French Porcelain at The Frick Collection (2015); Porcelain, No Simple Matter: Arlene Shechet and the Arnhold Collection (2016) and Pierre Gouthière: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court  (2016). She was co-curator with Anne L. Poulet of White Gold: Highlights from the Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain (2011), and with Ian Wardropper of Gold, Jasper, and Carnelian: Johann Christian Neuber at the Saxon Court (2012). Vignon has contributed to several publications, most recently, the volume accompanying the Gouthière exhibition. She is also the author of The Frick Collection Decorative Arts Handbook (2015). A native of France, Vignon received her Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, Paris, with a dissertation on the dealings of the Duveen Brothers in European decorative arts and Chinese porcelain between 1880 and 1940. She has held fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and The Frick Collection, where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow.