Royal Academy, London, "Pompeii AD 79", exhibition catalogue, November 1976-February 1977, p. 71, illustrating the House of Loreius Tiburtinus and the House of the Centenary, with walls covered with arabesques, medallions, symmetrical swags as well as foliate sprays adorned by birds. Caroline Clifton-Mogg, "The Neoclassical Source Book", 1991, pp. 108-9, illustrating the reception room at Avington Park, Hampshire decorated with grotteschi panels, emulating Raphael's decorations at the Vatican Loggie. And p. 121, illustrating a panel in the Pompeiian Music Room at Stowe, by Vincenzo Valdre 1777-80, featuring winged putti at play, flaming vases, arabesques, swags and caryatid heads. And p. 125, illustrating the Etruscan Room or dressing room at Osterley Park, designed by Robert Adam, painted 1775-9 and featuring similar but more restrained wall decorations. Bernard Chevalier and Marc Walter, "Empire Style", 2008, p. 83, illustrating the drawing room at Hôtel Bourrienne, Paris, featuring very similar wall panels. And pp. 138-39 illustrating the master bedroom at the Hôtel Bourrienne, featuring extremely similar panelled wall decorations.
An extremely fine set of three Louis XVI grotteschi oil paintings on canvas, each with beautiful classical ornamental motifs on a beige coloured ground in the style of Raphael's decorations at the Vatican Loggie in Rome, the larger central panel comprising at centre top a pair of winged putti holding a ribbon-tied crown from which hang beautifully painted floral swags, above an oval grisaille medallion enclosing a figure of a mythical male figure standing beside a tripod brazier, the medallion flanked either side by a pair of white love birds and ribbon-tied crossed arrows, the medallion issuing floral swags held at the other edges by a pair of putti, the medallion above a central urn issuing a profusion of exquisitely painted flowers, the urn on foliate scrolls and two entwined putti with human torsos and acanthus leaf tails, above a fountain issuing palm fronds with a pair of swans perched on its rim who drink from its water, the fountain above a central male mask supported by two mythical female figures with upper bare breasted torsos issuing from foliate tails, the fountain flanked on either side by flower-filled classical vases with angular handles supported on a stand with bird-like legs balancing on foliate scrolls above a central rectangular panel with rounded ends enclosing the figure of Neptune and two other mythological figures. The two smaller flanking panels, each surmounted by foliate scrolls flanked by flaming torches that issue from a lower central diamond-shaped frame enclosing a grisaille Medusa head, above ribbon-tied swags and a female figure with a trumpet-shaped tail holding aloft flaming torches, above foliate scrolls and swags of blooming roses above a rectangular plinth with grisaille swags, held aloft by a pair of winged female chimeras with paw feet and entwined tails above a grisaille medallion enclosing ribbon-hung garden tools, comprising a fork, spade and watering can, decorated below by foliate berried swags and a vase with satyr head handles on which stand a pair of winged putti, the vase issuing from further foliate scrolls on a rectangular panelled frieze decorated with five putti, above a floral swag
French, date circa 1775-85
The larger central canvas: Height 195 cm, width 101 cm.
The two smaller canvases: Height 195 cm, width 38 cm. each.
This superb set of wall paintings epitomise the beauty of Neo-classical design and particularly the influence that ancient Roman arabesque and grotteshi ornament had on European decorative arts during the latter part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The three panels, of French origin, would have been specially commissioned by an affluent connoisseur and made to grace an elegant and important residence. Most probably they were hung in a salon, boudoir or bedroom between a set of windows or doors. With their abundant use of arabesques and classical motifs, they compare to the ornamental designs by the Renaissance artist Raphael and his assistants whose sixteenth century decorations for the walls and ceilings of the Vatican Loggie in Rome were based on the mural decorations found at the recently excavated ruins at Emperor Nero's Golden House in Rome. Those decorations had been buried for centuries and the subterranean ruins in which they were discovered were popularly known in Italy as grotte orgrotteschi, which in turn gave rise to the term grotesques. With the revived interest in classical architecture and ornament during the eighteenth century, artists and designers often imitated or reinterpreted Raphael's grotteschi, of which the present artist has so admirably achieved on these panels.
Among one of the leaders in this field was the French artist and designer Pierre-Adrien Pâris (1745-1819) who first stayed in Rome, 1771-74, during which period he frequently copied and described in his journal the decorative patterns and arabesques of the Raphael Vatican Loggie. Pâris then went on to design a number of Parisian interiors inspired by the Loggia's grotteschi. Among them was a commission from his patron Louis-Marie-Augustin, duc d'Aumont (1709-1782), to decorate his Parisian residence, Hôtel de Crillon, built in a grand Neo-classical style by Jacques-Ange Gabriel (1698-1782) on the place Louis XV (later renamed place de la Concorde). Not all the interiors survived but thankfully the painted and gilt wooden panelling designed by Pâris and executed circa 1777-80, for the duc d'Aumont's boudoir are preserved today in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Though painted on wood rather than on canvas, there are strong similarities between them and the present panels, not only in their soft muted colouring but also their symmetry, airy arabesques and abundance of charming classical motifs, such as the mythical creatures with upper human torsos issuing from acanthus scrolls.
Among many similar Neo-classical interiors, one can cite the painted panelled master bedroom at Hôtel de Bourrienne (illustrated in Chevalier, op. cit, pp. 138-9), purchased in 1801 from Joséphine de Beauharnais's friend Fortunée Hamelin by Napoleon's secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne. When on a visit to the late eighteenth century Parisian residence, Joséphine was particularly enchanted by the painted panels adorning the master bedroom, noting to Madame de Bourrienne "My god, this is more beautiful than the First Consul's house!" (Chevalier, op. cit, p. 143). Like the panelling at Hôtel de Crillon and as here, those at Hôtel de Bourrienne feature similarly aligned symmetrical medallions, arabesques, birds and swags against a soft muted background.
It was not only the discoveries at Nero's Golden House and in turn Raphael's Vatican Loggie, that were to influence Neo-classical interiors but also many other ancient Roman ruins, of which the most significant were Herculaneum and Pompeii. Excavated throughout the eighteenth century and beyond, these offered a wealth of decorative motifs found on surviving wall-paintings, stucco-work and architectural details, which were frequently recorded by visiting artists. Many of their illustrations were then published and in turn inspired other artists and designers to imitate such grotesque designs. Among the many illustrated tomes was the eight volume "Le Antichità di Ercolano esposte", published between 1759-1792 by the Royal Herculaneum Academy, D'Hancarville's 1766 publication "Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honourable Wm. Hamilton" as well as Abbé de Saint-Non's 1781 "Voyage pittoresque ou description des royaumes de Naples et de Sicile" with illustrations made by a Dominique-Vivant Denon and others. Added to them the great antiquarian and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) vigilantly recorded ancient Greco-Roman ruins while slightly later Napoleon's chief designers Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853) were to base their published ornamental designs on some of the decorations found at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Such Pompeian or Etruscan decorations not only influenced French but also English artists and designers, including James 'Athenian' Stuart (1713-88) and particularly the Scottish born architect and designer Robert Adam (1728-92). Adam spent many years in Italy and enamoured by its antiquities he was later employed to design many English interiors such as the decorations at Osterley Park, a Palladian mansion near London. In particular, the walls of the Etruscan Dressing Room at Osterley are painted in a light and airy fashion, using symmetry, medallions, swags, arabesques and soft pastel colours, which compare to the present panels. Another grand Neo-classical English residence, Stowe in Buckinghamshire boasts a music room with walls decorated in a similar Pompeiian manner. These were executed circa 1777-80 by the Italian artist Vincenzo Valdre (1740-1814), who spent much of his career in England and Ireland. Likewise, the main reception room at Avington Park in Hampshire is adorned with grotteschi panels that emulate Raphael's Vatican Loggie.
What distinguishes the present panels from so many others is the quality of the floral bouquets and swags. These were obviously painted by an artist of distinction, calling into mind the beautiful floral wall decorations by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) who, nicknamed 'the Raphael of flowers' and one of history's very finest botanical illustrators, was appointed an official artist to Queen Marie Antoinette. He also collaborated with the leading artists of his day and contributed to nearly fifty publications depicting both the familiar flowers of the French court and plants from places as distant as Japan, America, South Africa, and Australia.
Certainly the size as well as the beauty of these panels with their exquisite floral details, their intricate classical ornaments, flowing arabesques, birds and mythical creatures suggests that they would grace any spacious interior of quality. Furthermore, elements such as the endearing ribbon-tied gardening trophies comprising a spade, fork and watering can, combined with the profusion of delicately painted floral bouquets and swags, would appeal to all gardening lovers, but above all anyone who appreciates true beauty.