Hans Ottomeyer and Peter Pröschel, “Vergoldete Bronzen”, 1986, p. 386, pl. 5.6.11, illustrating a set of three candelabra centrepieces by Thomire of circa 1820, one with three dancing maenads and the others with two bacchic revellers. And p. 387, illustrating a mirrored surtout de table by Thomire with the centrepiece featuring two very similar maenads dancing on a circular pedestal, holding aloft a basket with ring of candle branches, in the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.
John Dinkel, “The Royal Pavilion at Brighton”, 1983, p. 10, illustrating a very similar centrepiece, likewise with three dancing maenads in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.
Giacomo et Rozenn Wannenes, “Les Bronzes Ornementaux et Les Objets Montes de Louis XIV à Napoléon III”, 2004, p. 407, illustrating a very similar centrepiece by Thomire à Paris with an additional candelabra ring above and putti with wreaths on the plinth, sold in Paris 1990.
A magnificent Empire gilt bronze centre piece by Pierre-Philippe Thomire, stamped Thomire à Paris on the base, surmounted by a circular pierced basket adorned with bunches of grapes and fruiting vines, held aloft by three dancing maenads, each with grapes and vine leaves in their hair, wearing a lion’s pelt and holding a thyrsus, on a circular plinth mounted above by rosettes and anthemion above pairs of ribbon-tied cymbals and pipes interspersed by abundant vine cluster swags, on a stepped base with a border of fruits and pinecones
Paris, date circa 1810
During the early years of the nineteenth century the French began to change their dining customs. By about 1810 the Imperial court and upper echelons of society had abandoned the former tradition of the service à la Française, where all courses were presented on the table at the same time, in favour of the service à la Russe, where food was presented one course at a time. This meant that food was now served hot direct from the kitchen to each guest but the table, devoid of numerous serving dishes, appeared rather bare. As a result, table ornaments became more lavish and at the same time the surtout de table was developed as a perfect solution to ornament the central area of a long dining table. This wonderful centrepiece was conceived to form part of such a surtout de table, standing on a long mirrored plateau with further decorative items at the centre of a grand dining table. The basket was intended to hold fruit, bon-bons or a floral arrangement. If desired it could be fitted with a separate ring with candle-branches (as illustrated in Wannenes, ibid). A typical complete surtout de table may have comprised 24 and even 59 pieces which would have included smaller flanking centrepieces, tiered bon-bon dishes and sweetmeat plates, fruit baskets, possibly vases and accompanying candelabra placed on both the mirrored plateau and around its sides. While some remain as complete sets many have inevitably been separated, not least due to the practicalities of smaller dining tables.
Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843), who was elected ciseleur de l’Empereur in 1809 in recognition of his service to Napoleon, created some of the very finest and most lavish surtouts for the Emperor and members of his Imperial court. Considered the greatest fondeur-ciseleur of his age, he had originally trained as a sculptor under Houdon and Pajou at the Academie de Saint Luc. He then followed his father's profession as a bronzier, becoming a maître in 1772. Two years later he was apprenticed under the celebrated ciseleur, Pierre Gouthière (1732-1813), from whom he acquired the art of fine chasing and gilding of bronzes.
A closely related pair of centrepieces, forming part of a surtout attributed to Thomire, is now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan (exhibited at “The Age of Neoclassicism”, Royal Academy, London, 1972, no. 1768). Although the Ambrosiana centrepieces only have two maenads, they are almost identical to the present figures, as is the basket above with its additional surmounted candelabra branches, while the plinth below is adorned with a frieze of dancing maenads. As noted above, very similar Thomire centrepieces can also be found at Brighton Pavilion and the Fine Art Museum, San Francisco. A further closely related example, again with three dancing maenads and similarly embellished with poetic music trophies and vine swags on the pedestal, was sold at Christie’s Edinburgh, 11th May 1993, lot 529.
Juliette Niclausse’s biography, “Thomire, Fondeur-Ciseleur 1751-1843: sa vie, son Oeuvre”, 1947, pp. 129-130, lists ten complete and twelve incomplete surtouts de table and individual pieces. The largest set, owned by the Mobilier National, comprises 59 pieces. The Ministère de l’Intérieur and the Ministère de la Guerre both owned other Thomire surtouts. Another made for Napoleon’s brother Prince Lucien Bonaparte is in the Musée de Marmottan, Paris, while a further one owned by the comtes de Pourtalès is now in the Gulbenkian Museum. Prince Demidoff also once owned a Thomire surtout, part of which was purchased in 1880 by the silversmiths, Odiot.
Maenads or Bacchantes were appropriate motifs to adorn such centrepieces since they worshipped Bacchus. According to myth, Bacchus taught mortals the art of viticulture through the cultivation of the vine and of course wine was to be served and enjoyed during the meal. Likewise, Ceres, who introduced the art of agriculture, was another appropriate subject for such centrepieces.