A magnificent Empire gilt bronze figural centrepiece stamped by the pre-eminent bronzier Pierre-Philippe Thomire, with a pierced basket held aloft by three dancing maenads, each with grapes in their hair, wearing a lion's pelt and holding a thyrsus, on a circular pedestal applied with Bacchic revellers on a circular base with berried wreath band
Paris, date circa 1815
Height 64 cm.
Intended to hold flowers or fruit, this wonderful centrepiece formed part of a 'surtout de table', an elaborate dining service, which was displayed on a long mirrored plateau in the centre of a grand dining table. This type of service was developed in France during Napoleon's rule and in the wake of his various conquests was soon adopted throughout Europe. 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", London Royal Academy, 1972, no. 1768). Although the Ambrosiana centrepieces only have two maenads they are almost identical to two of the present figures; the basket with additional surmounted candelabra branches is also identical as is the frieze of dancing Bacchic revellers around the plinth. Another similar Thomire centrepiece with three dancing maenads is housed at Brighton Pavilion, (illustrated in J. Dinkel, "The Royal Pavilion at Brighton", circa 1985, p. 10). Among other related Thomire centrepieces is one in the Fine Art Museum, San Francisco (illustrated in Hans Ottomeyer and Peter Pröschel, "Vergoldete Bronzen", 1986, p. 387, pl. 5.16.14) and another in a private collection (Ottomeyer, ibid. p. 386, pl. 5.16.11).
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, comprised 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.
A typical complete surtout de table may have comprised 24 and even 59 pieces which would probably 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.