NEW YORK CITY — A connoisseur’s connoisseur, French architect, designer and tastemaker, dealer and preservationist Georges Hoentschel was the go-to-guy in late Nineteenth Century Paris for a nobleman needing to restore the chapel of his ancient castle or to locate a particular treasure. His specialty was fashionable interiors, particularly historical revivals of ancien régime homes, with all the requisite furniture and decorations. A collector extraordinaire, as well as a canny businessman, he attracted an international following, supplying his aristocratic clientele with the grandeur and refinement of earlier centuries.
Hoentschel’s collections ran to the Gothic, Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth and Eighteenth Century objects culled from old churches, chapels and convents, even the occasional castle or palace. He installed it all in a house at 58 Boulevard Flandrin that he used as his private museum. Even the basement there was done up — as a crypt — complete with period ecclesiastical lighting and ornaments, tapestry, sculpture and bronzes and furniture.
It was this trove of some 1,500 works of art that Hoentschel sold to John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan in 1906. Morgan, himself a highly knowledgeable collector, subsequently donated a significant portion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art of which he was a founder and president, thus establishing the Met’s collection of decorative arts — and requiring an entirely new wing of the building. The effects were transformative: American collecting and taste in the early Twentieth Century took a whole new direction. A subsequent gift to the Met in 1916 and 1917 by Morgan’s son, John Pierpont Jr, after his father’s death in honor of his father only broadened the museum’s holdings of treasures from the Hoentschel collections.
The exhibition “Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” on view at the Bard Graduate Center, presents a selection of some 200 objects. The show offers a look at medieval art, Eighteenth Century boiserie, furniture, metalwork, textiles, painting and sculpture, along with late Nineteenth Century art pottery, most of which has not been seen since the 1950s.
“Salvaging the Past” is the fourth in a series of collaborations between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bard Graduate Center and illustrates the gleanings of an early and important collector. The objects on view are mostly from the Met’s collections, supplemented by loans from other public and private collections in the United States and in France. It is divided into four sections: the first illuminates Hoentschel himself, his life and his work; the second comprises Eighteenth Century holdings arranged according to photographs of the Hoentschel house museum; the third is a selection of medieval artwork; the fourth includes ceramics and some textiles.
Hoentschel (1855–1915) came of age during the Belle Époque after the rigors and deprivations of the Franco-Prussian War had ebbed and new wealth was flourishing. Royalty and nobility of several countries engaged him to create interiors for their palaces and ancient piles and the newly rich bourgeoisie relied on him in their emulation of the aristocracy in collecting Eighteenth Century works of art and adopting earlier styles in their homes and furnishings.
Early in his career, Hoentschel worked for his cousin’s firm, Maison Leys, buying out the heirs in 1892 after Ernest Leys died. His was a full-service operation requiring the talents of a multitude of craftsmen who could create objects using as models pieces from his own extensive collection of Eighteenth Century seating furniture, gilt-bronze mounts, paintings, textiles and Asian art. They would also incorporate fragments of earlier pieces into paneling and other work for client projects. His collections inspired him and formed the basis of his design schemes.
Hoentschel was particularly interested in Eighteenth Century boiserie and gathered panels and doors from several centuries. He was also much interested in ceramics, influenced in part by his friend and colleague, sculptor, ceramicist and miniaturist Jean-Joseph Carriès, who also opened him up to all things Japanese.
Hoentschel created the pavilion for the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, forsaking his usual Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century styles for the contemporary Art Nouveau. He included a Salle de la Céramique that exhibited his stoneware designs.
Taken with Impressionism, he collected pictures by Monet, Manet, Whistler, Pissarro and Sisley, among others. They were not part of his transactions with Morgan, however.
Around 1900, Hoentschel turned to collecting medieval art masterpieces, gathering such pieces as an enameled chasse with representations of the crucifixion and Christ in Majesty that he acquired from the English collector William Thomas Beckford. Hoentschel maintained relationships with major collectors and dealers, as a buyer and a seller. He also enjoyed friendships across all strata of society: writers, collectors, painters, art historians, curators and critics. He and his wife were much a part of the fashionable crowd and were seen at the very best parties. So easily did he blend the layers of his life, that Robert, comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac, commissioned him to design several of his residences and to stage his parties — and to attend as a guest.
When he was asked to renovate the archbishop’s palace at Strasbourg, he proposed an alternative — a full restoration of the Eighteenth Century decoration — thereby embarking on one of the first instances of historic preservation.
The second part of the exhibition explores Hoentschel’s Eighteenth Century collections, and they are on view as they were arranged at Boulevard Flandrin. They include oak panels carved by Jules Degoullons after a design by royal architect Robert de Cotte around 1710. They had been removed from shutters outside the Chapel Royal at Versailles in the Nineteenth Century, sliced in half and remounted as doors.
Hoentschel had a large group of Eighteenth Century chairs, the earliest of which is a caned Régence armchair with the characteristics of the Louis XIV and the Louis XV style that is on view with other important pieces. Others include a chair made by Nicolas-Quinibert Foliot for Louise-Élisabeth of Parma, daughter of Louis XV and wife of Philip of Spain, and a swivel desk chair, part of a 64-piece suite designed by Georges Jacob. The chair is stamped CMJ with a crown, which may refer to Joachim and Caroline Murat, king and queen of Naples. The chair was prominently displayed at Boulevard Flandrin.
One fragment on view, the stretcher from a console table made for the bedchamber of Marie Leszczyska, queen consort of Louis XV, is carved with four children, a reference to the Dauphin. Such objects as these would have served as a model for Hoentschel’s commissions.
Richly patterned Eighteenth Century-style textiles that Hoentschel commissioned from Tassinari & Chatel and Prelle, both in Lyon, are also on view. Some were ordered as restorations or replacements of damaged historic examples; others were creations of historic pieces.
Medieval sculpture, ivory and metalwork, including a Twelfth Century reliquary considered one of the finest surviving examples of Limoges enamel work, comprise the third section of the exhibition. There is also Jean Barbet’s remarkable bronze angel from 1475 on loan from the Frick Collection. Hoentschel also acquired an early Fourteenth Century German tapestry of the crucifixion that may have been part of an altar front and is thought to have been woven near Lake Constance. The reasons for Hoentschel’s affinity for medieval art remain unclear, although he is known to have acquired material from major collectors and dealers of the time.
Hoentschel’s stoneware and that of his friend Jean-Joseph Carriès are explored in the final section. A talented sculptor, the 20-year-old Carriès was invited to exhibit his work at the Paris Salon of 1875 and later at the Paris Salons in 1879 and 1881. But, after he discovered Japanese ceramics on view at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris, he began experimenting with its forms and glazes, creating stoneware sculpture. At the same time, Hoentschel was much taken with Japanese ceramics and became Carriès’ champion, commissioning pieces for his clients and ultimately training with him. After Carriès’ early death, Hoentschel purchased his atelier and continued the production of porcelain with metal mounts in the Eighteenth Century fashion and the production of Japanese-influenced Art Nouveau pieces.
Concurrent with “Salvaging the Past” is “Georges Hoentschel: Stoneware, a Love Affair” that includes ceramics attributed to Hoentschel, as well as Saint-Amand potters, including a portrait bust of poetess Loyse Labé by Jean Carriès.
“Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art” remains on view at the Bard Graduate Center, 18 West 86th Street, through August 11. For information, 212-501-3023 or www.bgc.bard.edu.