"Beckford-Behague" Ewer

Design attributed to Jean Guillaume Moitte French
Henri Auguste French

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 553

This gold ewer made in 1790 by the goldsmith Henri Auguste based on a design by Jean Guillaume Moitte for the British connoisseur William Beckford (1760-1844) is the finest example of neoclassical Parisian goldsmith work from the late eighteenth century. It is more than just a vessel. The gold ewer embodies the extravagant and eccentric personal tastes of the British collector, and the collective anxieties about money, value, and currency that shaped the French nation during the Revolution.

After training under his father, the royal goldsmith Robert-Joseph Auguste, Auguste became orfèvre du roi and took over the family workshop located in Paris near the Arc du Carrousel. Remarkably, it flourished throughout the revolutionary period, no doubt aided by Auguste’s position as head of the Paris and Lyon mint. Trained at the Royal Academy, Moitte began supplying the workshop with drawings in the 1770s. His designs for tureens, wine coolers, bowls, and ewers used a refined classical vocabulary and sculptural rigor shaped by his time at the academy. Beckford commissioned the golden ewer in 1789 during a stay in Paris, following his banishment from England for a homosexual affair. A glutton for works in precious metal, the British connoisseur prized Auguste and Moitte’s classically inspired designs, describing them as “worthy of the best period of Grecian art.” The elegant restraint of the design, inspired by antiquity, contrasts with the extravagant use of pure gold to fashion a vessel made for display. The ewer captures the spendthrift tastes of Beckford, one of the most fabulously wealthy men in Europe at the time.

By 1790, gold was exceptionally hard to come by in Paris. That spring, the new government, facing insurmountable debts, empty coffers, and a serious dearth of metallic money, began issuing assignats, provisional bonds that became France’s first national paper currency. Heated public debates took place about the new paper currency. The same year that Auguste executed the golden ewer, he published a pamphlet on money, in which the goldsmith proposed melting down confiscated church bells into coins. More insidiously, Auguste was accused of participating in the ransacking of churches after the suppression of religious orders in September 1792, allegedly participating in the melting down of church silver, and keeping church reliquaries at his home. Beckford’s relationship with the goldsmith later soured. After Auguste denounced the collector’s agent in Paris, Beckford described him as “a slippery eel.”

"Beckford-Behague" Ewer, Design attributed to Jean Guillaume Moitte (French, Paris 1746–1810 Paris), Gold, ebonized fruitwood; case of gilt-tooled red morocco leather, French, Paris

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