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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

French Silver in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Silver has always held an exalted position within the decorative arts. The fact that it is a precious metal distinguishes it from other media such as porcelain, wood, and glass, which do not have inherent value. The monetary value of silver usually meant that objects made in silver had more than just a utilitarian purpose; they were also signs of wealth and status, and as such, often reflected the latest style. Silver could be melted down and refashioned, and as the value of a silver object in the eighteenth century lay more in the metal than in the craftsmanship, pieces of silver thought to be out of date were often melted and transformed into something more fashionable. French silver was also subject to the various fiscal crises of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; both Louis XIV and Louis XV issued edicts demanding that silver be brought to the mint for melting, the resulting silver to be used to replenish depleted state treasuries. Thus, French silver from the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries survives in relatively small quantities.

The strict guild system in France helped to ensure the very high quality typically found in French silver. A prospective silversmith usually served an eight-year apprenticeship, and then spent two to three years as a journeyman. Then, in order to be recognized as a master, the journeyman submitted a trial work—his “masterpiece”—by which his skills could be judged. It was only after acceptance of this object by the guild, and after a final examination, that the status of master was obtained. The guild’s marking system also ensured the quality of the metal itself. Among the marks required for a piece of silver, the warden’s mark indicated that the silver content was correct. As silver in its pure state was too soft to form a durable object, a small amount of copper was always added to the molten silver to provide additional strength. In France, the silver standard required that 958.33 parts out of a thousand must be silver.

The best known silver objects made during the reign of Louis XIV were the pieces of silver furniture—console tables, torcheres, mirrors, etc.—produced for Versailles. These pieces were melted down in the late seventeenth century as a result of Louis XIV’s own edict, but more domestically scaled silver survives from the last decades of Louis’s reign, albeit in small quantities. Among the earliest French silver now in the Museum are a fork and spoon dating to the years 1683–84 (48.187.214). It was only at this time that the notion of a matched fork and spoon was gaining acceptance; knives were not even a standard accompaniment to a fork and spoon at this date.

The introduction of tea and coffee into France in the seventeenth century provided an important impetus for the development of new forms in silver. The earliest surviving Parisian silver teapot appears to be one now in the Museum (48.187.78). Its marks indicate that it was made in 1699–1700, and it is recorded that a drawing of a very similar teapot was sent in 1702 to Sweden, where French fashions in silver and other decorative arts were extremely influential. Dating to the mid-eighteenth century is a coffeepot of an unusually innovative and daring design (33.165.1). The coffee leaves and berries that decorate the spout and the base of the handle are a clever reference to the function of the pot, and the spiraling channels of the body create a sense of movement that captures an essential feature of the Rococo style, which was at the height of its popularity during these years.

Dining habits changed significantly in the course of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The French custom of placing food on the table in tureens and platters arranged decoratively became known as service à la française, and this style of dining, in which one served oneself, became the standard throughout Europe. The service à la française encouraged the development of the tureen, which became the dominant—and most expensive—feature of the table. One of the most elaborate French eighteenth-century tureens is that made for the duc de Penthièvre (48.187.418a-c). Its most notable feature is the highly sculptural finial or handle on the lid, which is composed of three hounds pulling down a stag—perhaps suggesting that a venison stew might have been the tureen’s contents. Also intended for use on the dining table are two candelabra (48.187.389a, b), probably from an original group of eight or twelve. They bear the marks of the great silversmith Robert-Joseph Auguste (1723?–1805), who became silversmith to the king in 1778. These candelabra date to early in Auguste’s career, and their bold, sculptural style, drawing upon architectural motifs from classical antiquity, reflects the emerging Neoclassicism of the late 1760s. A more spare, less robust use of classical motifs is evident in a ewer of 1784–85 (1980.79), in which the dominant sculptural element is the half-figure of Narcissus that forms the handle. Narcissus gazes down upon the reflective surface of the cover, thus representing the legend of Narcissus in a subtle but highly sophisticated manner.