Malmaison in the sky

Charles P. DeLorme and Eleanor P. DeLorme

Charles P. DeLorme and Eleanor P. DeLorme Art, Furniture & Decorative Arts

Malmaison is familiar to many as the château of the Empress Josephine in Rueil-Malmaison, eight miles west of Paris. In 1978, though, Malmaison moved to New York—figuratively speaking—in the form of Roger Prigent’s fabled Malmaison Antiques, which introduced French Empire furnishings of the highest quality to the United States. An insatiable—yet discerning—collector who refers to Josephine as “the first lady of the world” and once bought a white Cadillac just because he liked the radio, even though he does not drive, Prigent has led a singularly atypical life. He and his sister Yvonne Prigent Lacks, with whom he works in the Manhattan penthouse that is now home to Malmaison Antiques, are such treasures themselves that both should adorn an Empire vitrine.

They were born on the family’s coffee plantation in Hanoi, where their little sister was once “kidnapped by a band of thugs,” Prigent recounts, “but she was so utterly impossible that they let her go, without ever demanding a ransom!” When their father was stationed in France during World War II, the family moved to Rueil-Malmaison. Prigent—then a teenager—was charmed to be living near the château of Josephine, whom he knew from his history books. From then on, “I always lived under her star,” he says. His infatuation only deepened when—after the invasion of France in 1940—the family moved to Martinique, the very island where Josephine had been born. Prigent’s stay in the West Indies was brief, however, for when the Allies invaded Vichy-controlled French North Africa in November 1942, he left immediately for Casablanca. There he joined the Free French Air Force as a combat photographer, taking aerial shots of sites before and after air strikes.

After the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Prigent returned to the city as a photojournalist for Paris-Match, but in 1950 he moved to New York. He acquired a town house on East Sixty-fifth Street and met Vogue’s lead photographer Richard Avedon (1923-2004), who was impressed by his work and they became friends. Soon thereafter Prigent also became a star photographer for Vogue—surely the only one at the time to have lived on four continents and in the West Indies. As a devotee of jazz, which he calls “the classical music of America,” Prigent often frequented Birdland, where history was being made by such legends as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. He spent countless evenings with them listening to bebop and also went to the original Roseland Ballroom nearby. When the latter was torn down in 1956 Prigent eagerly acquired the suite of lacquered wall panels designed for it by Pierre Bobot (1902-1974).

On a photographic assignment in Paris for French Vogue in the 1950s, Prigent fell for the sophisticated beauty of art deco in the hôtel particulier of the famous Paris decorator Gérard Mille.1 (As Prigent was snapping pictures of Christian Dior models in Mille’s house, a small brunette was watching the session, making scathing remarks about Dior’s costumes. Only afterward did Prigent learn that the annoyingly loquacious lady in the “little black dress” was Coco Chanel [1883-1976].) Deco is an urban style, at its best in an ex­­­­­­­­­citing city environment. In New York it appeared in the shim­­­­­­mering Chrys­­­ler Building, Rockefeller Center, and numerous commissions by Edgar Brandt (1880-1960), including his doors for the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company showroom and ornamentation for the Chanin Building and the New Yorker and Waldorf-Astoria hotels.

On his return to the city Prigent began buying art deco pieces to add to the impressive Empire collection that had been his specialty. He acquired so much that soon he was forced to sell his overflowing town house and move to a much larger establishment on East Seventy-fourth Street, where he launched Malmaison Antiques. “Roger was a pioneer in so many different ways,” says Thierry Millerand, the former head of European decorative arts at Sotheby’s, “he was the great promoter of the Empire style here, and thanks to his knowledge, enthusiasm, and exquisite taste it was shown to its very best in his marvelous shop.” Sadly, in 2002 failing eyesight forced Prigent to sell much of his vast inventory at a spectacular sale at Christie’s, and he moved his business into the stunning penthouse where he now lives. His friend Jacques Grange of the eponymous Paris design firm devised a scheme for the apartment that complements the collection, using mirrors and walls of subtle blue that “remind me of the Paris sky,” says Prigent. “New York would not be the same without Roger,” Grange has observed, an opinion shared by many leading decorators, designers, and collectors, as well as by curators and artists. He liberally donates art to leading museums and freely lends to major exhibitions—though Andy Warhol (1928-1987) could not persuade him to sell him his dining room table.

A suite of drawings by Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) hangs in the entryway to the apartment, but it is the mirrored foyer that truly sets the stage. Here a column of green marble supports Antonio Canova’s monumental bust of Napoleon as premier consul in marmoreal white marble (Fig. 2). It is the star among Prigent’s busts of Napoleon (see also Fig. 9) and yet another link with Josephine (Fig. 7), whose unrivaled collection of Canova’s sculpture at Malmaison adds glory today to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.2

Just around the corner from the bust, in Prigent’s bright salon, Canova’s plaster Terpsichore with her lyre poses on a pedestal (Fig. 6). Nearby a pair of Régence chairs flank a sofa of about 1730, the cabriole legs harmonizing with the curved legs of the mirrored coffee table from the 1940s designed by Serge Roche. The tabletop is paved with an amazing collection of sophisticated little makeup cases called minaudières, principally from the art deco period and by such important jewelers as Boucheron and Cartier. Also in the room are two mirrored tabourets by Roche (see Fig. 12), one of which Elsie De Wolfe (1865-1950) purchased from him and sold to Gary Cooper in 1945, making it one of the many ob­­­­jects with fascinating provenances that enhance Prigent’s collection. Other former owners include Edward, Duke of Windsor, and the director Billy Wilder, as well as Prigent’s friends Cole Porter, Helena Rubinstein, Karl Lagerfeld, Warhol, and T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.

Prigent clearly enjoys a sense of whimsy too. On an eighteenth-century Italian commode stands a nineteenth-century bust of Julius Caesar, who steadfastly ignores a pair of Italian nineteenth-century gilded-wood nymphs pirouetting on their pedestals nearby (see Fig. 14). Elsewhere Greek theater confronts pop art as a Roman porphyry mask of Tragedy grimaces at a Claes Oldenburg Ice-Cream Cone (Fig. 5).

Prigent often holds court from a mahogany Empire sofa designed by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (see Figs. 4, 13), which, he says, was reputedly made for the Francophile American president James Monroe, who acquired a set of gilded furniture for the White House from Bellangé in 1817. Above it hangs an important oil study for Revolt of Cairo by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, the painted drama of which is echoed in the figures of a spectacular Second Empire gilt-bronze clock in the dining room (see Fig. 3). Painting and clock both commemorate Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798 to 1799—which launched the field of Egyptology and inspired the Egyptian revival style.

Dining chez Prigent is a scintillating experience, gastronomically and aesthetically. Framed by Doric columns from the set of Gone with the Wind (1939), the dining area includes a table that combines a mirrored glass top manufactured by Saint-Gobain with a wrought-iron base of 1928 to 1930 by Edgar Brandt (see Fig. 1). The nineteenth-century chairs drawn up to the table are in the style of Michel Bouvier (1792-1874), who served in Napoleon’s army before moving to Philadelphia in 1815, where he made furniture for Point Breeze, the New Jersey estate of Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844).

The Cairo revolt clock and a pair of delicate nineteenth-century opaline vases form a classical garniture for an Empire console in the room (see Fig. 3). Above them hangs a painting by Eugene Berman flanked by a pair of gilt-bronze lyre-shaped appliques surmounted by the head of Apollo, which continue the lyre theme offered by Terpsichore in the salon and by the central motif on the Paris porcelain dinner service on the dining table. It was made for Josephine’s daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (1783-1837), queen of Holland, who as a young woman attended Madame Cam­pan’s finishing school outside of Paris with James Monroe’s daughter Eliza (1786-1840). They became such close friends that Eliza later named her daughter Hortensia. Portraits of Madame Campan and of Hortense and her brother Eugène, which Hortense presented to the Monroes on Hortensia’s christening, hang at Ash Lawn, Monroe’s house in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The porcelain is complemented by neoclassical silver from such important Paris firms as Odiot (patronized by Josephine)—a centerpiece with an artichoke finial, candlesticks, and terrines. At one time the exquisite vermeil flatware originally owned by Napoleon’s sister Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825), Princess Borghese, rounded out Prigent’s place settings, but, hélas, it was stolen in the 1990s.

Here, as is so often the case, the French eschew flowers for their tables—our dear friend the late Jean Feray, who was inspector of French Historical Monuments, forbade any bouquets at all in his Paris town house. “Flowers belong in the garden,” he always said. Appropriately, then, on the mirrored wall behind Prigent’s dining table hangs a painting of the garden at 110 rue du Bac in the noble Faubourg Saint-Germain, which he once owned. It was painted in 1929 by the Philadelphia artist William J. Glackens when he was living at 110 rue du Bac; James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) had also lived there—in the 1890s and painted his sister-in-law Ethel Philip (later Whibley, 1861-1920) in the salon. Prigent was rarely able to use the house when he owned it (he called it the “most expensive hotel room in the world”), and eventually sold it. No matter. While the Upper East Side is hardly the Rive Gauche, he stills lives amidst the arts of France; and the art world—as always—beats a path to his door.

1 Prigent owns a delightfully witty pair of black lacquer chairs with white grosgrain upholstery by Gérard Mille.  2 Eleanor P. DeLorme, “A Taste for the Antique,” in Josephine and the Arts of the Empire, ed. Eleanor P. DeLorme (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2005), p. 54.

ELEANOR P. DELORME teaches at Wellesley College and writes and lectures widely on the arts of France.

CHARLES P. DELORME was the developmental editor for Josephine and the Arts of the Empire (2005),  which was awarded first prize by the International Napoleonic Society.