Georges Hoentschel and his world

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2013 |

The life of the Parisian decorator, collector, one-time architect, and ceramist Georges Hoentschel (Fig. 2), head of the renowned furnishing firm Maison Leys, coincided with a period of far reaching change in France. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the devastation of the civil war (la commune), the Third Republic (established after the fall of Napoléon III), witnessed great scientific, industrial, and social evolution. The newly-moneyed bourgeoisie imitated the aristocracy by collecting eighteenth-century art and modern furnishings inspired by historical French styles. Through good fortune, business acumen, and an encyclopedic knowledge of French decorative arts, Hoentschel was able to create ambitious interiors based on the styles of the ancien régime for wealthy industrialists, aristocratic families, and foreign royalty alike. Through his participation in several world's fairs, he exported French style and expertise around the globe. A network of skilled craftsmen and an extensive collection of eighteenth-century models of seat furniture, gilt-bronze mounts, decorative paintings, paneling,  and woodwork, mostly fragmentary in nature, facilitated his rise to prominence during the Belle Époque.*

When Hoentschel bought out the heirs of his cousin Ernest Leys in 1892 and became the legal owner of Maison Leys, he had already worked for the firm for many years. Ernest's father, Pierre-Jean Leys, established the business in 1827 (it moved to the place de la Madeleine in 1850, where it remained during Hoentschel's tenure), but the family had been in the Parisian furniture trade since the late eighteenth century. Hoentschel combined the traditional profession of an upholsterer with that of an interior architect, providing complete decorating schemes that required the skills of many different workshops. He often relied on outside craftsmen to execute large and challenging commissions. Documents from 1903 to 1905 describing Maison Leys's work for the British Embassy in Paris and for the diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher at Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire, corroborate this, as do the ledgers of silk weavers Tassinari and Chatel and of Maison Prelle. Newly discovered archival documents furnish the names of additional suppliers, such as the textile weaver Braquénié, and the chairmaker Napoléon Quignon and cabinetmaker Henry Dasson, both known for their replicas of historical furniture. 

As a collector, Hoentschel's interests encompassed sculpture, textiles, European paintings, medieval objects, and Asian art. His primary interest, however, was seventeenth- and eighteenth-century woodwork, and he substantially enlarged the collection of chairs, tables, and paneling to be used as models that he had bought from his cousin's estate when he took over the family business. Trained as an upholsterer, he clearly preferred seat furniture to case furniture. A taste for delicately carved and beautifully wrought objects guided his acquisitions. The collection included pieces with important and even royal provenances, such as shutter panels from the so-called Chapel Room at Versailles (see Fig. 7). Carved in 1710 by Jules Degoullons and associates who worked for the Bâtiments du Roi, these panels were split through the middle and framed into large doors in the nineteenth century. In 1730 the same carvers executed another unique fragment in Hoentschel's possession, the stretcher of a console table for the bedchamber of Marie Leszczy?ska, queen consort of Louis XV (Fig. 6). The stretcher, the only surviving element of this table, displays a group of four children and two entwined dolphins, a reference to the recent birth of the dauphin. From the same palace is a pair of painted panels that originally formed the upper half and lower part of one of the doors in the comte d'Artois' Turkish cabinet of 1781 (Fig. 9). The visit of the second Turkish delegation to Paris in 1742 had stimulated the taste of the French nobility for such exotic interior decoration, known as turquerie, and the comte d'Artois created two such rooms at Versailles. 

Hoentschel's charismatic personality allowed him to overcome social barriers, gaining clients and forming friendships across a wide spectrum of French society. In 1899 he married Antoinette Desaille (1878-1905), a young artist from Troyes who worked as a genre painter, portraitist, and engraver. Known as Toinon, she bore him two children before her untimely death in 1905. Hoentschel and his wife were friendly with writers, collectors, aesthetes, and painters such as Maurice Lobre and Giovanni Boldini. He also socialized with art historians and curators of the national museums, such as Gaston Migéon, André Pératé, and Gaston Brière, who wrote about his collections, as well as with journalists and art critics. The boundary between friendship and business was often crossed. The poet, aesthete, collector, and famous dandy Robert, comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac, not only relied on Hoentschel to decorate his various residences but also for the staging of his elegant parties with recitals and poetry readings, which Hoentschel attended. Indeed, Hoentschel's business success afforded him a fashionable lifestyle, and newspaper accounts record his presence at a variety of cultural events. For example, soon after he had completed refurbishing the British Embassy in Paris in anticipation of a visit by Edward VII in 1903, Hoentschel and his wife were invited to a gala at the Paris opera in the king's honor. For this and other jobs he was inspired by decorative elements in his collection, which he copied and adapted to a larger scale. In 1907 Hoentschel was asked to submit a plan for the renovation of the archbishop's palace in Strasbourg, for which he proposed, instead, a full restoration of the existing eighteenth-century decor, thus carrying out one of the first recorded instances of historic preservation. His name was suggested as one of two possible candidates to install the famous ensemble of panels by Jean-Honoré Fragonard originally painted for Madame Du Barry's Pavilion at Louveciennes in the Fifth Avenue home of Henry Clay Frick. Although the commission ultimately went to Auguste Decour, the nomination is but one indication of the international reach of Hoentschel's reputation, which was also reflected in his decoration of rooms in the Askaska Palace in Tokyo.

For the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris Hoentschel sponsored and created a much praised pavilion for the Union Centrale des Arts décoratifs (the forerunner of the Musée des Arts décoratifs). As the pavilion was intended to display contemporary French design, Hoentschel departed from his usual work in the traditional Louis styles and executed these interiors in the latest art nouveau manner. The so-called Salon du Bois (Fig. 1), with paneling of Algerian sycamore carved with a wealth of naturalistic roses against trelliswork, was furnished with vitrines and furniture decorated en suite. The nearby Salle de la Céramique showcased examples of Hoentschel's own designs in stoneware, an art form he was most likely introduced to by his friend, the passionate sculptor and art potter Jean-Joseph Carriès. Carriès experimented with Japanese-inspired shapes and glazes and also created stoneware sculpture that brilliantly illustrated how this traditionally utilitarian material could be transformed into art. Not long after Carriès's premature death in 1894 Hoentschel had re-activated his pottery studio in Montriveau in the Nièvre region of Burgundy with the help of his late friend's assistants. Hoentschel probably supplied or approved its ceramic designs and can best be described as the studio's artistic director. The impressive vases he showed at the Paris exposition, some adorned with bronze, a reference to the eighteenth-century fashion of mounting porcelain with silver or gilt bronze, represent the apogee of the stoneware created under his direction. Particularly notable is the pair that flanked the entrance to the UCAD pavilion (see Fig. 15). Given their ambitious size, the firing of these vases must have posed a challenge. Although Hoentschel's stoneware found favor during his lifetime, it appears to have been largely forgotten after his death. However, stoneware marked with the interlaced "GH" monogram received a new appreciation in the 1960s as a result of the revived interest in art nouveau and is found in private collections and museums alike.

Around 1900, when Hoentschel was at the height of his career, he began to amass an important collection of medieval art, including masterpieces such as an enameled chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty that had belonged to the collector William Beckford (Fig. 11). Exceptionally rare is a fourteenth-century German tapestry of the Crucifixion, possibly part of an altar front (Fig. 10). Many of these pieces are recorded in photographs of his collections as they were displayed first at the Cité du Retiro, near the firm's headquarters on the place de la Madeleine, and, from 1903 until 1906, in a carefully staged display in a building on the boulevard Flandrin (see Fig. 5). 

In the latter year Hoentschel sold both the model collection and the medieval art to the powerful American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Morgan gave the eighteenth-century part of his purchase to the museum but lent the medieval art with the intention of donating it in the future (which his son did in 1916-1917). This unrivaled gift and loan not only constituted the core of the Met's holdings of medieval and later French art but also had a tremendous effect on the institution itself. The arrival of 364 packing cases stuffed with art objects made it clear that the overcrowded museum needed to expand. In order to create space for the Hoentschel objects, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White designed a new wing, which opened to the public in March 1910. Another result of Morgan's gift was the creation of a curatorial department for decorative arts, the first in the country, and the appointment of Wilhelm R. Valentiner, the personal assistant of Wilhelm Bode, director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, as its initial curator. At Morgan's directive, Valentiner arranged the Hoentschel collection systematically and chronologically (see Fig. 12), interspersing it with related objects, setting the standard for the installation of decorative arts at other American institutions. During its initial decade in New York, the Hoentschel treasures were well known and exerted a distinct influence on American taste, inspiring artists and designers and stimulating an interest in and appreciation of French decorative arts. Although many works from the collection are on permanent display at the museum, Hoentschel is today unknown in America, his name overshadowed by Morgan's. Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the Bard Graduate Center from April 4 to August 13, is intended to reclaim his story.

 

* The only previous publication about Hoentschel in recent years is his granddaughter Nicole Hoentschel's Georges Hoentschel (Monelle Hayot, Château de Saint Rémy-en-l'Eau, 1999).

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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