Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France

A daughter of Emperor Francis I and Maria-Theresa of Austria, Marie-Antoinette (1755-1733) left the court of one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe at 14 years old to be married to the Dauphin of France. When she was 18, in 1774, Louis XV died and the dauphine was proclaimed Queen of France, alongside her husband Louis XVI. Her reign was of a particular importance, especially for Art History.

Marie-Antoinette participated in the entertainment at the Court. She organized many plays and balls that were renowned for their extravagance and their exquisite splendor. A great admirer of the arts, she placed many artists under her protection, like cabinetmaker Riesener or painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. The Queen led the fashion trends at Court. She supervised the creation of various pieces of furniture and hangings; the Hameau (the Hamlet) was built in the Palace of Versailles park to fulfill her yearning for a more intimate lifestyle. She had such an important influence on eighteenth-century French art that it would undoubtedly be more accurate to speak about "Marie-Antoinette style" rather than "Louis XVI style".

However, the young Queen was very unpopular, especially because she refused to follow the heavy rules of Versailles society and her duties as Queen. Even though the people exaggerated the amounts of her spending, the accusations held against her about squandering public money precipitated her downfall.

Mercury mirror

Since ancient times, mirrors have been produced, but it is most of the times small objects, made out of polished convex metal. During the 13th century, we saw the first mirrors to be covered with a led or silver layer. The technique of the mercury mirror was developped in Northern Europe during the 14th century, but it was the Venetians who, during the 15th century really developped the technique. It involved producing a flat and polished glass and covering it with a layer of mercury, that is to say a silver metal, that reflects. This silver covering was used on mirrors for 400 years.

Around 1672, France was able to produce high quality mirrors itself and thus stopped importing Venetian mirrors. One of the most famous examples in France is the hall of mirrors (in Versailles Palace) which has 357 mirrors made out of mercury, and of large dimensions, made by a manufacturer in Saint-Gobain around 1684. 80% are originals, we can tell this by the fact they they are not beveled.

However mercury is a chemical element that is very toxic and dangerous. The average life of a mirror manufacturer, subject to mercury vapors, was 10 years and fatal accidents were frequent. The technique was thus banned in 1850, coinciding with the discovery of another silver covering technique. Today, mirrors are covered with a layer of aluminium.

Fireplace Firebacks

Made of cast iron and placed at the back of the fireplace, what is a fireplace fireback?
Often called "cast iron fireback", this fireplace accessory is used to send the heat from the firebox back into the room and to keep it from being trapped in the walls. This includes the great firebacks in castles, but every fireplace has one. They are at the heart of the home and of high importance. They are a useful object, but they also feature a decoration that is often a family memory, as they are adorned with the family's coat of arms.
Heraldic motifs are the commonly found firebacks decoration, but they can also be adorned with other designs, such as mythological or allegorical scenes, military scenes, human or animal figures. There is often a secondary design around the central one.
The oldest firebacks were made in the 1400's, but they became popular during the 16th century, and production peaked at the 18th century.

During the French Revolution, a decree ordered the destruction of all fireplace firebacks. During this time, possessing a fireback adorned with royal attributes was enough to make the owner suspicious and to send him to the guillotine. In order to salvage them (and for the owners to save themselves), many firebacks were turned around in the fireplace firebox.
Firebacks were subject to a sort of craze during the 19th century, and a large number of antique firebacks were reissued. Today, we still have some quite exceptional, well-preserved firebacks from the 18th century, as well as some beautiful reissues from the 19th and 20th centuries (there have not been many original firebacks since the Second Empire).

“Old Centaur teased by Eros”,
rare cast iron garden statue

"Old Centaur teased by Eros"

After the roman antique artwork from the I-IInd centuries
Former Borghese Collection
and now preserved at the Louvre Museum

Cast Iron statue, France, Second half of the 19th century

This statue, "Old Centaur teased by Eros", represents a centaur with its arm crossed, and his back twisted towards the back, exhibiting his prominent muscles. The movement of the creature's head shows the effort he makes to see who is sitting on his rump. Half-man half-horse, the centaur seems furious, while little Cupid distracts himself by pulling the centaur's hair on his head and back. Mischievous, the God of Love has tied the centaur's hands in his back, that the creature cannot struggle.

The reproduction of an antique artwork :

The "Old Centaur teased by Eros" would have been carved in marble at the imperial period by artists coming from Aphrodisias, an antique city of Asia Minor located in actual Turkey. The statue was rediscovered during the 17th century and entered the collection of Scipione Borghese, a passionate collector, whose antiquities were gathered mostly between 1607 and 1612 to adorn the Villa Pinciana. In 1807, Camille Borghese sold several hundreds of antique artworks - from which this statue belonged - to Napoleon, his brother-in-law, who wanted to show that his reign was a continuity of the Roman Empire. Thus is created the "Musée Napoléon" ("Napoleon Museum") where were exhibited this collection of exceptional pieces, including, besides this Centaur, major artworks as "The Borghese Gladiator", "The Sleeping Hermaphroditus", or even "The Borghese Vase".
Today, The "Old Centaur Teased by Eros", is kept at the Louvre Museum, into the splendid Salle des Caryatides.

A cast iron statue at the Industrial Revolution era :

Cast iron was a new material, born with the Industrial Revolution ; if it was used to make this statue, the latter yet continued on a tradition through the reproduction of an antique artwork from the I-IInd centuries. The tension between past and innovation reveals here all the Eclecticism of the 19th century.
The first Industrial Revolution began in England in the second half of the 18th century to slowly spread into Europe and North America from the 19th century to the first World War. During this time, progresses were made into urbanism, the metal became a fundamental material, massively used, and especially for constructions reserved for engineers like bridges, railway stations or even for factories buildings.

Cast iron, raw product of the blast furnace, comes out liquid of the crucible ; it can easily be poured into molds. That is why, after 1820, this material was used to make decorative elements, garden ornaments, fountains or statues. Cast iron is cheaper than bronze : this technic allowed a large diffusion of tough, high quality sculptures, often with monumental dimensions.

The success of the bronze editions in the middle of the 19th century provoked a profound shift for both sculptors and metalworkers. Achille Collas - the creator of the process of "réduction mécanique" which allows to enlarge or reduce the dimensions of an original artwork in order to reproduce it in metal - is often compared to Gutenberg. The taste for the metal reproduction of an original statue is confirmed by the advent of cast iron, a cheaper and simpler material.
Away from the Salons, this production responded to the bourgeois 'new incline for beautiful objects : it spreads into theaters, open galleries, rich flats, public places or enlighted art lovers' gardens, like was "Old Centaur teased by Eros" which testifies of a deep knowledge of antique artworks.

The Ponts des Arts
built between 1801 and 1804
with nine cast iron arches.
The Crystal Palace built in Hyde Park
made out of cast iron and glass
for the 1851 World's Fair
Sainte-Geneviève library in Paris
built in stone and cast iron
by Henri Labrouste in 1851

Art foundries in the 19th century :

The cast iron artwork industries grew under the Second Empire and the IIIrd Republic to concentrate its activity in a couple of foundries, as the Val d'Osne foundry, the most important of France, the Durenne foundry, which largely contributed to the renown of French art foundries abroad, or even the Ferry-Capitain or Tusey industries.

Frequently, antique models - from the Louvre or the Palace of Versailles - or even artworks of contemporary sculptors like Mathurin Moreau, were reproduced.

To disseminate their production, foundries used different means. The National Exhibition of Industrial Products and then the World's Fairs exhibitions, gave a great opportunity to exhibit artworks and receive awards which really mattered into sales pitch. In 1851, the jury wrote in his report: "M. André, from the Val d'Osne […] exhibited a fountain of an admirable construction and molding. His alligator, his chimney, his frame of bed, presented a casting that was so perfect that we could hardly believe those objects had not received any retouching, but were just as out of the mold". He received a silver medal. Again, the Universal Exhibition of 1867 consecrated the Durenne foundry at an international scale.
The albums were the other important channel of the foundries. Those books, more and more expensive and thick, were given or sold by the foundry manager to his clients. Inside were engraved all informations regarding their collection. "Old Centaur teased by Cupid" appears so in a Val d'Osne catalog (n° 533).
The Tourny Fountain in Quebec,
sculptures by Mathurin Moreau, conception by Liénard.
Val d'Osne Foundry, 1857.
Fountain in the Place de la Concorde, Paris.
cast iron statue by Achille Valois.


The unicorn is known to have the power to heal sickness. Many medieval remedies were based on the powder from its horn.
It was commonly thought that only a young girl could approach a unicorn, and in order to capture it and acquire its precious horn, one had to use a virgin as bate.
These coveted collectible objects could be found in the cabinets of curiosities owned by monarchs. At the turn of the eighteenth century, the truth was revealed: they were actually narwhal horns.

In the Bible or religious iconography, the unicorn's horn has divine power and also symbolizes Christ the Redeemer. This naturally makes it a perfect iconography for heraldry. During the seventeenth century, it became one of the most commonly used emblems for coats of arms, like those of Great-Britain.

During the nineteenth century, enthusiasm for the Middle Ages revived the unicorn's iconography, especially with symbolists such as Gustave Moreau. Today, once again, the unicorn inspires contemporary artists, for example in the artwork The Broken Dream by English artist Damien Hirst.