By Michelle Cate
Read the full September issue of Viewpoints.
This graceful porcelain amphora-shaped urn displayed in the McFaddin-Ward House parlor is a great example of Rococo Revival decorative art. The piece sits to the right of the fireplace on a marble table top. The chairs in the parlor are in the Louis XV style, so this urn suits the room in style as well as in color, with its tones of pink and gold with highlights of blue. It is hand-painted with the classical mythological figures of Venus and her son Cupid. They appear to be putting their doe-eyed heads together to plot whom they should target next with his inescapable arrow of love. Their background is a flowering forest and on the other side of the piece, a classical ruin.
The urn is marked “Sèvres” with interlocking L’s on its lid and signed by the artist “R. Petit” on the front. I could find no information on “R. Petit” except for other examples that were signed with the same name. What I did find was that after 1830 there were no major porcelain manufacturers left in Paris, except for the Jacob Petit factory on the outskirts of Fontainebleau. Some pieces accredited to Jacob Petit were strikingly similar to that which we have here. Do “R.Petit” and “Jacob Petit” have some relation? Je ne sais pas. My research was inconclusive. Sometimes we find that a piece can make us ask more questions than it gives us answers, but that is also what keeps the research so interesting.
The porcelain is mounted with metal rococo arms that that look a lot like gold “ormolu,” a beautiful metal alloy made. The French perfected ormolu in the mid-1700s. The ormolu gilding process used powdered gold in an amalgam with mercury that drove many gilders literally mad before the age of 40. No true ormolu was produced in France after around 1830 because legislation had outlawed the use of mercury, but the term is still sometimes used to refer to any kind of gold-like gilt. We may sigh with relief, since this piece dates roughly 1850-1900 and so must have been gilt-bronzed through other means.
The delicate clusters of grapes hang from the intriguing gilt arms; on second glance into the eyes of Venus and Cupid, I imagine they are looking at me with that slyness that means they know something I don’t know.
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