Today's video begins like any other local news feature piece (except, of course, that it's in French, with an English voice-over) but I hope you'll stick with it to reach the part about the nearly-forgotten art of silk weaving. The old wooden looms are beautiful in themselves, and what the weavers create is breathtaking. I love the idea that the modern mechanical looms - driven by automated machinery and computers - are incapable of duplicating the painstaking work of a single highly skilled human.
The video explains how the reproduction piece on the loom is destined to cover an armchair - fauteuil à la reine - made for French Queen Marie-Antoinette in 1779, and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the Museum's site, the chair was part of a set that was intended for the queen's "grand cabinet intérieur at the château de Versailles during the winter months....but the chair and the rest of the set were removed in 1783, when the cabinet intérieur was redecorated, and placed in the queen's billiard room on the floor above."
Like so much of the exquisite craftsmanship commissioned by the 18thc French court, the chair was the work of several different master trades and their workshops. The designer was Jacques Gondouin, the maker was François Foliot, the carving was done by the workshop of Madame Pierre-Edme Babel, the gilding by the workshop of Marie-Catherine Renon, and the original upholstery was by Claude-François Capin.
Since this video was filmed, the project has been completed, and the armchair reupholstered in the reproduction silk lampas with silk passementerie. It's now on display in the Gallery 527, an installed room from the Hôtel de Cabris, right, where I saw it. The colors of the silk are bright and rich, the way they must have been when the queen first chose them. (Click here for more photographs of the chair, including details of the upholstery.) I'm sure Her Majesty would approve.
I thought that would be the end of my post, but to my surprise, there's actually a Hamilton connection to this chair. (I know, I know, because of my new book I, Eliza Hamilton, it seems as if everything has a Hamilton connection for me, but this really isn't as far-fetched as it might seem.) As the museum notes continue:
"Sold during the French Revolution, the entire set of furniture was acquired by the American statesman Gouverneur Morris, who served as minister of the United States in France from 1792 to 1794. The pieces were subsequently sent to Morrisania, Morris's country estate in the Bronx."
Gouverneur Morris was a long-time close friend of Alexander Hamilton, with both men working together from the days of the American Revolution through the fledging American government of the 1780s-1790s. Both were New Yorkers, and often socialized together. When Hamilton died after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Morris delivered Hamilton's public eulogy, and was instrumental in organizing a collection to help support widowed Eliza Hamilton and the couple's eight children. Considering the closeness of the friendship, it's entirely possible that at some point or another, Eliza and Alexander Hamilton may each have sat in Marie-Antoinette's armchair at Morrisania. How small a place the 18thc world was!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.