Busts, beds and Marie Antoinette: 11 of the best from 2016 Museum of the Year winner the V&A

By Culture24 Reporter | 07 July 2016

At the end of last year, new Museum of the Year winners the V&A opened their seven-gallery Europe 1600-1815 spaces. The expansive five-year project involved 1,100 objects. Here are 11 of them

Bust of Cardinal Paolo Emilio Zacchia, Rome, circa 1650

A photo of a bust held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Alessandro Algardi made this terracotta sketch model in preparation for a marble bust of Cardinal Paolo Emilio Zacchia (1554-1605), now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.

Algardi left the marble version unfinished at his death in 1654. This suggests that this model was one of his last works. An assistant, possibly Domenico Guidi, subsequently completed the marble, which was owned by the Cardinal's niece, the Marchesa Rondanini.

The marble lacks the vivacity of this terracotta, the handling of which is particularly remarkable given that the sitter died nearly 50 years before it was modelled. Algardi presumably based his work on an existing portrait.

The Cardinal, wearing a biretta (a three-cornered hat) and mozetta (a short hooded cape), is shown turning the pages of a book. This pose alludes to his written works, which included a treatise on the Immaculate Conception. This belief held that the Virgin Mary was conceived free of the stain of original sin.

It later became a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. Cracks are clearly visible throughout the terracotta, which were caused by firing the clay too quickly.


Waistcoat, 1730-1739

A photo of a yellow waistcoat held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Made in England or France, this richly-embroidered satin waistcoat demonstrates the lavishness of court dress during the 1730s. The length of the waistcoat and the sumptuous embroidery and are both characteristic of the period and the rich yellow of the dyed satin was fashionable in men’s and women’s dress from the 1730s until the 1780s.

It is embellished with embroidery in coloured silk and silver threads of several textures. The decorative pattern incorporates large stylised exotic flowers and leaves with feathered scrolls, arranged in broad borders down each front, over the pocket flaps and the front of the waistcoat skirts.

The scale of the embroidery pattern, its range of textures and use of metallic threads are reminiscent of the Baroque style, commanding splendid effects in rich materials. But the design demonstrates characteristic Rococo elements of scrolls, naturalistic ornament and extravagant forms; with the regular sinuous pattern of ornate scroll shaped leaves and diapered infilling introducing the lighter grace of the Rococo style.

This waistcoat is unusually opulent as the expensive satin has been used for both the front of the garment and the back and the three-quarter length sleeves, neither of which would have been visible when worn with a coat.


Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in a court dress

A photo of a small female portrait held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
François Hubert Drouais (1727-1775) was born in Paris. He initially trained with his father, Hubert Drouais, and became a member of the Académie Royale in 1755, quickly achieving great success as a portrait painter and receiving prestigious commissions, especially from the court.

This painting is a portrait of the Dauphine Marie-Antoinette, consort of the future king of France, Louis XVI, at the age of 17. It depicts the princess in a lavish court dress adorned with sumptuous jewels.

The portrait was used as a model for a tapestry made in the Royal manufactory of the Gobelins by the Cozette father and son in 1775. This portrait is a good example of French state portraits of the 18th century and the representation of an almighty royalty about to fail in a few years’ time.


Day bed (veilleuse), circa 1950

A photo of a sofa held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
This was made by Jean-Baptiste Tilliard – one of the most prominent Parisian chair-makers during the mid-18th century who executed much work for the Crown. Several members of the family worked as cabinet makers in Paris during the century. When Jean-Baptiste retired, in 1764, his son assumed control of the workshop and continued to use his father’s stamp.

The day-bed has all the hallmarks of the then popular rococo style, with its serpentine form and decorative scheme comprising carved sprays of flowers that alternate with rocaille shells and cartouches.

The arms of the marquise de Pompadour have been added to the back rail of the daybed; probably in the early 20th century. Madame de Pompadour, who became the official mistress of Louis XV in 1745, was celebrated as a collector and arbiter of taste for much of the 19th century.

The addition of her arms to this piece reflects the contemporary fascination with Madame de Pompadour – attempting to turn the daybed into a Pompadour relic.


Louis XIV, circa 1660

A photo of a bust held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
This commanding bronze bust represents the French king, Louis XIV (1638-1715), who acceded to the throne in 1643, when he was barely five years old, and reigned until 1715.

This portrait was probably made around 1660, when the king was in his early 20s. Later to be known as the Sun King, the young monarch was asserting himself as absolute ruler. Around this date he started to rebuild the extravagant Château of Versailles, which was later to become his court and seat of government.

The importance of valour, glory and military strength as virtues of sovereignty are reflected in the bust – traits that emulated Louis's grandfather, Henri IV. The mantle is richly decorated with fleur-de-lys and he wears armour adorned with the Order of Saint-Esprit, on which the 'Hs' in the chain represent Henri III, who founded the Order in 1578.

Under Louis XIV, the Order became the highest honour bestowed on a subject. Louis can also be seen as a leader of fashion with his periwig, and the thin moustache, that the King himself made popular in the 1660s. The stiff, narrow collar was also of its time, replacing the wide lace of the earlier period.


Peter the Great with a Black Page, circa 1720

A photo of a portrait painting held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
This is Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725). During his reign Peter introduced a programme of military, religious and administrative reforms that began the modernisation of Russia and its development as a great European state. Many of his reforming ideas were inspired by his travels in Europe, and these Western influences can be seen in this miniature.

The miniature was painted by Baron Gustav von Mardefeld, an artist, Prussian diplomat and soldier, who was his state’s ambassador in Russia. It was probably a diplomatic gift and interestingly combines Western classical references with elements of Russia’s own cultural traditions.

Peter wears fashionable French dress and is clean-shaven – one of his cultural reforms was to enforce shaving on polite society, against traditional Russian orthodoxy. He carries a baton of office and wears a breastplate with the Russian insignia of the double-headed eagle, both indicating his standing as military leader.

He also wears the sash of the Russian Order of St Andrew, which he had founded. Other Western artistic conventions are seen in the decorative helmet, which is classical in inspiration, indicating ancient lineage and tradition, and the presence of the black page.


The Endymion Cabinet, 1630-1650

A photo of a cabinet held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Cabinets like this one were the height of fashion in France from about 1640 to 1660. They were used to house collections of precious objects and natural rarities, such as unusual shells, but they were also admired as luxury objects in their own right.

Ebony was the most fashionable wood for veneering cabinets at the time. It was imported into France at great expense from Africa, Madagascar and India.

In France, the skilled woodworkers who made cabinets of this kind came to be called ébénistes, after the wood they used most. The outside of this cabinet is carved with scenes taken from the engraved illustrations to a novel first published in Paris in 1624. It is the story of the goddess Diana and her love for the youthful shepherd Endymion.


Perfume burner, Spain, 1630

A photo of a silver burner held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
This is a strikingly large example with a crudely-engraved inscription round the upper part recording that it belonged to a Sardinian professor of law and canon of Caligari Cathedral, Gerolamo Cao. A silver statuette of a soldier on the top holds a shield with the Cao family arms.

Perfume burners were used to distribute a pleasant scent at a time when a sweet-smelling environment was considered not just agreeable but also essential for good health. Juniper, turpentine, frankincense and bay leaves may have burned within it to produce a pleasant and salubrious smell.


Interior of a Chinese shop, 1680-1700

A photo of a painting held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Possibly made in the Netherlands, this painting was originally made as a fan leaf which has been later extended to create a small-scale painting. It depicts an imaginary shop dealing in Chinese export goods including a wide range of objects.

The distorted perspective and the fantastic mix of goods are reminiscent features of Netherlandish paintings showing collectors’ cabinets in the 17th century.


Overdress, 1760-1770

A photo of a flowery dress held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Hand-painted and cotton-dyed, this dress was created in India in shades of red, blue, green, yellow and brown on a white ground.

It has an all-over pattern of delicate, wavy floral stems, interspersed with clusters of flowers and bamboo shoots growing from mounds, and with conventional flower-filled vases.

The dress has very short sleeves and is cut low at the neck. The bodice opens down the middle and is secured with cotton-tying strings. The skirt is partly lined with thin white silk. It was made for the European market.


The Strong Smell bust, Slovakia, 1770-1781

A photo of a bust held at the Victoria and albert museum in london
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was born in Bavaria and studied with one of his two sculptor uncles before moving to Vienna where he had a successful early career, being given several royal commissions for the Austrian court. His work in the 1760s included busts and relief portraits, characterised by uncompromising realism.

In 1774 Messerschmidt returned to Wiesensteig, his native Bavarian town, and later to Pozsony – at that time the capital of Hungary.He devoted these years to creating a series of ‘character heads’ which were completed by June 1781.

This fine example belongs to the third group, of bald-headed figures. The heads illustrate different states of mind or reactions to smell. This example is conceivably the original of ‘intense odour’ but is more likely a variation of ‘strong odour’; a man with eyes closed in the act of smelling an unpleasant odour intently. It has also been suggested that the expression is the result of experiencing pain.

It is thought, from a number of contemporary reports, that Messerschmidt was suffering from psychiatric problems including hallucinations, and perhaps also from a digestive complaint. Perhaps as a distraction, he pinched himself in front of a mirror, contorting his face with extreme expressions which he captured in these busts.

Whatever his intentions, Messerchmidt’s heads anticipate the interest in psychology and emotional intensity which has interested artists in the following centuries. The series of heads was greatly admired, and was exhibited during the century after the artist's death until 1889, when it was split up and sold.


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Three Culture24 reviews at the V&A

Wedding Dresses 1775–2014, 2014
Hollywood Costume, 2013
Beauty, Power and Pearls, 2013
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