...these very pistols spectacularly confirmed that the French were then unsurpassed in their mastery of the gunmaker's art...
Purchased in 2013, these six French percussion target pistols combine mechanical perfection with extraordinary artistic ingenuity and execution. Specifically designed for display at the great fairs of the second half of the nineteenth century, and yet absolutely functional, these firearms were not intended to be fired but shown and admired for their technological sophistication and their beauty. The acquisition of this group enables the Met to highlight a pivotal moment in the history of European and American gunmaking, when industrial and world fairs that attracted millions of visitors provided unprecedented opportunities for nations, firms, and individuals to showcase their achievements. In the eyes of British and other international commentators, these very pistols spectacularly confirmed that the French were then unsurpassed in their mastery of the gunmaker's art.
The group includes two pairs of pistols stocked in ebony, designed by the versatile ornamentalist and sculptor Michel Liénard (1810–1870), and made by the celebrated Parisian gunmaker Alfred Gauvain (1801–1889). Respectively created for the Exposition des Produits de l'Industrie in Paris in 1844, and for the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (also known as the "Crystal Palace exhibition") in London in 1851, these pistols, one pair in the Gothic Revival and the other in the Renaissance Revival style, were praised as works of modern art of impeccable taste and execution. The harmonious integration of the ambitious sculptural decoration of the metal parts and carving of the ebony stocks is unrivaled.
The third set of pistols, which are unique for their all-steel construction, and not an exact pair, were embossed in low relief and chiseled by the virtuoso sculptor and silversmith Antoine Vechte (1799–1868) for the renowned Parisian gunmaker Gilles Michel Louis Moutier-Le Page (1810–1887). Vechte, who immigrated to Great Britain around 1850, may have completed the chiseling of the last pistol in London. One, if not both, was exhibited at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, and repeatedly illustrated in contemporary accounts of the fair, which drew six million visitors.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge
Department of Arms and Armor