Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Art, Form, and Function of Gilt Bronze in the French Interior

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  • Both functional and highly decorative, gilt-bronze mounts and bronzes d'ameublement such as wall-lights, firedogs, and clocks played a very important role in the French interior from the late seventeenth until the early nineteenth century. Closely following the latest stylistic changes, well-known artists and sculptors were responsible for their design. A rigid guild system maintained high standards of craftsmanship and regulated the process of gilt-bronze manufactory.


    A rigid guild system maintained high standards of craftsmanship and regulated the process of gilt-bronze manufactory.

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    The Casting and Chasing of Bronze
    The creation of gilt-bronze mounts or objects involved many different steps and was principally the work of bronze makers. During the eighteenth century in France, bronze makers were divided into two guilds: that of the fondeurs-ciseleurs, or casters and chasers, and the ciseleurs-doreurs, or chasers and gilders. When the guild system was reformed in 1776, both casters and gilders became members of one and the same guild.


    Based on a two-dimensional design, a carver or sculptor would make a three-dimensional model in wood, clay, or wax. A wax mold taken from the model was used for casting by pressing it in a box with sand and pouring molten bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, in the resulting depression. For more complicated designs, the cire perdue, or lost-wax process, was used. In this technique, the wax model was fashioned around a core made of plaster or clay and covered with the same to form a mold. The mold was then dried and fired to burn out the wax. The hollow left by the wax was filled with molten bronze. The metal cooled and hardened and any imperfections in the rough cast would be cleaned up, the so-called reparure. Then the actual finishing process would be done by the ciseleur, who would tool the bronzes with his instruments, creating burnished areas and a variety of finely or coarsely pounced or grained surfaces. This finishing process was of extreme importance because it would lend the object great vitality through the varying light reflections that the differently treated areas would create.


    The Gilding of Bronze
    The last step would be the mercury gilding, which would add a substantial cost to the overall price. The bronze surface would be coated with a mixture of ground gold—hence the name or moulu—and mercury, then heated over an open fire. While the gold adhered to the base metal, the mercury would evaporate, creating dangerous fumes. The process was repeated several times until a thick enough layer of gold had been created that could be left mat or was burnished with a heliotrope stone.


    Most objects, however, were not gilded, but simply cleaned by being dipped in acid and then lacquered with a clear or yellow varnish, which gave them the appearance of gold. Through use, the varnish rubbed off and the pieces would be revarnished. Other objects were subsequently gilded instead and, as a result, not many have survived that are varnished.


    Dating
    The survival rate of gilt bronze is good because, unlike silver, it has little melt value. Even so, the study of gilt bronze is difficult because the pieces are seldom signed. Despite the fact that the names of various bronze casters and chasers are known, an attribution can usually be made only on the basis of a description in a contemporary account or on the quality of a specific piece. Since certain models were continuously used, the dating of gilt bronze can be problematic as well. In addition, they could be easily copied by using the mounts and objects themselves as models from which to make molds, a technique called surmoulage that was frequently practiced during the nineteenth century. Dating is further complicated by the practice of regilding, which makes even eighteenth-century objects look brand new. Only the use of the crowned C mark (C for cuivre, or copper, the main component of bronze), a tax mark struck on bronzes above a certain weight in effect from February 1745 to February 1749, can be helpful to establish the date.


    Furniture Mounts
    Gilt-bronze furniture mounts were first used in France on a limited scale during the second half of the seventeenth century and experienced a heyday during the eighteenth. The role of mounts on furniture was primarily functional. The feet, or sabots (literally, clogs), and corner mounts protected the wood against damage from being knocked about or moved in carts from one residence to the next. The escutcheon framing the keyhole would prevent the key from scratching the veneer, and handles allowed access to the drawers. Furthermore, gilt-bronze mounts helped to emphasize the outline of a piece of furniture, which became especially important during the Rococo period with its preference for serpentine shapes. They certainly enriched the overall appearance of the piece that they adorned through their shimmering gilded or varnished surfaces. During the late Baroque and Rococo periods, the mounts added a lively, sculptural element, while during the Neoclassical and Empire periods they became more and more decorative, reaching the refinement of jewelry.


    Although cabinetmakers were not allowed to make their own mounts, they must have closely collaborated with bronze makers and were allowed to attach the mounts to the furniture.

    Daniëlle O. Kisluk-Grosheide
    Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art