The splendour of the French nobles is confined to their town-residence: that of the English is more usefully distributed in their country-seats.— Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life
When installed in the Hôtel de Cabris in Grasse, this paneling lined the walls of a considerably smaller space than it does today. Originally the room had five sets of double doors (now reduced to four) and an equal number of mirrors (now three). A wonderful harmony must have been achieved by alternating the carved and gilded woodwork with the reflective glass surfaces. Mirrors were very effectively used in eighteenth-century French interiors, offering unlimited perspective views and magically making the rooms appear larger than they were.
The Museum’s paneling was commissioned in Paris for the new residence of Jean-Paul de Clapiers, marquis de Cabris (1749–1813), and his wife, Louise de Mirabeau (1752–1807), which had been built between 1771 and 1774 by the little known Milanese architect Giovanni Orello, who resided in Grasse. The Parisian sculptor André Brenet (ca. 1734–after 1792) supervised the interior decoration of the house. According to the inventory drawn up in February 1778, the hôtel had been left unfinished and in a state of disarray and this boiserie, intended for the salon de compagnie, or reception room, remained unpacked and in crates. This must have been due to the calamity that befell the family that same year: the marquis de Cabris had been declared insane and his wife confined to a convent. It is probably also the reason that the overdoors and panels over the mirrors were not completed. The paneling was installed later, and it remained in the house until 1910, when it was purchased by E. M. Hodgkins, a dealer from England who resided in Paris. Together with the rest of Hodgkins’s effects, the woodwork elements were auctioned off in 1937. Duveen Brothers, the international firm of dealers and decorators, sold the paneling to the Charles Wrightsmans in 1957 for use in the dining room of their Fifth Avenue apartment. It was for this installation that the paneling was first rearranged and augmented.
The decoration of the room, with its dignified moldings, geometrical forms, and preference for Greek and Roman ornament, is a pure expression of the Neoclassical style. The rounded corners are carved with different trophies of musical instruments that are suspended from bow-tied ribbons and hung from an imaginary nail (see detail page 36, below). Smoking incense burners on tripod stands, a motif derived from classical antiquity, embellish the upper door panels, while those below show flaming torches. Both sets of panels have, in addition, crossed laurel and olive branches, ancient symbols of victory and peace. Here they may refer to the local vegetation, just as the incense burners may allude to the perfume industry of the Provence region. The combined use of dulled and burnished gilding creates a particularly lively effect, as is seen, for instance, in the laurel leaves with their beautifully rippled edges that are left matte, contrasting with the lustrous stems of their branches.
Epigraph. Gibbon 1788–93/1966, p. 125.