A lavishly decorated surtout de table, the mirrored plate within a surrounding décor cast with festive putti and Bacchus attributes. A total of 42 putti carry a long garland of grapevines that stretches around full circle. Featured are putti with musical instruments, wine jugs and cuppas, three of the putti ride goats and three others sit on panthers. Six ormolu ‘spokes’ radiate from a central rosette over the mirrored base to the six fire-gilded rectangular columns placed at each joint, support the circular gallery. Topped by Bacchanalian motifs, the columns feature embossed decorations of a burning torch with floral details and vine leaves. The columns with acanthus leaves stand on lion claw feet. A scrolling vine leaf motif along the rim of the surtout with the Bacchanale feast gallery.
Although table decorations had been common for centuries, the surtout de table as we know it today was first introduced in France at the start of the 19th century, a period in which the way people dined changed. It was customary to serve food on large platters placed on the table and leave it there for the duration of the meal. Around 1810, the fashion of dining transformed, and people began to serve dinners à la Russe, which meant that the dishes were served per course. This created more space for lavish decorations upon the table. As a result, table ornaments became more and more elaborate. The surtout de table provided the ideal centrepiece to fill the space that had been created upon the table. The surtout could then be used for table decorations, baskets of bread, sweet treats, flower arrangements and candlesticks.
Although unsigned, the extraordinary quality of the figures and the playful but elegant whole allows this exquisite surtout de table to be firmly attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843). Although more surtouts de tables by Thomire from the Empire period are known to us, this example is exceptional because of the three-dimensional ornamentation of figures. In other pieces, the figures of the wrap around gallery tend to be formed by pierced ormolu silhouettes.
Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843) was one of the most prominent bronze casters and ciseleurs of the Empire era. Despite his training as a sculptor, he chose to follow in his father's footsteps and become a bronze caster. In this profession, he was the most successful producer of bronzes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Thomire trained with Pierre Gouthière before starting his own business producing gilt bronze furniture ornaments. He later became assistant to Jean-Claude-Thomas Duplessis, who was director of the Manufacture de Sèvres. After Duplessis’ death in 1783, Thomire resumed his profession as a bronze caster to design and produce, among other things, gilt bronze mounts for porcelain. He was appointed "Ciseleur de l'Empereur" in 1809.
Thomire probably designed these surtouts using various models by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823). One of his drawings in a private collection for a pitcher features identical putti (see Odiot l'Orfevre, 1990, p. 30).
Prud'hon was a French painter and draughtsman. Along with paintings and drawings, mostly nudes, he also made designs for furniture, murals and table decorations. He was born as the son of a stonemason named Prudon. After his schooling, Prud’hon won the Prix de Rome, which gave him the opportunity to study the Classics in Italy for four years. He was especially influenced by Correggio. Back in Paris, Prud’hon and Jacques-Louis David formed an artists' association that supported the French Revolution.
Around 1800, Prud’hon received several commissions by Napoleon. He resided at the Louvre, where he produced decorations and designs for official occasions. This included Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria’s wedding, which formed a highpoint in his career.
Not only did Prud’hon become the Master of Drawings for the new empress, he also designed numerous objects for the festivities, including furniture and table decorations. It is quite possible that the latter included this surtout de table.
Prud'hon's most famous piece of furniture is the 1811 Cradle for the King of Rome (Napoleon's son, Napoléon-François-Charles-Joseph). The mirror that accompanies the cradle is also embellished with three-dimensional putti figurines.
Prud'hon's paintings contrasted starkly with the Neoclassicist style of these models and designs, which echoed the art of classical antiquity. Yet his frequent use of putti in his painted oeuvre can be recognized in the procession of the surtout. Compare it with his allegorical picture in the National Gallery of Canada, for example, or his 1801 ‘Triumph of Bonaparte’, in which dancing putti lead Napoleon’s chariot.
Prud'hon's excellent work in the decorative arts and crafts made him one of the leading designers of his time.
Antiques dealer, Paris
Private collection, Belgium
Jean-Marie Pinçon, Olivier Gaube du Gers, Odiot l’orfèvre 3 siècles d’histoire d’art et de Créations, Paris 1990, p. 30