Monday, August 27, 2012

Mr. Vanderbilt's HOUSE and COLLECTION - Atrium

***Photos and text from Mr. Vanderbilt's House and Collection, described by Edward Strahan pseudo Earl Shinn - the Holland Edition published in 1883.*** 



In the centre of the edifice is found a large hall, which pierces all the stories up to the skylight; it is surrounded by columns, and at each stage by galleries. It may here be called the Atrium. The columns which support the system of galleries are worthy of attention. They are of fine russo antico, or red African marble, from those important Roman quarries which have only within a few years been reopened. These quarries, last exploited by those who rightfully called themselves masters of the world, as they knew it, owe their resurrection into commerce in great part to commands from a continent then unknown, and the stones would be greatly surprised at their travels if they were conscious. Of these polished slabs, which now often reflect the faces of Western beauty, the neighbors last employed may have been those used by the emperor who constructed a speculum-gallery***WARNING IF YOU GOOGLE***to reflect the persons of his spies. The markings of the stone are very beautiful - distinct and bizarre in their patches, as if covered with the petals of poppies or peonies. The drums of these pillars are bound together with bands of bronze, the metal being frotte d'or, or gold-powdered; the capitals, of a design directly noncommittal but sufficiently rich, are also of bronze similarly heightened with gold.   The floor is a light-colored mosaic; it is nearly covered, however, with a vast carpet, which would be called Turkish by the ordinary observer but for its impossible dimensions; no Eastern looms exist capable of turning out carpets of the size found in this and the other ground-floor apartments; they are all, in fact, of British manufacture, woven from Oriental designs made expressly for their destination by the architect .

Of the same rosso antico as the columns is the chimney-Piece, a most massive affair extending quite up to the ceiling, and occupying a great part of the wall-space immediately opposite the door of entrance. The hood of the mantel is enriched with a profusion of bronze ornament, whose richness takes on a character of vagueness from being, by daylight, thrown into the deep shadow of the gallery which juts out above it. The two fine figures in medium-relief, in bronze, representing Nymphs of Pomona, and flanking the fireplace as ornaments to the jambs, are of great artistic and historical interest. They happen to harmonize very well, though three hundred years older, with Noel's modern lamp-bearer at the stair-foot which is to be described as so purely renaissance in design. These two orchard-nymphs, with fruits and wreaths in their hands, are by Germain Pilon, the celebrated French sculptor, deceased in 1590. They were modelled for the Chateau de Villeroy, where they occupied a similar position as the caryatides of a chimney-hood. In the original arrangement, a bust was accommodated between them, with the motto Per Ardus Surgo. The work of Pilon has that conscious and slightly fantastic grace, that taper attenuation of the limbs, which is so completely characteristic of the whole of Europe at the moment when she awoke from her mediaeval lethargy and began to think of her beauty. The artistic science of the figures is complete, and the draperies exceed all modern sculptured drapery in the feeling of action and life which makes them flutter so intelligently. The models of Germain Pilon lose none of their delicacy by being cast in bronze. The originals, now at the Louvre, were executed in the ordinary French freestone.

On either side of the chimney is found an elaborate marble and bronze console, the support of which is made of spiral bronze scrolls and bandrols in harmony with the stairrail. On these tables are several bronzes, of modern workmanship. One is a fine group of a race-horse and his jockey. On the table illustrated at the head of this chapter, the central figure is the very original bust of Semiramis, by E. Hebert, an artist born at Paris and medalled in 1872. The legend relates that Semiramis, who was nursed by doves in her infancy, passed into the form of a dove at her death or transmigration; the queen is closing her eyes in the enervation of her metempsychosis. At her shoulders the dove-wings are already sprouting, and cradle her form with their long pinions. The artist has adopted with skill the Assyrian style of art for the support of the bust of his Babylonish heroine. The groups on either side are the well-known "Horses of Marly." It may be as well to remind the reader that the original groups, in marble, now stand  at the entrance of the promenade called the Champs-Elysees, in Paris; and that they were prepared for Louis XIV for his place at Marly by the sculptor Coustou, at which place they remained till the Revolution. They were placed in their present position, regarding the scene of the execution of Louis XVI, in the year 1795. 

The doors around the central hall, leading to various rooms, as Drawing-room, Dining-room, Picture Gallery, etc., are hung with portieres, generally of Lille tapestry, but in the case of the Picture Gallery, with a modern curtain, whose design and material deserve notice. There is a risk in applying architectural designs to a drapery, whose floating folds may disturb at any moment the integrity and consistency of the patterned fragment; this scruple has been boldly overcome, however, and the velvet foundation has been crossed with arcades of embroidered architecture whose symmetry is only evident when the curtain is fully stretched. The renaissance character of the hall is carried out in the motif, which represents round Roman arches supported on flat pilasters inlaid with panels containing allegorical figures, the whole system of silken masonry and human characters being reduced to a quaint formality by the necessities of satin-stich and applique. Winged figures fly in the spandrels; and the keys of the arches are apparently sustained by nymphs supported on festoons and capitals in the Raphaelesque style; the centre of the twin curtains is filled, within the architectural pattern, by Raphael scrollwork, in the midst of which hangs the cipher of the proprietor, dexterously interlaced, instead of a shield of arms. The composition of this portiere, along with the five stained glassworks to be presently noticed, is unique in the house as a specimen of designing contributed from American soil, in the strict taste of the best renaissance models, but springing from native industry instead of being a trophy gathered from some old centre of foreign art in such examples does the house justify itself as a sort of educational force, a college for the development of the higher crafts.

Looking overhead, the first gallery is found to be railed and masked with sculpture, instead of the painted friezes which arc seen in the upper one. These sculptures are very elaborate, consisting of festoons of woven cords and thongs, hanging between smiling mascarons in the taste of Jean Goujon.  From space to space, in front of flat tablets, are seated playing infants who support the plaques on their shoulders and look over laughing into the Hall below.   The elaborate bronze grille of this gallery, topped with a hand-rail cushioned with crimson plush, has a brilliant, Veronese sort of effect when crowded with ball-room figures leaning curiously over to watch the come-and-go of guests on the mosaic floor beneath. The coupled red marble pillars on which rests this gallery are continued by a system of similar pillars to support the gallery of the next story.

The Tapestries to be found in various parts of the building are finely introduced by the valuable one forming a screen in an angle of the Hall.  It represents "The Fortune-Teller," and was woven at the Gobelins Factory in Paris, from a design executed for Marie Antoinette by Francois Boucher, director of the Gobelins works at the time. Boucher's painting, from  which   it was  executed,  is  to  be   found   at  Versailles,  in Marie Antoinette's apartment in the Grand Trianon.  It is one of five designs made by the director for the decoration of the Queen's favorite country-house.  A chronicle of the period narrates that the artist was inspired in his  composition by the following  anecdote. Mademoiselle, eldest daughter of the Regent, in passing through the fine  avenue which led from Versailles to Marly, stopped her chariot to bestow an alms upon a band of wandering gipsies, and desired to have her fortune told.   The Bohemian sorceress, introduced among the three sisters, - the two remaining daughters of the Regent being likewise of the party - examined the lines in the hands of all the princesses.   From the signs she discovered, her prediction was made to the effect that the eldest should be a shepherdess in Paradise, that the youngest should marry one of the great kings of the earth, and that the third should be a nun. The three predictions were fulfilled, as history records.   The central part of the design on this tapestry, rc-woven at about the same epoch, was sold at San Donato, with the Dcmidoff collection, in 1880; it omitted the upper cornice seen in the composition, and the foliage at the top and sides; but it exhibited, in the narrow border running around, the authentic fleurs-de-lis proving a fabrication for royal use.   The composition is one of the characteristic bergerades of the day, so mild that a French malcontent, Rivarol, said that they needed a wolf or two in the sheepfold to make them endurable.   The well-combed sheep are grouped in  front; a Louis-Quinze  gallant offers wreaths to  the  powdered and   high-heeled shepherdesses to whom the barefooted gipsy explains the future; and the ballad-like adventure takes place by a statue-garnished ruin, in a bower of seaweed-looking olive trees.    But the design proves what a master Boucher was in the art of decoration; a composition of greater balance and suavity could nowhere be found for a situation of well-timed rusticity; half a picture, half a broidery-pattern, the tapestry perfectly fills its elegant function. "This tenture," admiringly says the San Donato catalogue, "is among the number of the most felicitous decorative creations of the eighteenth century." 

"The Japanese Neptune" is usually placed, on its lacquered pedestal, against one of the columns of the Hall. It is as fine a specimen of intricate undercutting as is anywhere to be found, even among the products of this unparalleled people of bronze-founders. The size is about half the size of life.  The deity is an ancient bearded personage, with an intellectual cast of countenance, standing in the waves, and looking intently at an incense-burner, which he carefully holds level before him with both hands. He wears a high mitre, encased in two fluted shells, and his double cape and tunic are patterned with wave forms and dragons. To his back clings his familiar, a wonderful dragon, every hair of whose beard, as well as the spines of his back, is fearlessly modelled in relief by the audacious moulder.   Only a glance is needed to show that the artist cannot repeat the usage of his mould; it is casting A CIRE  PERDUE,  to give the term its most inevitable sense. Western artists are astonished at the audacity with which Japanese sculpture handles the waves of the sea, of which a splendid instance is here before us; the bubbles of foam, dying furiously out of the whirlpool from  which the figure  rises, are, a bold way to express their transparency, lightness and movement; this sculptured maelstrom emerges from a base of shells. The iodine scent of the sea seems to be expressed in the vase of perfume, its brute force in the dragon, while the deity who controls it is girt with an elaborate sword, - the eternal warfare of the ocean against the land.

What classical artist of our own Aryan race has ever better expressed the spirit of the element which constantly tells us of its determination never to be turned by the art of man? On the incense-vase has been placed one of the bronze mermaids familiar to curiosity-hunters, appropriate to the subject, but not apparently belonging to the statue.
From a corner of the Hall, on the north side, ascends  the  staircase which commands the whole interior of the house. This stairway turns upon itself at every landing, and standing under it and looking vertically upward we see the curious effect which it has been thought worth while to represent ***above*** The reader will understand that the illustration is made in contradiction to the aspect usually made use of for pictorial purposes, and that he is looking aloft, with head well bent back; the effect will be best understood by holding the book***laptop*** for a moment quite over the eye. The intention is to show the elaborate casing of the stairway, in panelled and polished wood.  The under side of each flight is thus revealed, enclosed in a sheath of bevelled, mitred, dovetailed, panelled, and interwoven timbers, whose design changes with the different floors; in the heart of the square spiral thus viewed can be glimpsed the broad arcade which crowns the upper floor.

The corner from which springs the staircase is devoted to the convenience of guests, with cloak-room, toilet, ante-room, etc, opening into it from their several doors. This corner, in fact, enlarges into a Vestibule, which may be called the Arched Vestibule, to distinguish it from the principal Vestibule, described by itself in the last chapter. This little piece is finished almost like a jewel-casket; it yields a motive for the illustrator ***above***. In that illustration may be best seen the character of the wooden panelling which entirely surrounds this Vestibule and the Atrium, as high as the tops of the doors; the panels, resembling courses of bevelled stonework, are separated by wooden plaques with scrolled and coiled ornaments in relief; the doors - the entrance doors bearing the design of "Salve" - are also bordered with a woven pattern of carved-work, like a magnified lace. The carver's touch in all the woodwork of the house, coming from European workmen long in American employ, is believed to be unexcelled in precision and spirit by the best carvers of France or Italy.

The vaulted ceiling of the Arched Vestibule is coffered, as the illustration shows; and the wall against which it fits bears a fan-pattcrn, like sun-rays, to fill in the outline of the arch. The large circle, opening through the wall at the side, admits light to the stairway, and permits the persons assembled on the stairs a momentary speculation on the guests entering from the vestibules below, who appear briefly framed in the ring-shaped aperture. Various appropriate bits of furniture occupy the little Arched Vestibule - Chinese teakwood chairs, with seats and backs of clouded steatite; a Chinese screen, with a large silk transparency in each leaf; a cylinder for canes, a bronze tazza-table for cards; a hanging lantern of cut crystal hangs from the key of the arch, depending from six gilded chains. At the stairfoot within, is found a large cassone, or "marriage chest," an elaborate affair in carved woodwork, which would be taken for the Italian-made tomb of some Ginevra, did not its freshness and polish show that it is a piece of modern art, wrought in competition with the old dead wood-sculptors of Europe.

***Click HERE to view the introduction to this book.*** 

1 comment:

  1. The whole house is so astonishing that the words "gorgeous" or "ghastly" don't even apply, or maybe apply "in spades". At first glance, I thought that the interiors were the worst of high victorian excess. Looking at the colored lithographs (is that what they are?) and reading the descriptions, however, has convinced me that they are the very best of Victorian excess, and great works of art in and of themselves.

    I am waiting with "baited breath" for the photos of these interiors following their Horace Trumbauer re-make under William H's grand-daughter-in-law.