Friday, October 12, 2012

Mr. Vanderbilt's HOUSE and COLLECTION - Stairs and Corridors

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

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


To the right as one enters from the Vestibule, is the staircase, accommodated in a corner of the building, and doubling on itself to the summit of the edifice, as one looks upward. It is wide and gradual in ascent, and redeems its simplicity of plan by much opulence of ornament. The newel of this stairway is a female figure in bronze overlaid with gold, cast by Barbedienne from the model by Tony Noel. The figure is in the purest taste of Francis I., a type of the sumptuous French renaissance. A slave with the air of a queen - the forehead encircled with a tiara such as Cellini placed on the head of Diane de Poitiers, - the coiffure of that far-sought intricacy which Michael Angelo used for his Vittoria Colonna - in fact, the whole treatment redolent of renaissance pomp. The figure stands with that real but elaborate grace, easy but not unpremeditated, which belongs to the period of art which it affects, and which  is neither Greek nor realistic, but in the best sense decorative.    With her hands, the lamp-bearer lightly encircles a crystal urn, from which springs a crown of lights. The effect of the statue, and indeed of the whole staircase, is best seen at night, when the jets of light are blazing. A free use of colored ornament enters into the detail of the statue; in the shape of gems of cut crystal of many-colors, introduced wherever there is a pretext for them; thus jewels thickly stud the broad belt which adorns the hips, as well as the thongs of the sandals and the figures of the diadem.    Edme-Antony-Paul Noel is a Paris-born artist, whose studio is in the rue Val-de-Grace.


His professor was M. Guillaume, and he likewise received instruction from Cavelier and Lequesne. This figure was executed in 1881. The artist is a "prix de Rome," having acquired that honor in 1868; he received a first-class medal at the Salon of 1874, and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1878, during the Exposition Universelle. The urn which the light-bearer sustains is a fanal of plate crystal, of general oval form, and bearing a correspondence with those which are found on the onyx columns of the drawing-room; its frame is of bronze overlaid with gold, and richly jeweled along the principal lines. It is very large, and with the branch of lustres which sprouts from its summit adds greatly to the apparent height of the figure. The founder having destroyed the mould, only one casting of the royal image has been made. The latter is only life-size, though it seems larger. It wears a patient air of welcome, calm and not servile, as it stands sentinel at the foot of the stairway and ushers the visitors up the broad low steps. These are laid with heavy carpet, so that no footfall is heard as the stairs are mounted.

The stair-rail of bronze is of a light and intricate design, of course made expressly for its place and function. The pattern is of twisted strap-work, coiling into spirals and branches, and looks elegantly fragile between the solid stairs, whose edges are elaborately paneled  and the hand-rail, which is a broad affair, cushioned and padded and covered with deep-red plush. Paneling of wood, imitating courses of beveled stone, accompanies the ascent of the stairway




on the wall-side, to a considerable height upon the wall, above which the wall-covering is a deeply-modeled design of rectangular interlaced lines on a gold ground.


The six fine tapestries stretched around the corridor of the first story and on the staircase deserve particular attention. Four of them are broad and two narrower, but they form  a single  series  that   has never been divided since the manufacture. The width of the larger pieces is somewhat unusual, three of them being respectively one hundred and sixty inches wide, and the narrower ones one hundred and twenty-eight and one hundred and twenty-four inches, and the height equal for all. One of the narrower ones is represented in the engraving of the stairway inserted in the text. A broader tapestry of the set is seen in the photogravure plate, a representation so perfect that the threads may be counted in many places. Here we have a pompous garden-view, suppositiously classic, but really inspired by the landscape-gardening of De Noter. The scene passes in front of a rule-and-line perspective of square lakes, marble banks, bowery trees and arcaded casinos, stretching off to an aerial distance.   Between the nearest fountains, ever on flow in parabolas of woollen-work, stretches the woollen pond, in which the lover plays on the woollen strings of his lute and the maiden sings from a woollen sheet of music. They sit under an embroidered canopy in a decorated barge, and a swarthy oarsman rows them. In the foreground are large decorative plants and blossoms, standing out in rather enforced contrast; this placing of conspicuous flowers, birds, vines, and other ornaments familiar to the weaver's art, border-wise in front, in a style of pure ornament and rather outside the purpose of the picture, is one of the oldest traditions of designing for tapestry, as distinguished from designing for fresco, mosaic or other species of wall-decoration; it is so innately connected with tapestry-making, that we find the tradition too strong for Raphael himself, who places the row of water-birds and aquatic plants on the edge of the "Miraculous Draught of Fishes," as he would not have done if he had conceived his subject in fresco.

The subjects of these six tapestries are taken from Honore d'Urfe's romance of "Astree," a work of 1624. We are reminded by Sainte-Beuve that, dead as this effort of imagination has fallen now, it was in its time the guide of fashion and the criterion of taste. The gallants and ladies of Louis XlV.'s court used to form garden-parties and masquerades, where every guest assumed the personage of some hero or heroine out of the "Astree;" in society, it was the rage for people of condition to call themselves by some name among the characters of the romance, by which names they signed their correspondence and caused themselves to be addressed at assemblies. The mania was not again equaled in French society until the 1840 period, when the dandies and lions assumed the names of Balzac's heroes, and insisted
on being known in the raouts as Rastignac, Lenoncourt, de Trailles, Ronquerolles, d'Esgrignon and d'Ajuda-Pinto.

The history of the six "Astree" tapestries can be traced from step to step back to their manufacture. They were executed at the royal tapestry-works of  Fontainebleau, by order of Louis XIV., as a present from that sovereign to the Landgrave of Hesse. Le Brun being the director of the king's tapestry manufacture, it is obvious that these subjects, if not designed by him, must have satisfied his inspection. They remained in the Landgrave's palace until the terrible conflagration which destroyed the edifice, when they were saved and transported to Munich. About 1826 they were acquired by a German connoisseur  Mr. Charles Damian Disch, of Cologne, a man of taste whose collection was celebrated among all others. They were preserved by this collector until his death, in 1881, and appeared in the public sale made by his heirs of his collections, in 1882, when they were purchased for  the present   owner,   and  arrived in   the  most brilliant state   in  America.    Their fine borders are perfect and uncut, composed of garlands of fruits and flowers, interspersed with medallions. They are all of a correspondingly festive and champetre kind; in addition to those mentioned, one represents a concert of half-a-dozen richly-dressed persons, playing guitars, bass-viol and kettle-drum under a balcony, beside a square parterre of flower-beds in ambitious perspective; another, a pair of nymphs near a statue of Diana,with a cavalier addressing them from behind a fountain. Strict attention has been paid in each by the old designer to the purpose of his work as a wall-decoration, more than half of the upper portion being occupied by soft and agreeable verdures, and the apparent wall-space being magnified by the most elaborate and far-reaching devices of perspective.

The gallery surrounding the first-story corridor is decorated with bas-reliefs and paintings, best seen from a central position in the Atrium below; the reliefs show shields, separated by smiling female masks, or, nearer the corners, seated Cupids with appropriate accessories. Of the four paintings seen as centre-pieces of one gallery, three are here represented, either in the full-page colored plate, the photogravure plate, or the design inserted in the text. They show   the Seasons,  personified   by reclining   figures,  with   grapes,   or burning  censers, or 


other attributes as that kind of allegory demands; they were painted in New York, by a French artist sojourning there during the erection of the house.

On the first landing is seen a fine, tall eight-day clock of the antique style; the maker Jean Christian Sauer, of Amsterdam.

It remains to mention the stained-glass windows, found on the first-story and second-story landings. These are twelve 


feet in width. The artist is the well-known New York painter John La Farge, who of late years has almost   abandoned easel-painting to give himself up to fascinating experiments in the  manufacture and design of   colored glass.

The subject of the first window completely occupies the space, with one harmonious, united composition. It is an allegory of "Commerce." We see the beneficent Power throned in the midst, with nymphs pouring treasure before her from cornucopias, or unfolding the masterpieces of the loom. At her feet is a river, the emblem of the carrying power of trade, with merry young Greek boatmen approaching in antique barges, hung with shields around the gunwales. The shields, the stuffs, the jewels and other treasures are so many pretexts for the employment of the most brilliant and original colors which glass can be made to yield. Jewels are represented by cut crystal, set in the leads, and shining with the full blaze of transmitted, instead of reflected, light. Draperies and ornaments are made of sheets of unaltered glass, whose veining and variegation are done in the original manufacture: a mosaic of such fragments constitutes the picture, and by this means a burning glow and purity of color is reached which painting on glass cannot possibly equal. It is really curious to see how the artist, in his truly inventive and thoughtful method, has avoided all the pitfalls and


inconsistencies of the European manufacture. Modern French stained glass is in stupefying contrast with modern French painting, being conventional, heavy, and covered with 


a pitiful mantle of poverty.    Modern German glass attempts Rembrandt effects, so that often, through the  most inconsistent of devices, a figure is modelled with exaggeration and heaviness by laying on the painting in a degree out of all proportion when it is considered that a window is architecturally a light-admitting contrivance; and nothing can be more technically inappropriate than to express the  light and shade falling across a deeply-shadowed   portrait by sunshine actually transmitted through its substance.    Modern English glass, obviously in a transitional state, does not sin by opacity, but sins often by the poverty of its tyro-like linear design, playing over thin, membranous-looking breadths of glass.    The devices invented by M. La Farge have come to him after long study of those old cathedral "cartwheels" and "rosaces" to which time has given its magic of improvement.    The irregularities and gradations caused by the action of the centuries, in the varying degrees of transparency and crudity of the colors, are what give the medieval windows their splendor.   A suggestion of this effect in modern glass has been achieved by the artist in the clouded and opaline colors he causes to be melted in his sheets of irregular crystal: from the fragments thus obtained he builds his mosaic, with scarcely any painting, except for faces and other flesh-portions.    Guided by a delicate and inspired taste, he has thus achieved the most singular triumphs of luck and opportunity, in which often a boldly conventional style reaches a height of realism that leaves the plodding "realistic" artist far behind.    Thus the blue inlaid, veined, wrinkled waves inthis composition, the peacock's tail in the Japanese parlor, and the fluffy tunic of the lady in the "Hospitality" window, are effects of realistic painting, conquered by tact and genius from accidental pickings-up and conventional applications of glass fragments arbitrarily forced into appropriateness.

The "Hospitality" subject, just alluded to, is divided into three sections. It forms the stairway-light on the upper story. A woman, with a very bright and beautiful face of welcome, sits by her husband's side, under an arbor, in the central department, and both extend their hands in a gesture of salutation. "Prosperitas" approaches them on one side, with a horn of plenty, and "Hospitalitas" kneels on the other with a brimming cup, and there are accessory children and cherubs to fill the remaining spaces of the window. None can help noticing the goblin-like sagacity with which are shaded, out of chance morsels of variegated glass, the leaves and grapes of the trellis, the swimming clouds, the downy wings of a cherub, or the rich draperies of the large figures. The balance of dark and light, as in all of Mr. La Farge's glasswork, is kept half-way between realism and conventionalism; the windows are not too glaring, nor on the other hand are they darkened with paint like Munich windows, in the ridiculous effort to make a Caravaggio effect.

The very great success which has attended this ingenious artist's enterprises and experiments is all the more  noteworthy and encouraging in a school of art as unformed and tentative as that of this country really is at the present time. This gorgeous, unreasoning, unintellectual, sensuous and most admirable instinct for color, for the beauty and splendor and harmony of tones, is very rarely the attribute of a primitive school of painting, but comes rather with the full-fledged power and opulence of one in its meridian sway. It has nothing to do necessarily with elevation of thought, or purity of expression, or even with noble draughtsmanship - all of which the "primitives" may possess, - it has no earthly connection with material prosperity, with triumphs of mechanical enterprise, or with schools of literature and philosophy; independent of all these it is in some respects superior to them all and holds its sway over man's emotional nature by right divine. Nor can it be taught in the schools: it is not amenable to the rules of the text-books; more, possibly, than any other of the artist's equipments must it be born with him and be part of him, like the instinct of the bee, like the veritable fire of genius. And to find this supreme talent developed so fully in our modern, materialistic, disbelieving and eminently practical times is truly one of the most encouraging signs of the well-doing of the national art, and, consequently, of the national civilization.



No comments:

Post a Comment