What you see: A Limoges enamel tazza, signed with the initials of Pierre Reymond and dated 1542. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.
The expert: William Russell, Jr., Christie’s specialist head of department, early European sculpture and works of art.
Limoges is known as a center for porcelain. What was the French city’s reputation for enamels in 1542, the date on this tazza? There were many workshops in the city. It was one of the most famous production centers in France. Enamels are some of the hardest to make of the kunstkammer objects. Some of the most sophisticated French collectors were buying them. To bring it to today, I’ve been working here since 2000. Enamels have always been popular. The very best make astronomical prices.
What techniques would have been used to make the Limoges enamel tazza? Nobody really knows. In Limoges, enamels were a family business, and the families were very competitive.
So Limoges enamel works were like the glassmaking families on the Italian island of Murano? Family pride and family secrets? Exactly.
Who was Pierre Reymond, and where was he in his career in 1542? His first pieces were in the 1530s, and I think he worked until the 1570s or 1580s. He had a long life, especially for that time, and he started young. In 1542, he was young. He was a semi-diplomat. Politics and money were very mixed in Limoges.
So he wasn’t just a dude who was good with a kiln. He was a superstar really young.
Do we know how prolific Pierre Reymond was? This piece bears his initials–is there a count of surviving Limoges enamels that he signed? I don’t know what his output was. Revival enamel pieces were popular in the late 19th century, and everybody put “PR” on them, and some tried to pass them off as Renaissance. Dating is hard, because the enamel techniques are basically the same.
Pierre Reymond signed and dated this Limoges enamel tazza. Is that unusual? I get the sense that looking at the scope of history, signing and dating works was seen as a privilege that few artisans were allowed before the modern era. It is rare. Most are not signed and dated. Maybe it’s part of the Renaissance tradition that centers the human, and sees the human as not just a cog in the wheel. And I’m sure the powers that be in Limoges regulated everything. They didn’t want a crummy thing sent to the court in Fontainebleu. Him being able to sign his work is part of that. He had to have reached a point in his career where he was a master.
What is a tazza? What is its function? You see them in ancient Greece and Rome. By the Renaissance, the tazza had become an element of the table. Basically, it was to show how rich you were.
Why might Pierre Reymond or the person who commissioned this Limoges enamel tazza have wanted the feast of Dido and Aeneas depicted on it? It was a famously elaborate feast, with tons of gold and silver. The story referred to antiquity. [With the tazza,] you could show how sophisticated you were, and how learned you were. It’s fun to have, but you’d appreciate it more if you did know it [the story of the mythical feast]. And you have the grotesques around the base. You have to have a sense of humor to put those things on it.
Do we know anything at all about why the piece was made–who might have commissioned it from Reymond in 1542, and why? No. For us, it’s a little bit disappointing not to have more provenance. It was at a Danish auction house and then the trail goes cold.
Do we know if the Limoges enamel tazza was a one-off or part of a group of pieces? It could have been a one-off, it could have been part of a series, I don’t know. It would have looked great in a group. Many of these things were made in bigger groups, and were made for big tables.
This Limoges enamel tazza has a noticeably cool palette of blues and grisaille, or grey. Do we know why? Was there a fashion for cool palettes on enamels in 1542? There were lots of colorful enamels, but grisailles were the chicest. It was what people wanted. They were some of the most sophisticated things produced in France at the time. The sources were prints, widely circulated prints. The theory is the grisaille was done to imitate the prints. When this tazza was produced, grisaille was relatively new, the hot new thing. Everybody loved it because it was so weird and different and beautiful in a way.
Is it possible to know how involved Pierre Reymond would have been in the creation and production of this Limoges enamel tazza? Would he have drawn the design and handed it off to others to execute, or might he have shaped the form and painted it himself? We know so little about the workshop, so few of the names, even. I don’t know what his involvement was. But he was still really young. If you’re on the make, trying to establish yourself, you’re not going to outsource that. You don’t want to. I guess he was quite involved in making this, so early in his career.
What do we know about how hard this Limoges enamel tazza might have been to make? Does one color equal one pass through the kiln? I know it was fired many times. I’m sure the production secrets were carefully guarded from family to family. The gilding would have come afterwards [after the firing was finished].
What is the Limoges enamel tazza like in person? Are there details that the camera doesn’t capture? It’s surprisingly light. Copper is a pretty light material, and metal is expensive. They wouldn’t have wanted to waste it. That’s my first reaction. My second reaction is the high-gloss sheen of the surface is very seductive, very tactile. Everyone’s attracted to touching it because it’s so beautiful. There are unbelievably subtle shades of white and black. There’s a lot going on.
So these enamels are painted on a copper core? They look as bright and engaging as an oil-on-copper painting? Exactly. Oil-on-copper paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries look like enamel–they’re dazzling. Those paintings were meant to imitate enamel.
What’s your favorite detail on the Limoges enamel tazza? I love some of the weird grotesques and decorative elements on the stem. I also like the huge putto [cherub] hanging over the frame. For me, it’s kind of weird and great, which I love. What’s he doing there? Are we looking at him? Is he looking at us? Who’s looking at who? It’s curious and it’s fun. Maybe it’s [the oversize putto] an obvious joke in 1542 that’s been lost to time.
The other thing that jumps out at me is it looks like it could have been made last week–it’s that fresh and vibrant. How is that possible? That’s part of its appeal. It doesn’t crack, dry out, or fade, or rot, or get eaten by insects. It still has jewel-like colors. It’s as vivid and as dazzling as the day it was made, which is amazing.
Why will this Limoges enamel tazza stick in your memory? It takes energy to look at. It forces you to slow down and look at the object like people used to have to do. You have to stop looking at your phone and make up your own mind.
How to bid: The Limoges enamel tazza is lot 22 in The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Gutfreund 834 Fifth Avenue, taking place at Christie’s on January 26, 2021.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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