‘Salvaging The Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts’

Georges Hoentschel (1855-1915) was a leading French interior designer in historic styles, head of a decorating firm, and ceramicist during the Belle Epoque. He found inspiration for his designs in Medieval and eighteenth-century French art, which he avidly collected amassing more than 4000 pieces of furniture, woodwork, metalwork, sculpture, paintings, and textiles. After visiting Hoentschel in Paris, the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan acquired the collection and bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1906 and 1916-17. These works greatly enriched the museum’s medieval art department and became the nucleus of its decorative arts department, profoundly influencing American tastes in the early twentieth-century. Through texts, early documentary photographs, and images of newly conserved works, Salvaging the Past goes behind the scenes to explore the history and influence of this remarkable collection.

Read an extract from the exhibition catalogue, available now from Yale University Press, and see a full gallery of images on our Facebook page.

Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is the result of a collaborative exhibition project between the Bard Graduate Center and the Metropolitan Museum. These joint ventures have given the Museum’s curators an opportunity to research and present to the public a little-studied or generally inaccessible aspect of the Museum’s collections and to provide students of the Bard Graduate Center with an opportunity to gain concrete museological experience by being directly involved in the planning, research and design of an exhibition and by contributing to a scholarly catalogue.

Salvaging the Past features a selection of furniture, paneling, sculpture, textiles, metalwork, and ceramics once owned by Georges Hoentschel, most of which (except the ceramics) entered the Metropolitan Museum in 1907, as the gift of American financier and noted collector J. Pierpoint Morgan, and in 191601917, through the generosity of his son, Jack. Although the fame that Hoentschel enjoyed during his lifetime has been eclipsed by that of J.P. Morgan, whose major contributions to the growth of museum collections in the United States are well known, Hoentschel’s encounter with Morgan at his showroom on the boulevard Flandrin in 1906 was to have a profound influence on the history of collecting. With this pivotal moment in constant focus, the present exhibition and catalogue look both backward, to the collection’s formation, and forward, to the consequences it engendered, not only for the Metropolitan Museum  bit also for the history of taste in early twentieth century America. Morgan, who was serving as President of the Museum when he purchased the Hoentschel collection, saw it as a way to inaugurate a new initiative in the display of ‘applied arts’ inspired by European examples. The Hoentschel collection was the founding nucleus of the Museum’s Department of Decorative Arts, and it was intended to serve as a resource for craftsman and designers who stood to benefit from the opportunity to view inspiring examples of French design from both the medieval period and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the objects were installed in a new wing designed by Charles F. McKim, which opened to great critical acclaim in 1910.

As each chapter in this volume demonstrates, the arrival of the Hoentschel collection in New York was important on many levels. Contemporary journals and newspapers were full of articles discussing the collection and its contents and celebrating the great contribution it made to the American museum landscape. But Hoentschel was much more than a collector. As the head of a venerable interior decoration firm in Paris, he worked as both designer and decorator creating lavish eighteenth-century style interiors for clients in France, England, Argentina, Greece, and Japan. In 1900 he designed a pavilion for the Exposition Universelle in Paris, a Gesamtkunstwerk consisting of furniture, ceramics, architectural paneling, and textiles that traveled in modified form to the next world’s fair which was held in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

In his many areas of activity, Hoentschel was both exemplary and exceptional. Like many many dealer-collectors in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Paris, he moved between high society galas and the showrooms and workrooms of the trade, which were filled with fragments of furniture and paneling salvaged from desecrated ancien régim interiors. But in contrast to so many other collectors whose holdings were eventually dispersed, much of his collection was transferred en bloc from Paris to New York, where it initially had a great deal of influence on American taste. Hoentschel’s social standing and business acumen led to Morgan’s acquisition of his collection, but Morgan could not have foreseen the seminal role it would play once it was installed at the Metropolitan Museum, a dynamic and growing institution in 1906.

– From the Introduction to Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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