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One Month of Ionarts

That's right, today is the one-month anniversary of this weblog. Thanks to everyone who has been reading.

Today's post ties in with a number of subjects discussed over the past month, and it concerns an article by Yves Stavridès (Les mystères de la Laiterie de la Reine, August 21) in L'Express. Daniel Wildenstein, one of the most influential art dealers in Europe, died in October 2001. (Part of the family's company, since the 1960s based mostly in New York, merged with the Pace Gallery to form PaceWildenstein. They also formed the Wildenstein Institute, still responsible for authenticating the work of many historical artists.) This summer in June, his sons decided to donate to the Louvre one part of their father's estate, nine tons of marble friezes and medallions sculpted by Pierre Julien in the late 18th century. Thus was solved an art-historical mystery in France, what had happened to the decoration of the Laiterie de la Reine (Queen's Dairy, shown below) at the Château of Rambouillet outside Paris.

Laiterie de la Reine, RambouilletQueen Marie Antoinette liked to imagine that she was a simple peasant girl, so she had a hamlet and farm built on the grounds of Versailles. The queen had a little mill, and peasants kept animals and ran their own dairy, a short walk from the Petit Trianon. When the king went to Rambouillet to hunt, Marie Antoinette was reportedly bored, so he built the little dairy there for her and commissioned Pierre Julien to make the marble reliefs with dairy themes from classical mythology. (One of the medallions, The Milk Churning, is shown below.) Rambouillet was seized by the revolutionaries in 1791, and about 10 years later the marble pieces were taken from Rambouillet by order of Josephine, Napoleon's wife and the future empress, to decorate her new home, the Château de Malmaison. When she died, after being divorced from Napoleon, her children sold off most of her estate to pay her many debts.

Pierre Julien, The Milk ChurningThe marble reliefs were purchased in 1819 by Alexander Baring, of the same Baring Bank ruined by Nick Leeson in 1995, and brought to England to decorate his family's home. In 1947, Baring's descendant sold the marbles to Georges Wildenstein, Daniel's father, who displayed them in his home in Paris and never noted them in his business records. By this point, these reliefs had completely disappeared from the public art radar, until they were returned to the Louvre. The question that makes all of this worth reading is the crisis created by this situation: should the marbles be displayed in the Louvre, or should they be returned to the Rambouillet dairy? In fact, a statue from the Rambouillet dairy, depicting a nymph and the goat that nursed the baby Jupiter, was placed in the Palais du Luxembourg, home of the French Senate, in 1803, then transferred to the Louvre in 1829, and ultimately returned to Rambouillet in the 1850s. Stavridès argues that Pierre Julien lived and worked in the Louvre and the museum could surely create a display space like the dairy, but let's not forget that it was part of an artistic whole with the statue now returned to Rambouillet. "So, Rambouillet or the Louvre? Generally, this sort of case ends up on the desk of the Minister of Culture. Tough job."