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Stuff of Dreams: Art as Everyday Life

Stuff of Dreams: Art as Everyday Life – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – June 2002

Art has not always been relegated to a two-dimensional frame. It is only within the last 500 years or so that we have extracted art from our everyday lives and placed it in museums. Before that there was not always a clear distinction between an object and an object d’art. A pipe, a tapestry, a vase, a candlestick: they were not just useful things. They were imbued with religious, social, and moral symbols. In other words, they were art.

Matières de Rêves: Stuff of Dreams from the Paris Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which opens at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, June 1, gives us 100 masterpieces of this form of art from the famous museum in Paris.

“They certainly were things that were used and meant to be used,” said. Linda Roth, the Charles C. and Eleanor Lamont Cunningham Curator of European Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth. “But what was the impetus for the craftsman not to be satisfied? Very early on there was some motivation to transform utilitarian objects into something more.”

That “something more” the artists were looking for was the ability to communicate. Be it through mythological images, religious or political symbols, reflection of the owner’s personality and history, or through the sensual and thought-provoking presence of Beauty herself, this form of art gets powerful messages across. Like dreams, they send us these messages indirectly through images.

To have some of the most exquisite and critical pieces of this collection come to New England is a testament to the pulling power of the Wadsworth. The exhibition is organized by the Portland Art Museum in conjunction with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a museum that occupies a wing of the Louvre in Paris. The opening of this exhibition is particularly unusual because the Musée has been and will remain closed for renovation for at least another two years.

“These objects are just so wonderful,” Roth said. “And this is a great opportunity to see them.”

Statuettes and Figurines

Clearly defined Classical revivals have taken place in the West every couple of hundred years, most notably in the Renaissance, in the 17th Century, and then again in France one hundred years later. A thread of mythological themes and the representation of life and movement in inanimate objects weaves through this entire exhibition. These items move and are moving.

Like things in dreams, nothing is static. A candelabrum, for example, which was designed by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier in 1734, looks like liquefied silver. A bronze faucet from the mid-18th Century, seems to be growing from its source. A tear rolls down the cheek of a fawn on a circa-1890 glazed stoneware statuette by Jean-Joseph-Marie Carriès. Even a simple watering can, made in 1896 by Boucheron, is turned into something magical. With leaping fish and an organic handle, the sun-flower shaped spout seems to grow toward its intended plants. In the decorative arts, vines grow, lions roar, and fish slither through unseen water. They jar us from the etherized state of everyday business and wake us up into the mythical.

According to Roth, the artists in this exhibition were no different than those in other forms of art. “Mythology just always has been an important source for all artists,” she said. “Clearly the people designing decorative arts were very much open to using mythological themes. It is not any different from when a painter chooses a subject.”

But as much as the artists were like other artists, those who used these objects were not like other people. They were wealthy, learned, and at times decadent. It was the communication between the artist and the owner that gives these pieces a depth other, more public art forms often did not have.

“The whole aristocracy were educated with these stories. They would have been second nature to them, and certainly an alternative to a religious theme,” Roth said. “And for the artists too. If you want to create some sort of message, do it through mythology.”

Death, Personified

The message mythology allows an artist to send is often powerful, as many objects in this exhibition illustrate. For example, a model of the tomb of Pastor Langhan’s wife is a lyrical homage to one man’s sorrow. Made for his wife, who died in childbirth the day before Easter, the tomb shows a woman and child caught in the fluid space between life and death. There is a grim urgency to it: either their fragile flesh breaks from the stone tomb, or those doors will slam down on them forever.

Not only did this mythical image communicate to Pastor Langhan, it caught the attention of the public at large “sometimes we forget how harrowing the prospect of childbirth once was”and became a pilgrimage destination. The powerful story it tells either gave hope to fearful mothers-to-be or soothed fathers-who-could-have-been.

Beds as Vehicles

The theme of a child being carried over into another world is also seen in a ceremonial cradle of the Duc de Bordeaux. Understanding that the voyage both into life and away from it can be imagined as one and the same, royalty often placed their children in cradles shaped as fragile boats.

The notion of being carried in sleep to another place or guided into another realm is also used for adult beds (we see this today with “sleigh beds”). One gigantic example is the bed of Emile Valtesse de la Bigne. Made around 1875, this ornate lit de parade, or ceremonial bed, even has two flaming lamps at the foot that mark the place where everyday life ends and the world of Aphrodite, that goddess of pink light, begins.


Life and love are not the only things known to be fragile. So too are material things. An egg-and-snake teapot exemplifies this theme. The egg form highlights the fragility of the fine porcelain teapot but the real tension created by the image of this object comes from the uncertainty over whether the snake is protecting the egg or gearing up to devour it, or somehow doing both.

Hubris is a common mythological theme, and a tray depicting a woman bending down, her hair spread out before her woven into a spider web shows us how one artist at the time perceived it. The tray, which was made in the early 20th Century by François-Rupert Carabin, looks like it was taken from the story of Arachne. Arachne, a mortal, was sentenced to a life of spinning webs for her audacity to weave more beautifully than the goddess Minerva herself. Her boastful arrogance brought her an eternity of hanging on the end of a thread, and this object captures the horror of that punishment. Her hair a web, there is no extricating herself from her fate as a spinner of webs. Her hair is brought forth almost like an offering. It is easy to imagine a wealthy woman in the early 1900s taking off her earrings, placing them in the tray, and being reminded that she should not presume herself more lovely than Aphrodite nor to flaunt her wealth and prestige.

Sometimes the dream-like state of decorative arts is created by something less mythological and more narcotic. This trend is demonstrated by a pendant that depicts a woman’s face surrounded by opium poppy flowers. Made by the famous René Lalique in the last years of the 19th Century, the pendant is an Art Nouveau design dedicated to a theme linking nymph-like woman and the natural world in which she lives.

This tiny object, measuring just four inches, is just as powerful and packed with symbolism and meaning as the many huge objects in this exhibition. That is one reason why actually seeing the show may make a stronger visual impact than looking at photographs of the objects.

“Experiencing them in person, you are able to understand more their scale. The beds are huge, other objects are tiny, and you just want to get closer to them,” Roth said. “I think it is going to be very exciting to walk through this space and experience so many of these wonderful objects at the same time.”


While Greek myths were common knowledge to most of those who were educated, more obscure and esoteric ideas such as alchemy, astrology, Buddhism, and other concepts in Eastern thought were available to a select few, even among the wealthy. Mystical groups steeped in Eastern thought viewed themselves as an elite, enlightened group, and secret societies dedicated to a mix of science with theology spread throughout Europe – perhaps the most famous led by Madame Blavatsky herself. At least one object in this collection reflects that trend.

Created by English painter James Tissot in the late 19th Century height of the esoteric movement, a model for a monument depicts symbol on top of symbol, piled upon each other. Anchored by a turtle representing Patience, the monument has a large blue globe covered with astrological signs. Three human figures represent the personified ideals of Fortune, Love, and Ambition. They are joined by snakes, lotus blossoms, pomegranates, and yin/yang symbols. The moral of the tale these symbols together tell, which is ultimately about patience and selfishness. “All Things Come to Those Who Wait,” which is even inscribed around the base. To drive the point home, the inscription “Wait and Win” encircles the winged Victory at the top.

Tea pot, tray, candelabra, tomb, bed: all transformed from utilitarian object to art. “That is what the exhibition is all about,” Roth said. “That is one of the great things about decorative arts. In many cases you get two for the price of one. And they are truly works of art.”

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