The love of French fine and decorative arts and the Rothschild family tradition for collecting such pieces is celebrated this season at Waddesdon with a special display centred on a newly acquired portrait ‘Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul at his desk’. Painted in 1786 by the female court artist Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803), the portrait was commissioned by the sitter and though Choiseul died before it was completed, it shows a fresh-faced and lively man at ease in the study of his Parisian home.
Choiseul, born Comte de Stainville in 1719, was a powerful figure at the court of Louis XV (r.1715-74) playing a key role in French foreign policy as a diplomat and minister at a turbulent time in European affairs dominated by fierce colonial rivalry between Britain and France. He fought as a soldier during the Austrian War of Succession (1740-48) and became Ambassador to Rome in 1753. In 1758 he was made Minister of Foreign Affairs, acquiring the dukedom the same year. His early advancement was partly due to having earned the gratitude in 1752 of the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, whom he helped to avoid a potentially scandalous intrigue. He subsequently served as a naval minister (1761-66). When the Treaty of Paris brought the Seven Years War to an end in 1763 with humiliating colonial losses for France, he sought to reduce its impact. As minister of war from 1766 he instigated military reforms that he hoped would enable France to redress defeat. Eventually, however, he fell victim to court factionalism and was dismissed by Louis in 1770 after calling for war with Britain and retired to his estate at Chanteloup in the Loire.
The duc himself was an avid patron of the arts and his taste for exquisitely crafted objects, a quality shared by many in the Rothschild family, is reflected in this display. One of the highlights is a tiny but stunningly detailed enamel-painted gold box by the Van Blaremberghes that shows in miniature scenes of Choiseul’s spectacular chateau (destroyed in 1823) and gardens at Chanteloup and on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, New York. But the pièce de resistance is the magnificent desk depicted in the portrait and referenced in its title. The desk made by the master ebeniste Simon-François Oeben (c. 1725-86), was at one time owned by the English Rothschilds and was displayed at Mentmore, another of their family homes. Oeben, together with his brother Jean-François made many pieces for Madame de Pompadour and members of court. The desk is reunited with the portrait for the first time in 150 years and to be able to view the two together is a vivid and exciting experience.
This exhibition and the new acquisition gives visitors to Waddesdon an insight into Choiseul the man and his times. It also demonstrates how the French Renaissance-style Buckinghamshire home to four generations of Rothschilds is not simply a monument to the past as so many historic houses can be. Instead, with the present Lord Jacob Rothschild living on the estate and actively involved with the National Trust in its management, the manor actively sustains the spirit of its creator Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild who built it in the 1870s as a home in which to entertain lavishly and as a showcase for his many French ‘gimcracks’ – as he liked to refer to his fabulous objets d’art.
The Choiseul exhibition can be seen at Waddesdon until November 1st.
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