September 12, 2004
Armand Albert Rateau - Unknown master of Art Deco
His 1919 bronze armchair sold for $970,700, a world auction record for a 20th-century chair, at Christie's New York this past June.
Yet he's almost unknown in the U.S.
Because almost all his clients were private, his work was rarely seen during his lifetime.
The Vallois Gallery of Paris will have over two dozen Rateau pieces for sale at its booth at the 22nd Biennale des Antiquaires, opening this Wednesday in Paris.
All of the pieces are from the collection of 1920s French couturière Jeanne Lanvin, with most from her Paris apartment at 16, rue Barbet de Jouy.
Here's Wendy Moonan's story, from this past Friday's New York Times.
A New Sheen for an Art Deco Designer
It was big news in June when Christie's New York sold a single bronze armchair, designed around 1919 by the French Art Deco designer Armand Albert Rateau, for $970,700, a world auction record for a 20th-century chair.
Nearly $1 million for a 20th-century chair? Rateau?
Rateau is barely mentioned in the Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts or in the catalog for the "Art Deco, 1910-1939" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The Manhattan gallery DeLorenzo, which bought the chair, has long been the main United States source of Rateau's work.
But Rateau is scarcely known in America, even though one of his major clients in the 1920's was a New Yorker, George Blumenthal, a senior partner in Lazard Frères, and his wife, Florence.
The chair that Christie's sold, Model 1793, was one of six commissioned by the Blumenthals for the patio of their indoor swimming pool in Manhattan.
Its seat and back are lattices of little bronze fishes, linked head to tail and fin to fin, and there are chains of bronze scallop shells for armrests.
Coincidentally - or maybe not - the Vallois gallery of Paris will have more than two dozen Rateau antiques in its booth at the 22nd Biennale des Antiquaires, the Paris fair that opens on Wednesday and continues through Sept. 28.
It is considered a great coup for the gallery.
This Rateau furniture is from the 1920's collection of the French couturière Jeanne Lanvin.
It includes Lanvin's personal oak drawing table, a desk with her initials, her bronze andirons, a set of two armchairs and a sofa in carved and gilded oak, three alabaster-and-chiseled-bronze floor lamps, a set of six armchairs in carved oak and a set of garden furniture in patinated bronze.
Almost all the pieces are from Lanvin's Paris apartment at 16, rue Barbet de Jouy.
Rateau decorated the entire place, from the maid's room to the famous bedroom-and-bathroom suite that is now in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.
The pieces for sale overflow with bird and floral motifs.
Bronze bird heads peek out of the floor lamps like baby chicks trying to leave the nest.
Carved-oak swans arching their necks serve as armrests on a sofa and chairs.
Other chairs are festooned with daisies. (Marguerite, French for daisy, was the name of Lanvin's daughter.)
As a designer, Rateau was an oddity in the Art Deco movement. Born in 1882, he was older than his more famous colleagues.
And he never sought his own exhibition space at the 1925 exposition of decorative arts in Paris that gave Art Deco its name.
He merely lent examples of his works to other exhibitors in the Grand Palais.
Nor was his style remotely like that of other Art Deco masters, like Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, who sheathed geometric furniture carcasses in exotic veneers of Makassar ebony and Amboyna wood, then decorated them with inlays of ivory and shagreen.
In terms of form and shape, Rateau seems to have been inspired more by examples from antiquity, and his preferred materials were solid bronze and oak.
The quality he did share with his contemporaries was an insistence on the finest craftsmanship; the Art Deco period is widely considered the end of the era of incomparable 18th-century-quality workmanship in France.
That tradition stopped after the Depression, World War II and the industrialization of the furniture industry.
Rateau, a native of Paris, was the son of a shoemaker.
He attended École Boulle, a crafts school.
"There he learned all the classical techniques of the French cabinetmakers and sculptors and gained a solid formation in art history," said Cheska Vallois, co-owner with her husband, Bob, of Vallois, at 41 rue de Seine in the Sixth Arrondissement. "But he didn't want to be a traditional cabinetmaker. He wanted to be an artist and creator."
When Rateau was 16 he was apprenticed to a Paris ceramist and decorator named Georges Hoentschel, who was working on a pavilion in the Art Nouveau style for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.
The fair had a major influence on Rateau.
"He discovered the Wiener Werkstätte, presented in Paris by Josef Hoffmann, and he saw Art Nouveau creators doing entire houses, from architecture to furniture to accessories," Mrs. Vallois said.
Rateau learned gentlemanly manners from Hoentschel, and they later served him well with clients like the Duchess of Alba, Countess Beaurepaire and Baron and Baronne Eugène de Rothschild.
"The reputation Rateau obtained by his collaboration with Hoentschel led to his being hired by Alavoine, one of the most renowned decorating houses in Paris," Mrs. Vallois said.
"By 1908 he was named director of the company. There he met French and international society, including the Blumenthals, who were his first clients after World War I."
In 1914 Rateau and his wife went to Italy with their good friend Louis-Joseph Cartier, the jeweler.
He visited Pompeii and Herculaneum and saw antique bronze furniture for the first time.
"It has been said this trip and this discovery were the sources of Rateau's inspiration, but even if he was impressed with what he saw, he still invented his own style," Mrs. Vallois said. "His creations always look vaguely antique but are never directly inspired by antique pieces."
When World War I broke out, Rateau, then 32, immediately enlisted as a soldier and remained in the army until 1919.
"During the war he continued to sketch everything he saw," Mrs. Vallois said.
After the war he declined an invitation to rejoin Alavoine.
He happened to meet the Blumenthals in 1919 on an ocean liner on his way to Paris from New York.
"Eight days of crossing gave them the time to speak and to imagine a project for the ballroom and interior swimming pool in their New York town house," Mrs. Vallois said. "It was the first time Rateau had the chance to develop his own ideas."
Back in Paris, Rateau went into business for himself.
He set up a workshop with specialists in cabinetmaking and paneling, lacquering, bronze work, gilding, weaving and embroidery.
"Even if his creations have a very luxurious look, he always limited the mix of materials," Mrs. Vallois said.
"He paired oak with black marble, as in the pedestal tables we will present; bronze with alabaster, as in our floor lamps; and bronze with pear wood, as in our reading table. His imaginative motifs would not allow him to be too fancy in the use of materials, though he used the best ones possible."
In the early 1920's Lanvin was probably Rateau's best client, and he did several projects for her.
This led to clients like Lady Baillie of Leeds Castle in England.
Rateau died in 1938. Because almost all his clients were private, his work was never widely known. That may well change next week.
September 12, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink
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I just bought a 1920 to 1930 two story house and would like to find out more about what the furniture would have looked like. Could you please lead me in the right direction. Hoping to restore as much as I can, others have tried done poorly at the task.
Thank you for helping, Charlotte
Posted by: Charlotte Field | Jun 16, 2006 11:04:59 AM
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