The Louvre has launched a major fundraising drive to acquire the famous snuffbox originally owned by the Duc de Choiseul (1719–1785), Louis XV’s minister. The public has answered the call to ensure that this item essential for the history of the arts can enter France’s national collections.
The Choiseul snuffbox
© Musée du Louvre - Hervé Lewandowski
Despite already having over 600 snuffboxes in its collections, the Louvre has launched its 13th major "Tous mécènes!" (“Become a Patron!”) fundraising campaign to acquire another. The Rothschild family, which has owned the Choiseul snuffbox since the 19th century, is selling it to the museum for the astronomical sum of €3.9 M. The masterpiece is as famous as its appearances in public are rare. Everyone knows it exists, but few have had the chance to actually see it. Now it is on display in the Sully Wing until the appeal for donations ends on February 28. By then, the museum hopes to raise €1.2 M from the general public. Les Amis du Louvre (Friends of the Louvre) have pledged €500,000; major donors and corporations have been asked for the rest.
The Choiseul snuffbox is not only a work of stunning craftsmanship, but also bears witness to France’s history and contribution to the arts. Showcasing the wealth and power of Louis XV’s most powerful minister on the eve of his spectacular fall from grace, it also has a particular emotional dimension. The king's goldsmith Louis Roucel, who was admitted to the guild as a master in 1763, made the snuffbox between July 1770 and the same month of the following year, as its hallmarks indicate. Rectangular in shape and with chamfered corners, it measures 8 cm long, 6 wide and 2.4 high (3.1 x 2.36 x 0.9 in). The miniature master Louis Nicolas Van Blarenberghe (1716–1794) painted incredibly precise interior scenes in gouache on vellum of the statesman in his domestic life and carrying out his official duties on all six sides. They are mounted "à cage" behind crystal plates framed by friezes and pilasters in two tones of gold.
Choiseul, Minister and Collector
At the court of Louis XV, the mania for snuff was fashionable among both men and women. Members of the court flaunted their increasingly elegant snuffboxes, preferably made by the goldsmiths in the Place Dauphine quarter of Paris, like Louis Roucel. The Duchesse de Bourbon owned nearly 300 of them. Those decorated by Lille artist Nicolas Van Blarenberghe were highly popular. Nobody better than the former military campaign painter, joined later by his son Henri Joseph (1741–1826), could breathe life into the dainty scenes he was commissioned to create: landscapes that seem to quiver in a light breeze, harbors bustling with activity and views of chateaux and parks with people strolling through them.
In 1767, the Duc de Choiseul commissioned his first snuffbox from Van Blarenberghe, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which featured the gardens of his chateau in Chanteloup. The one from 1770 is much more original. "Its subject is not at all conventional,” says decorative arts department head curator Michèle Bimbenet-Privat. “Depicting someone going about his everyday business is unique for a decorative object." Four sides show the duke in his mansion on rue de Richelieu in Paris, the other two at work in his ministerial apartments at Versailles and the Galerie du bord de l'eau, now the Grande Galerie, at the Louvre.
According to historians, despite cutting an ungraceful figure—his button nose and fleshy mouth are easy to recognize in every scene—Étienne François de Choiseul was smug, playful and an astute politician. In 1750, he married the granddaughter of financier Antoine Crozat, whose fortune and mansion on rue de Richelieu he inherited. The son of François Joseph Choiseul, the Marquis de Stainville, he rose in the eyes of Madame de Pompadour, and therefore of the king. After a diplomatic career, in 1758 he became Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, War and the Navy.
Choiseul, who became a duke in 1757, filled his mansion with an impressive collection of artworks, including many paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters from the previous century. On the bottom of the snuffbox, he is seen in his colonel-general’s uniform giving a guided tour of his picture gallery and, holding a magnifying glass, chatting with other figures, some of whom are also wearing uniforms. Two art lovers lean on armchairs lined up against the wall to better admire one of the 24 paintings hanging cheek by jowl. Despite their tiny size—some measure just a few millimeters—most have been identified, including a Rembrandt self-portrait and an animal scene by Paulus Potter, thanks to the collection of prints made by Pierre François Basan in 1771 at the duke’s request. The marquetry of the parquet floor is as dainty as that of the Blue Bedchamber on the lid, the gold tones of the ceiling matching those of the paneling. The canopy bed (“lit à la polonaise”) features the same blue silk damask as the walls. The medallion profile of Louis XV in the overmantel above the fireplace, a cabinet and a secretary with a flap with a "Greek" decor can still be seen. Choiseul greets a lady, probably his sister, while a group of men chat on the other side of the room and two small white dogs frolic in the foreground. Paintings by Dutch masters Jan Steen and Gerard Ter Borch and French 18th-century artists Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Joseph-Marie Vien can be recognized on the wall.
The last side of the snuffbox alone would be reason for the Louvre to acquire this masterpiece. The Duc de Choiseul is speaking with army engineers in front of relief maps, which, at the time, were in the Galerie du bord de l'eau. Above them, on the first half of the vault, are Nicolas Poussin’s lost ceiling paintings from between 1641 and 1642. While the museum has the preparatory sketches, the snuffbox is the only representation of these paintings known to this day. Despite their tiny size, a multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Michèle Bimbenet-Privat and Thierry Sarmant, Head Curator at the French National Archives, will try to recreate the layout of the various scenes, investigate the figures and objects on the snuffbox, and attempt to identify who commissioned it and when.
Undermined by the king’s new favorite (mistress), the Duc de Choiseul was dismissed on December 24, 1770, and left Paris for his chateau in Chanteloup on the same day. In 1772, his painting collection was dispersed and the mansion on rue de Richelieu emptied. Did the duke himself commission the snuffbox to celebrate his achievements? Was it given to him as consolation after his fall from grace? If the museum receives enough funding, these questions may soon be answered. By January 10, €946,000 had already been collected from 3,800 donors.