Odd things can sometimes turn up in attics. This model of a Chinese pagoda built for the grounds of a Paris hôtel particulier (an urban mansion) was found under the roof of a château.
Studio of Pierre Rousseau (1751–1829), model of the Chinese pavilion at the hôtel de Montmorency-Luxembourg, c. 1770–1780, wood, metal, cardboard, paper, fabric, h. 85 cm/33.46 in, base, 51 x 40 cm/ 20.08 x 15.75 in.
It is hard to imagine today, but with its leafy gardens, manmade lakes, bridle paths, parks, carriages and follies—quaint, sometimes-ephemeral structures that first appeared in 18th-century England—the boulevard Montmartre in Paris once appeared more like the countryside. "Anglo-Chinese" follies won over aristocrats during the reign of Louis XVI, when they sprang up in Chartres, the parc Monceau, Bagatelle, the désert de Retz (in the Yvelines) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s beloved parc d'Ermenonville in the Oise.
Our object is a scaled-down replica of the pagoda built on the grounds of the hôtel particulier owned by Field Marshal Anne Léon II de Montmorency-Fosseux, Duke of Montmorency (1731–1799), and his wife Charlotte Anne Françoise de Montmorency-Luxembourg (1752–1829). Designed by Lassurance in 1704 for Thomas de Rivié, the king’s secretary, the mansion was bought by Inspector of Finances Desmarets ten years later and by the Duke of Montmorency in 1728. The large garden overflowed onto boulevard Montmartre; the buildings gave out onto rue Saint-Marc, rue Montmartre and rue Vivienne, whose palace of the same name is the only part still visible today. Keeping up with the times, the Montmorencys had a folly built.
It was designed by Pierre Rousseau, an architect from Nantes whose major work is the hôtel de Salm, today the palais de la Légion d'honneur, on rue de Lille in Paris, next to the d'Orsay Museum. He was barely 30 when exotic tales, relations with distant embassies and porcelain brought back in ships by the Compagnie française des Indes orientales (French East India Company) inspired him to build the pagoda, which must have looked quite astounding in the middle of Paris. People would use it as a perch to watch high society promenading on the boulevard below. It was torn down during the revolution, or perhaps to make way for the Passage des Panoramas—a form of entertainment for the masses, panoramas were large circular paintings of landscapes, historic events and battle scenes —and the théâtre des Variétés, which opened in 1807. Published prints, notably in Jean-François Janinet’s Les Vues pittoresques des principaux édifices de Paris (Picturesque Views of the Main Buildings in Paris, musée Carnavalet), and our model, are all that remains of the pagoda.
Did Rousseau build the model to win the contract? What about the little boxes stacked all around cleverly simulating rock gardens? The expert, Philippe Crasse, suggests they were a guessing game of compartments filled with sweets, trinkets, jewels and other small pleasures, while the base served as a hiding place for a larger object. Rousseau gave his patrons the model as a sort of gift during the official presentation of this temple of serenity. It must have worked, for he clinched the deal. The unique, quaint and charming object, complete with its boxes and costumed Chinese characters, is in good condition and should find a buyer.