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Ormolu decoration on furniture gives a distinctly French touch. Its use parallels the highest reach of the art of the ebonists of France. General appreciation of the highly sophisticated styles may increase or wane, but the cabinet work of these great French periods will always have admirers.
Although ormolu mounts are primarily an accessory to the structural form of a piece, the ornaments themselves are worthy of close study. Connoisseurs have become so enamored of this art of sculptured bronze that collections of detached pieces are made. Notable in this field is the extensive collection in the Morgan wing of the Metropolitan Museum.
In a room of French furniture a table with ormolu ornamentation accentuates the air of elegance that is characteristic of the eighteenth century cabinet work of Paris. Ormolu decoration on a table or commode is so distinctive that it is not generally desirable to have more than one example in a room. Oblong side tables and library tables, with the edge of the top cut in gently undulating curves and with the slightly curved leg familiar in the Louis XV period, decorators find very useful in combination with good examples of French furniture.
Unless this method of ornamentation with metal is handled skillfully overdecoration may result. In the best French pieces the ormolu mounts are confined to the upper part of the legs of tables, with sometimes a slender piece running completely down the legs and joining the metal of the footpiece. The handles of drawers may be elaborated with scrolls and acanthus leaf motifs and the ends of the table may be ornamented with a garlanded woman's head. Commodes in their many forms, and tall narrow chests of drawers in rosewood and marquetry, provide other pieces of French furniture on which ormolu mounts are particularly distinguished.
Ormolu receives its name from the process of gilding with powdered gold mixed with mercury. This liquid was coated on the bronze piece and after the mercury had been driven off by heat the gold became an integral part of the ornament. The chaser and gilder had important work to do on an ormolu ornament. The test of excellence, besides the general concept of the design, is the fineness of finish, the clean-cut quality produced by the engraving tools after the piece was cast. The best of ormolu ornaments have delicacy, minuteness and sharpness of detail not to be achieved by wood carving. Some approach the finish of goldsmiths' work. Pattern and scale and size of a mount are important factors in relation to the piece of furniture.
The term ormolu was also applied to metal work gilded, chased and burnished in the same manner as the furniture mounts but used for other purposes. Candle brackets for walls, with the candle holders sustained by garlands and long ribbons or a beautiful female figure, were important forms. Ormolu clocks, once necessary in every parlor of pretension, had metal decorations, including classic figures in gilded bronze.