France, second half of the 18th century
Tortoiseshell, gold leaf
Based on a painting by Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) depicting A View of the Fountain of Saint Jean in Marseille
• The Metropolitan Museum preserves an engraving by Pierre François Laurent (1739-1809) based on the original painting by Joseph Vernet depicting A View of the Fountain of Saint Jean in Marseille (INV. 53.600.1501)
This small medallion, in engraved tortoiseshell and gilt with gold leaf, represents a view of the fountain of Saint John in Marseille. Revealed in the light, the colour effects of tortoiseshell are very delicate, from dark reddish brown to light ochre. On the foreground, is a boat, where men and women are active around the fountain: some are filling jars of water in order to bring it to the ship lying offshore in the bay, while others are drawing the water needed for daily use.
The scene is topped on the left by the pole of a small boat. In the background on the right, is a large tower lined with ramparts, on the hillside. It is probably the fort of Saint Jean, a building characteristic of the Old Port of Marseille. In the background, a ship has remained at sea waiting for supplies. The figurative scene is encircled by an inscription: “Seconde Vue de Marseille Fontaine St Jean exécutée sur le tour par Compigné tourneur du Roi à Paris d’après le Tableau original de M. Vernet peintre de sa Majesté.”.
The inscription is bordered by a frieze with an ovoid pattern circumvented by a border frieze.
Paintings in Compigné
Of great preciousity and variety of materials, the paintings in Compigné were made according to a mysterious process starting from a sheet of tortoiseshell or carboard paper to which a pewter or gold leaf was applied. The surface could then be decorated with gold, silver, gouache and coloured varnishes. These “miniatures”, known today under the name of Compigné, had a great success in the 1760s.The small format, characteristic of this production, required to work in extreme precision, probably with the help of a magnifying glass, to develop the perfection of these technical details and colours.
Arrived from Italy, probably around 1750, Thomas Compigni took the name Compigné when he settled under the sign of Roi David, rue Greneta, in Paris. As an ivory turner, he specialised in the manufacture and sale of boxes, knitting sets, draughts and chess sets, snuffboxes and other cane handles of blond tortoiseshell inlaid with gold. Renowned for the quality of his objects, he passed on to posterity through the production of precious paintings whose technique remains mysterious today. In 1773, he presented two views of the Château de Saint-Hubert to the King and obtained the title of “tabletier privilégié du Roi” under Louis XV and Louis XVI. His themes of predilection are most often views of towns, monuments and castles from the perspective of parks or landscapes animated by small characters.
A medallion based on a work by Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), a marine painter
Trained in the south-west of France,Claude Joseph Vernet, since his early age, became a promising young artist, in his domain. The Marquis of Caumont intervened in his favour for a trip to Rome, which he undertook in 1734: instead of studying the great masters of the Renaissance and ancient art, he preferred to study the works of landscape and marine painters such as Claude Gellée, known as the Lorrain. His painting found in these styles, all its resonance, so much so that Joseph Vernet’s success under French, then Italian, and English commissioners, is attested to as early as his Roman period. His name was soon known throughout the entire of Europe, a success favoured by the many aristocratic travellers on the Grand Tour. In 1745, Joseph Vernet was accredited by the Académie royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. In 1753, he returned to France: he first stayed in Marseille, where he painted several views of the port from different angles, and then settled in Paris. He then received one of the most important commissions of his career thanks to the interlude of the Marquis de Marigny, “directeur général des Bâtiments du Roi” to Louis XV: 27 paintings representing “the most beautiful ports of the kingdom”. He only produced 15 paintings, which are now preserved in the Musée National de la Marine and the Musée du Louvre, but this serie of Vues des ports de France ensured his complete posterity.
Florence Ingersoll-Smouse, Joseph Vernet, peintre de marine (1714-1789) : étude critique suivie d’un catalogue raisonné de son œuvre peint, avec trois cent cinquante-sept reproductions, Vol. 1, Paris, Étienne Bignou éditeur, 1926.
Plaisir de France, « Les Compignés et leurs créateurs, ces délicats chefs-d’œuvre de la tabletterie au XVIIIe siècle », n° 427, mars 1975.
Compigné, peintre et tabletier du Roy, exhibition catalogue, Grasse, Villa-Musée Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Juin-Juillet 1991).