This is a gilt bronze furniture mount made in France, in about 1800. Highly decorative mounts like this one were important elements in interior and furniture design from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. They were created by master artisans trained in a strict guild system which applied exacting standards to the fabrication of a gilded form. At the time, it was necessary to be accepted into the guild to work as a bronze craftsman.

The creation of gilt-bronze mounts involved many different steps and was principally the work of bronze makers, primarily casters who created the forms, and gilders and chasers who applied the gilt finish and polished the metal, achieving a gold-like surface. Originally represented by two separate guilds, casters and gilders united to form one guild in 1776.

The beginning of the process often involved a sculptor who converted a two-dimensional design into a three-dimensional model. A wax mold was then created based on the design model. The mounts were made using a method known as lost-wax casting, in which the wax model was created over a clay or plaster core and then covered with clay or plaster to form the mold. The mold was fired to burn out the wax and then filled with molten bronze. The metal took on the form of the original wax design, based on the crevices and shapes in the interior of the mold. When the mold was removed, the cooled and solidified mount would be turned over to other craftsmen who would eliminate rough edges and imperfections. This part of the process was as important as the creation of the original sculpture because the immaculate bronze surface would be the substrate for the glint and glow of the final product.

The last step was mercury gilding. The bronze surface was coated with a mixture of ground gold and mercury, then heated over an open fire. While the gold adhered to the base metal, the mercury would evaporate (a process that we now know creates toxic fumes, hazardous to the workers). The process was repeated several times until a thick enough layer of gold was created which could be left as a matte finish or burnished to a fine sheen with a heliotrope stone.

Furniture mounts were not only ornamental, they also protected wood cabinetry. Gilt bronze escutcheons and other mounts would be used to protect keyholes, furniture legs and feet, and exposed edges, as well as being attached as drawer handles and pulls. Gilt bronze mounts also decorated clocks, wall sconces and mirror frames.

This particular mount draws its theme from figures of Greek mythology which would be consistent with the Neoclassicism of the period. The design of the piece is drawn from the love story of Eros and Psyche as determined by the winged figure in the chariot and the butterflies pulling it. (Eros is traditionally depicted as winged, and Psyche as a butterfly. Her name means both butterfly and soul in Greek).

The chaser of this mount achieved textures and brilliance indicative of a true master. His name is lost to time, but the beauty of his work still stands.

 

Susan Teichman is a design historian specializing in the history of jewelry and synagogue architecture.

One thought on “Eros and Psyche: True Love Captured in Gilt Bronze

An error perpetuated in C20 is that ‘butterfly’ wings represent Psyche; when indeed it is actually the wings of a MOTH. Ancient Greek belief was that the psyche awakened while we slept, and thus a nighttime creation rather than daylight butterflies. Closer examination of figural representations of Psyche in human form will readily illustrate that her wings are those of a moth. C19 funereal tombs or headstones often portrayed either the moth itself or its wings as indicative of the eternal sleep.

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