Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rare Francois-Rupert Carabin Masterwork Returned to France

Detail Francois-Ruper Carabin Piano   Image: Aestheticus Rex
Hello dear readers, I am still wishing I was in Paris and have been sifting through all of my images to prioritize future posts....this one caught my fancy today.  As I was tooling though the Musee des Arts Decoratifs on a particularly rainy Tuesday I rounded the corner of their Art Nouveau gallery to see this wonder that I had only known by reputation.  I present the Francois Rupert Carabin (French, 1862-1932) sculpted walnut piano.
Francois-Rupert Carabin Piano   Image: Aestheticus Rex
Detail, Francois-Rupert Carabin Piano   Image: Aestheticus Rex
Detail, Francois-Rupert Carabin Piano    Image: Aestheticus Rex
Now I know some of you will think that I have lost my mind referring to this piano as a masterwork. Yes, Carabin was not as successful at integrating his sculptural forms into a piece of furniture as say Emile Galle, but nonetheless his works are dramatic and exceedingly rare.
Emile Galle Gueridon "Libellule"    Image via Christie's
Carabin is primarily known for his ceramic and bronze sculptures but it is his rare furniture commissions that garner the most attention.  His last major piece to hit the auction block, to my knowledge, was just over a decade ago and realized $427,500 at Christie's New York.
Two Views, Francois-Rupert Carabin's "Four Elements" Desk and Chair    Image via Christie's
So you get the picture, they are really to be viewed as sculptures that happen to incorporate furniture and are rather expensive.  Now back to the piano...according to an article by Didier Rykner in The Art Tribune the piano was created in 1900 for the French comedic actor Coquelin Cadet by the Herz piano firm and was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Alexandre Honore Ernest Coquelin aka Coquelin Cadet   Image via Wikimedia
Period image of the Piano from the 1905 Henri Herz Catalogue   Image via
Period image of the Piano circa 1900   Image via Revue Alsacienne Illustree
However, according to Mr. Rykner, Coquelin was unable to pay for the piano and it was later sold to the noted feminist and surrealist film director Germaine Dulac with whom it remained until 1938 when it was donated to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs by her daughter.  Here is where things get interesting...
Germaine Dulac    Image via
Period image of the Ecole Boulle Metalworking Workshop   Image via
Evidently for some reason the Musee had the piano deposited at the Ecole Boulle, the highly regarded design and applied arts school in Paris.  Well, it appears that the piano vanished from the Ecole during World War II and was not even noticed until a proper inventory was conducted in 1974 (almost 40 years later).  From there it was "in the wind", but it probably was lost for the bulk of that time.  Who knows for sure when it left France, but in the end it did surface at Sotheby's New York in 1981.  During the course of their research Sotheby's realized the origins of the Piano and notified their consignor that the work was actually Property of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs.  That is a call an expert never wants to make trust me...but I digress.  According to Rykner, negotiations were made between the Musee and Sotheby's consignor but in the meantime the piano languished at Sotheby's for another 30 years!  Upon its restitution in 2011 the Musee released the following images showing the piano pre-restoration (note all the inventory stickers).
The Piano circa 2011     Image via Musee des Arts Decoratifs
The Piano circa 2011     Image via Musee des Arts Decoratifs
It may have taken some seventy years, but the piano now has pride of place at the Musee alongside the masterworks of Majorelle, Galle, Serrurier-Bovy et al.  The Musee d'Orsay has a rather wild monumental cabinet by the artist that is definitely worth a look when you are in Paris.  Until next time.--AR
Francois-Rupert Carabin Bibliotheque circa 1890    Image via
P.S.  I just remembered the unusual two sided vitrine Carabin created for the city of Paris in 1895.  It is on view at the Petit Palais.
Francois-Rupert Carabin Vitrine circa 1895   Image via Dalbera


  1. I think the Carabin piano was less successful than his other furniture-sculptures. The many large figures and faces are a bit frightening-looking. The design moreover should have been more integrated--the figures look grafted onto an ordinary piano.

    It is interesting that it was commissioned by Coquelin cadet. Coquelin and his older brother (known as Coquelin aîné), were a French acting family who show up often in old photos and reminiscences.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. I agree Parnassus. I left off a 1901 "The Artist" magazine review that critiques the piano thusly... "It would be quite impossible to play on an instrument, from which female figures in such attitudes emerge on all sides. The work is interesting in the abstract, however, the sculptures being very fine, the wood, in a slightly reddish tone, most handsome, and the carpentering and joining quite perfect. It is a valuable lesson which will teach a fine artist to refrain next time from purely abstract decoration to study the question of practical usefulness, and to understand its importance." ("The Artist", June-September, 1901, pp. 164-165)

  2. Hideous and marvelous in equal measure. I think a room could perhaps take one of these objects before bursting into flames -- which is to say, I rather like them.

  3. Also, do you think these don't photograph particularly well? I remember seeing the bookcase at the Musee d'Orsay and I don't recall it looking so blocky and pasted together. Honestly I was unfamiliar with the creator's other works, and I thank you for collecting others here -- as always, a joy to read your post.

    1. Thank you Nick. Yes indeed they are hard to capture in pictures. I too like his works for their macabre oddness. Their are other works out there only known from period images...AR