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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

All Art is Copying

Picasso said those words--allegedly--but he was probably just repeating something he overheard at a party. Still, when it comes to copying others, Picasso ought to know better than most, since he often used others' work as a basis for his own paintings. Not, of course, that he was the only one to do that. Copying is as old as that cave in France.

Speaking of which--France--the woman in the charcoal portrait above is the Empress Josephine, and it's a lovely drawing: you can almost feel the downy softness of Jospehine's cheek, and I love the luster of her black pearl earring, but it's in fact a copy, taken from a tiny (but important) detail of Jacques Louis David's monumental painting of Napoleon placing the crown of Empress on his wife's submissively bowed head.

Technically, even that's not quite true. The image at the top above is a copy, all right, but it's actually five removes from the original painting, not one: that is, it's a computer scan of a charcoal sketch that was copied from an enlargement of a Xerox copy of a reduced halftone reproduction of the painting in an art history book. That's a lot of in-between steps, but I should know, because I'm the one who copied it: yes, that's my drawing above. What can I say? I'm good--as long as I'm copying a genius, which David clearly was.  With his weathervane politicking, I wouldn't trust the guy any farther than I would trust Picasso, but he was still a genius, and that's the secret to successful copying: picking the right model to copy.

Anyway, Josephine comes up because last Saturday we sold two matching sofas, a big rug, a massive table, a 1930s galvanized steel cart and a lamp, and all of it from the small area of the shop formerly known as the Castaing Corner.  Once again, the place looked stripped.

Naturally, I did what I always do when this happens: I called Debra. Unfortunately, there was a little problem with my timing this go-around. The good news was that Debra was already preparing to head down to Atlanta to restock anyway, but the bad news was that she wasn't going to be back to Chicago with new things for at least ten days, at which point I probably started muttering about looking picked-over again. So to shut me up, she told me she had two metal daybeds that she would drop off in Chicago before leaving town, which, she said, should hold me until she got back. That's all she said: there were two daybeds, and they were metal. Also, they had trundle gizmos underneath.

By now, of course, I should know to trust Debra's eye, but it had been a hot, miserable week, and the combination of the phrases "metal daybeds" & "trundle beds" sent visions of sugarplums dancing through my head, and not in a good way: white enamel curlicues, flouncy, bouncy pillows in bright-colored prints, and...slumber parties. Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with any of that, I suppose--if you're a nine-year old girl. All I know is I hardly slept that night for fear of what I'd find waiting in my store.

But I was worrying over nothing, because when I walked in last Tuesday morning, what greeted me was not your typical mass-market metal daybeds but a handsome pair of steel-&-brass campaign beds, which is another thing entirely. Better yet, these beauties were clearly patterned after similar steel-&-brass beds sold in the 1960s by Jansen, probably the greatest French decorating firm ever.

And Jansen's elegant beds were inspired by antique originals in the Directoire & Empire styles, which,  in turn, were modeled after the the kind of collapsible metal bed used by Napoleon during his military campaign in Egypt in the 1790s. Of course, the splendid rooms of Napoleon's palaces at Malmaison & Saint-Cloud were a long way from the spartan fittings of a military encampment, but Napoleon's in-house designers Percier & Fontaine made sure everybody got the message by a liberal use of military motifs in the sumptuous decor: silk drapery hung between gilt tent poles, gilt-tipped spears used as curtain rods, trophies, laurel wreaths, winged figures of Victory & draped beds with big round bolsters placed lenthwise against fabric panels.

Josephine--whose bedroom this is--probably never went camping in her life, but at Malmaison, she roughed it in a bedroom tented in gold-fringed red silk and open to a painted sky. Compared to the gorgeous splendor of Josephine's room, Napoleon's nearby bedroom was downright spartan, but even there, draped walls were still the room's main feature. So, when I found myself faced with a pair of early-Nineteenth Century style steel beds & a blank-walled corner, what could I do but follow suit?  

The problem, of course, was how to recreate the sophisticated vibe of Josephine's tented room at Malmaison without stepping over the line into Little Princess preciosity? Well, first off, no red. In some photos of Josephine's room, the fabric already looks dangerously close to Barbie-pink, so none of that. Also, nothing shiny. The campaign beds' steel frames are unpolished, with only a coat of wax to make sure they'll age naturally. So whatever I went with on the walls, it had to be in keeping with the mellow sheen of the beds' frames. Nothing glitzy here. 

Fortunately, I knew a room that had exactly the feel I was after: Millicent Rogers' tented New York living room of 1935: no shine to the fabric and, at least in the monochrome photo, no color--even though her actual room was red. What I liked best, though, was the informal draping of the heavy fabric as compared to the perfect swags at Malmaison. Of course, I had no fabric, heavy or otherwise, on hand, but that was nothing that a late-Saturday-night trip to Home Depot couldn't solve.

The two dropcloths I bought were stiff & full of stubborn wrinkles, but soaking them with Fire'z Off not only relaxed the wrinkles, it also made the draping the stiff cotton easy. By Sunday morning, the fabric had dried into crisp swags, and all that was left to do was trade Mme Castaing's turquoise-bead chandelier for one made of rope & rusted iron and hang Josephine's picture above the bed as a visual clue to the backstory for those attuned to such things.

Of course, it's not like I haven't been through the whole drill before: below is a shot of my great-grandmother's linen sheets pressed into service as summer curtains in my former apartment.  There's nothing like making-do. But hey, practice makes perfect. And as I always tell people who come to me when they find themselves stumped for decorating ideas: History has all the answers. All we have to do is look them up.

By the way, if you want to see this cozy little corner, please stop in, but do it soon. These beds only made their debut in their new setting on Sunday but they're already sold--presentation is everything--and at this point they're just waiting to be picked up, at which point, I'll be right back where I started, with a big hole on the floor. What can I say? The circle of life is a wonderful thing. 

Meanwhile, pleasant dreams. I'm beat.