Lessons from the Masters: Paul Sormani and Francois Linke
Few furniture styles speak of elegance and opulence like those of 18th century Paris. The great Kings of France, namely Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, each ushered in a style of decorating that reflected their own personal tastes, from extravagance of the rococo to the restrained exuberance of the neoclassic.
This was the time of the great Parisian cabinetmakers, or ebenistes, such as Andre-Charles Boulle , Francois Garnier, and Andre Gilbert, whose furnishings were collected by all of Europe's royalty. These "royal" furnishings can still be found in the great palaces of France and across the Continent, with few examples finding their way to the open market. Those rare pieces that do become available often carry impressive price tags that reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So what is an avid Francophile to do if their budget falls a little short of those lofty prices? Give up their taste for high style Parisian furniture? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding no!
Looking Back, Moving Forward
The mid 19th century saw a renewed interest in the styles and tastes of the 18th century, prompted in no small part by Napoleon III's beautiful new bride, Empress Eugenie de Montijo, whose fascination with Marie Antoinette led to the revival of the 18th century styles. The Empress' reputation for extravagance bode well for a slate of talented Parisian cabinetmakers who created extraordinary pieces for the palace and country homes of the Empress and her court.
Of course, it wasn't only the royals of Europe who fueled the demand for these 18th century interpretations. The 19th century was a time of tremendous growth in manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The Gold Rush and the push West made many Americans wealthy and they looked to the fashion capital of the world to furnish their lavish estates. The Vanderbilts were among the elite Americans who furnished their homes with both 18th and 19th century French masterpieces.
Among the favorite innovators of this period were two furniture makers whose works are widely accepted as the finest of the period. And, while many of their masterpieces can fetch lofty sums that rival their 18th century predecessors, many of their furnishings can still be found with more modest price tags. Paul Sormani and Francois Linke are counted among a group of craftsman who took their inspiration from the 18th century and created "modern" interpretations to satiate the new tastes for the Louis XV and XVI styles. Experts agree that these two innovators created furnishings that matched and even surpassed their 18th century predecessors in both quality, design and craftsmanship.
Royalty's Favorite: Paul Sormani
Paul Sormani is counted among the most important ebenistes of the 19th century, one of the few who truly mastered the Louis XV and XVI styles. Italian by birth, Sormani opened his first shop in Paris in 1847 and quickly attracted the attention of the young Empress Eugenie who commissioned a number of pieces for her Royal residences. The Empress' patronage, along with the accolades and medals garnered at the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle quickly catapulted Sormani to the top. Another medal at the 1862 London Exposition confirmed the stellar status of the Sormani workshop. The business remained viable until 1934, although Sormani himself died in 1877 leaving his wife and son at the helm.
Sormani furnishings are distinguished by the superior quality of the bronze chasing and gilding and the overall proportion and form. He was also known for his extraordinary inlay work and was often touted as the artistic heir to Andre-Charles Boulle, the late 17th century craftsman who pioneered the technique of using tortoiseshell, brass and ivory inlays to create complex designs. Many of Sormani's most important pieces boast superb "boulle" work. Most Sormani pieces are engraved on the lockplate with the firm's mark.
While the very finest pieces by Paul Sormani often fetch six-figure prices, they are comparatively less expensive than their counterparts of similar quality hailing from the 18th century. Exquisite pieces can still be found for under $25,000.
Francois Linke. A Marriage of Styles
Following Sormani's death, a new cabinetmaking phenom set up shop in Paris in 1881 and soon built a reputation that would rival the great Paul Sormani. Francois Linke, born the second of 12 children in a small village of Sudentenland, now the Czech Republic, apprenticed to a local cabinetmaker at the young age of 13. His talents were obvious from the start, and though he was penniless, he set his sights on Paris, the world's epicenter of fashion and style.
Whereas Sormani stayed true to the designs and lines of the 18th century craftsmen, Linke approached this revival of the Louis XV and XVI styles with a little more artistic license. It was the period of the Belle Epoque, when France was at the height of its fashionable influence, and Linke embraced the rococo style of his predecessors and infused it with a hint of the Art Nouveau.
Linke's ascent to real fame and fortune came with the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Linke had long sought not to merely reproduce the works of his predecessors but to use their designs as inspiration. The Exposition was his chance to shine and he gambled his entire career on it. His gamble paid off. His stand was filled with commanding pieces the likes of which had never been seen before and he was rewarded with the coveted Gold Medal and private commissions from royals and industrial magnates from around the world. So unique was the Linke style, it was difficult to classify, and, so it became known as "le style Linke."
In his quest to create haute luxe furniture, François Linke enlisted the talents of sculptor Léon Messagé to give life to his stylistic vision in the form of exquisite sculptural gilt bronze mounts of the absolute highest artistic merit. Fantastical golden figures and scrolling gilt embellishment became a hallmark of Linke's finest works. From the monumental to the diminutive, every Linke piece is a masterwork of design, form, and ornamentation.
Don't always look for a signature to distinguish a piece of Linke furniture, you won't always find one. Many of Linke's earliest works were unsigned and only identifiable by his telltale attributes. In these cases, consult with a Linke expert to determine if this early piece is indeed an example of his work. Later pieces often bear an engraved signature on one of the bronze mounts or on a lockplate. But beware, even signed pieces warrant the consult of an expert to confirm that Linke is the true maker.
Like Sormani's works, Linke furnishings can bring prices in the millions. But don't despair. There are many fine Linke pieces that can be had for under $50,000 and they are wise acquisitions for collectors looking for pieces that have a strong potential for holding and increasing their value.
Study the Masters
Paul Sormani and Francois Linke are considered the crème de la crème of the French ebenistes of the 19th century, but they are certainly not alone. There were a number of exceptionally talented craftsmen whose signed works are avidly collected today. Even unsigned works of high quality make smart acquisitions for the collector. The key to recognizing exceptional quality Parisian furniture of this period is to study the masters like Sormani and Linke.
Pay close attention to the very finest pieces. Note how deeply the bronze is chiseled on a fine Linke sideboard or how finely detailed and well matched the boulle work is on a Sormani cabinet. Learn to recognize a finely grained and polished surface like that on a Sormani desk. Stand back and admire the scale and proportion of the gently scrolling legs of a delicate table or the classic symmetry of a Louis XVI style center table crafted at the hand of Linke. Take what you've learned from these masters and apply it to your own search for exceptional Parisian furniture and you will be well satisfied.