Your Collection: Two Candlesticks (c. 1560–1580) by Jean de Court (active c. 1555–1585)

  

Jean de Court, Two Candlesticks (c. 1560–1580), enamel on copper, 25.4 x 19.1 cm each. NGC

These exquisite candlesticks were likely the work of enamel painter Jean de Court’s workshop. Unfortunately, we know little about him, or about the family business which would become known for its fine enamels.

Both candlesticks are marked “IC”: a mark usually associated with the de Court family workshop in Limoges, France. The workshop was active over several generations, from the mid-16th through early 17th centuries. The quality and style of these candlesticks suggest that they come from the second half of the 16th century, when the workshop was at its height.

Limoges had been an important centre for enamelled metal since the Middle Ages. The craftsman would apply a paste of finely powdered glass over copper, then heat it until the glass fused. Although early enamel artists had to manipulate the metal, engraving it or soldering metal to metal to create “walls” to hold the glass, by the early 16th century, advances allowed artists to “paint” with enamel. This resulted in finely detailed work that resembled oil on canvas, rather than glass on metal.

One of the candlesticks is decorated with the Twelve Labours of Hercules; the other with the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. On the wide rims, designed to catch dripping wax, there are scenes of young children in a sort of procession, playing instruments, carrying flags, and so forth, with a few putti thrown in for good measure. The entire surface of each candlestick is covered in ornamentation — including masks, cherub heads, fruit, garlands, grotesques and fantastic beasts. And all of this on objects only 25 cm high — perfectly scaled for a table, and designed to be closely admired by viewers. 

 

Jean de Court, Two Candlesticks (detail), c. 1560–1580, enamel on copper, 25.4 x 19.1 cm each. NGC

The decorative style and content are typical of French taste at this time: delicate, alive with ornamentation, and inventive. The source for this particular aesthetic lies in contemporary Italian art which, in this case, had been adapted to the taste of the French Court. The French favoured luxurious objects and complex iconography, and would have appreciated the references to Classical mythology and ancient art. There is no need to look for more complex symbolism: the subject matter was fashionable, and would have been easily understood by educated viewers at the time.

Interestingly, during the Renaissance and Baroque, prints played a vital role in spreading artistic styles and individual motifs across Europe. They helped, in fact, to create something of a shared, international culture, in which the latest work in Rome might quickly become known in Paris or Antwerp. In this case, the Labours of Hercules candlestick copies prints by the German engraver, Heinrich Aldegrever. The Gods and Goddesses candlestick likely copies prints by Léonard Thiry, a Flemish artist who worked at Fontainebleau for the French Court. The processions of children mimic prints by “the Master of the Die,” an unknown artist who worked in Rome for Marcantonio Raimondi, Raphael’s chosen printmaker. So, a mix of models — some foreign, some local — and all available for use in a provincial French town.

 

Jean de Court, Two Candlesticks (detail), c. 1560–1580, enamel on copper, 25.4 x 19.1 cm each. NGC

Given that a number of de Court candlesticks with very similar decoration survive, the subject matter must have been popular. The pair belonging to the National Gallery first surfaced in 1862, when lent by Sir Anthony de Rothschild to the Victoria and Albert Museum for an exhibition. 

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, French enamels such as this were highly sought after. Avid collectors snapped up small luxury goods from the Middle Ages and Renaissance such as ivories, carved gemstones, jewellery, statuettes, illuminated manuscripts, and so forth — a taste that the Rothschilds famously shared. 

By 1930, this pair of candlesticks had found its way to a New York collection — suggesting that European taste for these types of objects had been adopted by leading American collectors. The National Gallery bought them in 1979. 

Pairs of very similar candlesticks by “IC” can be found in the Frick Collection, the Metropolitan Museum, and the British Museum, attesting to the enduring popularity of exquisite enamels. Unlike oil paint, enamelled metal keeps its colour without fading, prompting French poet Théophile Gautier to describe enamel in a sonnet as “like a flower in amber.” As a result, Jean de Court’s enamels still shine in the collections of museums around the world — as vibrant today as they were when they were created more than 400 years ago. 

The de Court candlesticks can be viewed in the Renaissance section of the European Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada.

Share this article: 

About the Author