Of the many artists who depicted Napoleon’s military triumphs, only a French wallpaper-making firm worked on a canvas vast enough to portray comprehensively the battle of Austerlitz, which came to be regarded as one of the emperor’s greatest victories. The 6.5-foot-by-43-foot panoramic scenic includes more than 2,000 wood-block prints joined on 30 panels in a style known as papiers raboutés.
Created sometime during the span from 1827 through 1829 and thought to be the work of Jourdan and Villard (because wallpapers usually were not signed, ascertaining authorship is difficult), the colorful and intricately detailed scenic is part of the extraordinary collection for sale through Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz, a dealer who recovers and restores antique French wallpapers.
Once considered disposable art, handmade wallpapers–especially those produced in limited quantities during the 19th and early 20th centuries by such French firms as Jean-Baptiste Reveillon, Jacquemart, Dufour, Mader, and Zuber et Cie, as well as the Art Deco period work of Gaillard and Süe et Mare–have become highly collectible. “This is a lost art,” says Thibaut-Pomerantz, “and the scale and the detail go way beyond a beautiful Old Master painting. For the money you would spend for the rarest and finest wallpaper–anywhere from a few thousand to as much as $200,000 for a full scenic–you could never expect to own the best of a painting. So, in many ways, these papers are a better investment.”
While Thibaut-Pomerantz, who has offices in Paris and New York, acquires most of her papers at auction or from the walls of public buildings or the estates once occupied by the French nobility for whom they were produced, many of the finest examples of antique French wallpaper design still hang in plantation homes in the South. “When Thomas Jefferson was the ambassador to France, he was among the first to discover the papers, and he told his friends back home about them,” she explains.
Thibaut-Pomerantz frequently lends her expertise to preserving these and other wallpapers. “They are not as ephemeral and fragile as some might think,” she says, noting that water damage often can be repaired by a paper conservator. However, flaking and excess in-painting (paint fill-ins applied between panels and to damaged areas) are more difficult to mend. Nevertheless, after being removed from the walls, cleaned, and applied to a fresh linen or canvas backing, “some can go for another 200 years,” she says.
Thibaut-Pomerantz spent two years having her Battle of Austerlitz scenic restored, and now she is in negotiations to deliver the panoramic next year to one of two French military academies. The timing would be ideal: 2005 marks the battle’s bicentennial.