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A Chair Shares Its Journey from a Royal Palace to the Met

Armchair (Fauteuil à la reine) for Louise-Élisabeth of Parma, ca. 1749. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Armchair (Fauteuil à la reine) for Louise-Élisabeth of Parma, ca. 1749. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Laurent Pécheux, Maria Luisa of Parma (1715–1819), Later Queen of Spain, 1765. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Laurent Pécheux, Maria Luisa of Parma (1715–1819), Later Queen of Spain, 1765. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sometimes I wish we had a support group. We would start by introducing ourselves. “Hi, I’m a fauteuil à la reine made for Louise-Élisabeth, Duchess of Parma.” The other chairs would immediately think I’m an asshole, particularly the older Windsor chairs.
Everyone would know that I still have my original upholstery and that I’ve made cameo appearances in a few minor paintings. There’s some cred in that, but also a lot of resentment.
I remember back in Paris when a master carver sculpted me into coils and tendrils, decoration so florid that even my smoothest surface arched into acrobatic movement: swinging, reaching, bounding, wrapping with wisteria determination.
Gold leaf coated each of these spiraling forms. The sheets of the precious metal, impossibly thin, floated onto my exposed wood like a soft rain, cool and tender. Silk velvet was then stretched across my curves, a fine, bespoke suit, taut and precise, with glistening ornament along its edges.
Armchair (Fauteuil à la reine) for Louise-Élisabeth of Parma, ca. 1749. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Armchair (Fauteuil à la reine) for Louise-Élisabeth of Parma, ca. 1749. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I can picture Louise-Élisabeth’s daughter, Isabella, age eight, on the first day I arrived from France at the Ducal Palace of Colorno in Parma. It was 1749, and she stroked my crimson velvet with such care, trying to appear grown up and sophisticated.
But I also remember when she curled herself within my arms and cried fat, messy tears, her knees tucked tightly beneath the panniers of her gown with its flowers and ribbons. I can still feel the heaving of her chest against my back as she shivered gently to the rhythm of her sobs. How I wish I could have swayed along with that pulsing sorrow to comfort her.
Only five years later, Isabella’s siblings, Ferdinand and Maria Luisa, would topple into me during audiences with their parents and pull at my gold trimmings, as clumsy and silly as any children, despite their finery.
One time at the Met, a small boy—not more than three years old—wandered past the barriers in the Wrightsman Galleries and headed straight for me. Almost two hundred and twenty-five years had passed, but he reminded me so much of those toddlers back in Parma.
Louis XIV and His Family, ca. 1710. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Louis XIV and His Family, ca. 1710. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Come on little guy! I thought from behind the gallery ropes. You can make it!
The boy’s plump hands extended forward, propelled by his thick, tumbling waddle, his shoes clomping on the gallery floor. I felt like I was hanging from a cliff waiting for him to grip my arm and save me. Then a breeze of moist heat floated past as his mother grabbed him at the very last second—just before he reached me.
That was 1978. I still dream about it. I imagine the boy climbing up onto my seat. His pleasant folds and warm, springy pudge nestled between my arms. A small puddle of drool soaking into my velvet, the life of it racing through to my frame.
I would share those dreams in the meetings.
Of course, I remember the lonely attics and warehouses, too. Rooms of swollen heat and shrinking cold. Dark, hollow, airless. A desolate purgatory, despite the stacked and crowded landscape, a bulging mountain range of the stored and forgotten.
In the brittle stillness, dust showered down upon me with a fragile constancy, like some gray and final mist, ashen drifts accumulating on my every surface. For decades, I ached for the feel of footsteps rattling through the floorboards, quivering up my legs, delivering some—any—faint agitation of life. And oh, to be the chosen one when that door finally swung open, the chooser blackened against the blaze of ripe and glorious light!
Portrait of Louise Élisabeth of France, (1727–59), Duchess of Parma, 1965. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Louise Élisabeth of France, (1727–59), Duchess of Parma, 1965. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Storage would definitely come up in the meetings, too.
Eventually I landed back in Paris at Maison Leys, the city’s foremost interior decorating firm at the turn of the century. There, in 1906, the legendary connoisseur Georges Hoentschel sold me to the American giant J.P. Morgan, along with two thousand other pieces of furniture. Morgan gave the whole lot of us to the Met, where I will always live in great splendor.
But Parma was my home. I will never forget the light and shadow of those glorious rooms of my youth. Some days I trace every detail in my mind, the way prisoners do to survive captivity. I feel Louise-Élisabeth’s body collapsing onto me, tired and alone: the fearless daughter of a king, frustrated by her timid spouse and hindering lack of beauty. I can still smell the sour odor of her flaccid husband as he picked at my gilding.
Little Maria Luisa eventually became Queen of Spain after she was engaged to her cousin Charles at age eleven. Short and not as pretty as her older sister, her feet swung lazily from my edge as she listened to her mother explain the arrangements of the loveless marriage. As rebellion or consolation, a parade of lovers would later sink into my velvet during Maria Luisa’s reign.
Maria Luisa kept me with her until she died in Rome in 1819. I held her through the fear and tragedy of twenty-four pregnancies over twenty-eight years. Only six babies survived.
I wouldn’t talk about those memories in the meetings.
Christine Coulson

Excerpted from Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson, to be published by Other Press on October 8th, 2019.