In the early 1800s, an artist or a group of artists created at least four volumes of watercolor catalogues depicting personal goods that were for sale in Paris. Two of the volumes, labeled numbers one and four on their spines, are now in the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera in the Winterthur Library. They contain approximately 1,500 drawings.
Until recently, the dates of the catalogues were open to conjecture. Some people believed they originated from around 1830, following the style of a commode that is depicted in volume one, while others judged them earlier, a Napoleonic-era creation. Evidence suggests they were made circa 1806 to 1813. During those years, Paris city directories included the name of the stationer, LeBeuf, whose trade labels are pasted inside the front covers of the volumes and who bound the books; a jotting in a margin of volume four recorded the delivery of a certain walking stick in 1813; the volume’s paper and watercolor paint are consistent with the 1806–13 time period; drawings for both the Republican and Gregorian calendars are shown (the changeover was in 1806); and a reference to royalty on one of the stationer’s labels was snipped out, which would have been in step with Napoleonic-era sympathies.
As Frank H. Sommer, then head of libraries at Winterthur, wrote in 1964 when Winterthur acquired the catalogues, “The two volumes constitute a pictorial encyclopedia of middle-class decorative arts of the Napoleonic period and as works of art, they display the great skills of their maker or makers.”
The catalogues may have been carried by peddlers in and around Paris to advertise what they had for sale, but more likely they were used by a consortium of merchants who had banded together on the very short rue Bourg L’Abbé, a Paris street where stationer LeBeuf ran his business, to ply their wares. On that street, just about every product illustrated in the watercolor volumes was sold. Located in the sixth arrondissement—or section—of Paris, rue Bourg L’Abbé was at the center of Parisian craftsmanship. A 19th-century observer wrote, “it is here that Paris goods are manufactured—fancy turnery, buttons, brushes, canes, umbrellas, jewelry, plated work, lace, and a hundred thousand marvels of ingenuity known and sought after in every part of the world.”
Although 19th-century watercolor catalogues are few and far between, at least three others exist. One is at the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris. Originally from 1811 or so and published in facsimile in 1993 as Objets d’Usage & de Goût, it contains drawings of many of the same products as the Winterthur catalogues. The other two are at Colonial Williamsburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
If there were originally four volumes, and if Winterthur has two of them, where are the others, numbers two and three? If anyone sees them—green alum-tawed covers together with morocco spine labels—please let me know.
Post by E. Richard McKinstry, Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian