Abraham Constantin – Portrait of an Artist

Abraham Constantin – Portrait of an Artist

Typical for the 18th century, our dear patriarch François Constantin was one of a large family.  Of seven brothers and sisters, only four survived to adulthood.  The watchmaking lineage would carry on through François’ brother Jean-Nicolas and his wife Eugénie, who begat Jean- François, who begat Marc-Eugene, who begat Charles Constantin; the last of the family directly involved with the Manufacture.

François’ older brother was a remarkable man and more famous during his lifetime.  Abraham Constantin was born December 1st, 1785; three years before François.  Family records note that from the age of five he demonstrated sensitivity for painting.  During his early career he was indeed part of the vast watchmaking network in Geneva as a decorator of watch dials, where the wonder of painting with enamels was introduced.  When he left for Paris in 1807, it was to study the art of painting on porcelain with the famous factory of Sèvres and this is where he made his mark.

Abraham Constantin – Portrait of an Artist Raphael's Madonna by Ab. Constantin

To comprehend the importance of Abraham’s work, one needs to understand the world before photography.  An appreciation of oil paintings and the Old Masters led to concerns for their permanence.  Painting and frescos did tend to deteriorate but porcelains seemed to be impervious to the passage of time.  Thus a school of skilled copyists developed; creating replicas of the Master’s works on plaques and ornamental vases of unsurpassed quality and enduring beauty for public and private collections alike.

These artists were also part scientist; required to know the effect of mixing and heating powders to produce an exact color likeness of the subject paintings.  The process was very expensive but, as protection of artistic treasures was considered to be in the national interest, the artists were respected and supported by public authorities.

An impressive indication of Abraham’s skill is reflected in his appointment as Peintre sur porcelaine du Roi (Porcelain painter to the King) in 1826 and his first commission; a copy of Raphael’s Madonna for the Empress Josephine.  He became a specialist in Raphael and was an acknowledged master in 1832 when he was commissioned to make copies of all Raphael’s major works in the Vatican.  Imagine; the Transfiguration took Abraham an entire year to complete.

Abraham Constantin – Portrait of an Artist Porcelain portrait by Ab. Constantin on exhibit in the Palace of Naples

While in Rome, Abraham collaborated with his dear friend, roommate and writer Henri-Marie Beyle, better known by his penname Stendhal, to create a guide book for lovers of paintings titled Italian Ideas, published in 1840.  As a side-note, his friend's memory would endure in the diagnosis of Stendhal Syndrome: a psychosomatic illness which causes swooning in the presence of beautiful art (no kidding, look it up).

Sadly, the rise of photography in the mid-19th century made enamel copyists unnecessary and their skills were soon relegated to a status of “less than art”.  Abraham Constantin was not to experience this ignominy; he passed away in Geneva on the 10th of March, 1855, still honored as an Artist.

Abraham Constantin – Portrait of an Artist The Poetry by Ab. Constantin

Appreciation for enamel painting has never entirely disappeared and can still be enjoyed in watchmaking.  Witness the recent auction sale of the Lacemaker from 1951; which we were privileged to view here in The Hour Lounge.  This wonderful tradition has found renewed life in Vacheron Constantin with the Metires d'Art creations and their sponsorship of independent artisans.
Fascinating story Dean! I wonder if he painted anything for VC
10/06/2012 - 10:38
Not sure Alex
10/07/2012 - 19:21
Glad you share my interest in the full spectrum of Vacheron Constantin history - so intertwined with Genevan history.  I can only imagine how being right in the middle of it must be wonderfully inspiring.  Its certainly possible during his days in Geneva, before leaving for Paris, that he did piece-work for V&C.  Early in his career he decorated snuff boxes and made miniature enamel portraits, but there is no reference to him returning to horlogerie.  FWIW, he apprenticed under Gabriel Constant-Vaucher, who painted a portrait of Abraham Constantin that apparently hangs somewhere within the universitaire de Genève.
Update: Abraham Constantin - Portrait of an Artist
06/03/2014 - 16:35

Happened to stumble upon a partial answer in the Annales de la Maison d'Horlogerie Vacheron & Constantin, with a letter from Francois Constantin dated 16 September, 1828; Brother Abraham has had the kindness to send us some pretty ornamental designs.  Using these we are going to make bracelets, which seems to us to be in better taste.

Franco Cologni, in the book Secrets of Vacheron Constantin repeats and expands upon the historical narrative of the Annales by crediting Abraham Constantin with a key role in introducing the name Vacheron & Constantin to European royalty.  This portrait from "Secrets" is from the VC Archives, showing Abraham on the left next to brother Francois.

 Fascinating story Dean! I wonder if he painted anything for VC


thanks Dean :-)
06/03/2014 - 16:49
An interesting piece of research...
10/06/2012 - 14:57
Dean, Thank you for another enlightening article plus the beautiful visuals. Fascinating indeed! Appreciated. Tony
THL is developing quite a library...
10/08/2012 - 19:16
This dependence upon the Internet to store our collective knowledge is new territory for me Tony, perhaps shared with others of my generation.  With Alex's in-depth features plus those added by others, the call for research literature on V&C is being answered.  I just can't fully supress my wish to have it also in a book format.  The fear, based on previous experience, is that one day the plug will be pulled on a web-based source and "poof" all this valuable data is gone.
I share your concern...
10/09/2012 - 13:39
...and echo your sentiments, Dean. The fear you have expressed is justified. The need to keep pushing for a book format is a very serious and important consideration. Electronic gathering of information has helped us all so much, however, it's storage and wellbeing must carry a health warning. Thank you again for your wonderful contributions. Regards Tony
Great post, Dean
10/07/2012 - 21:16
And an interesting piece of history for us.  Who knew that there was such a position as Peintre sur porcelaine du Roi?  Thank you, Robert
Robert, its like
10/08/2012 - 19:20
the announcement on biscuit tins; By Appointment to Her Majesty etc.  It seems marketing and royalty have gone hand-in-hand for some time wink
10/08/2012 - 19:31
Thanks Dean
10/09/2012 - 23:10
very interesting article... Having seen the artists at VC work on enamel dials, I am quite impressed by A.C.'s achievements - even if he did those on a larger surface than a watch dial... Cheers,  Francois
Re: Abraham Constantin – Portrait of an Artist
04/20/2014 - 21:10
Due to the recent interest in books, I thought to share that I finally managed to find a nice copy of the book: A. Constantin, Peintre sur émail et sur porcelaine.  Written by Danielle Plan under the auspices of the Société des Arts, and published in 1930 by Kundig in Geneva in a numbered run of 550 copies. Among several references to V&C, the text reprints a portion of a letter from Jacques-Barthelemy Vacheron to François Constantin, then in Turin, recounting an exhibition recently given by Abraham in Geneva (translated from French): Geneva, 12 February 1826. "... Included in the newspaper in question, you will read these lines with great pleasure, it would be difficult to add something more flattering to your brother. Some people have criticized the pose of the Magdalene, but your brother to whom I spoke said she was taken from nature and in this respect, it has no ulterior motive . The Société des Arts gave him, on the Tuesday preceding his departure, a beautiful meal in La Balance , which was presided by former trustee Mr. Rigaud. The guests numbered 52, your father and your brothers having been invited . The health of Abraham was the only one that was toasted and complimented in the most graceful manner. He was seated at the upper end, between Mr. Rigaud and papa Vaniere.  Mr. Hentsch and M. Favre-Bertrand each made ​​him promise one of his masterpieces, leaving the subject to his choice." Unfortuantely, I am unable to find an image of Constantin's Magdalene to share.  If someone can assist, it would be greatly appreciated smiley.
Congratulations with your new (old) book.
04/20/2014 - 21:43
One of the best thing in life is when one have success in getting the hands on an item one has looked for for a long time cheeky. I'm looking forward to read a write up on what the book might reveal of new information for you.   Warm regards, Kent.  
Kent, where are you?
05/23/2014 - 01:51

Here is a portrait of the man himself; Abraham Constantin

Kent, where are you?