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.
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.
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.
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.