9947 A MAGNIFICENT ROCOCO POLYCHROME AND GILTWOOD TRAÎNEAU IN THE FORM OF A REARING DRAGON, RETAINING ITS ORIGINAL DECORATION Possibly Dutch. 1750.   Measurements: Height: 48″ (121.9 cm ) Width: 82″ (208.3 cm) Depth: 40″ (101.6 cm)


Of gilded and painted oak. Formed as a rearing dragon, the rear section incorporating a single seat, which opens to reveal a compartment, and footwell, and carved with a complex system of rococo ornament to the reverse. The whole retaining most of its original gilding and carving. The pair of runners, fitted with original decorative ironwork, is connected to the main body of the ‘dragon’ by means of the foliate carved uprights and iron s-form suspensions. The runners are spanned to the rear by the original sheet-iron-clad driver’s standing board, which, in turn, incorporates the original steering mechanism. Original untouched condition, minor restorations.

By repute, the Polish Royal family.
Collection of Rose Cumming, New York.

This traîneau is an outstanding example of the type of object created as a means of winter sporting for the pleasure of the European royalty and aristocracy in the 17th and 18th century. Far from having a purely utilitarian purpose, these fabulous vehicles were used throughout Europe in parades and races. “Parade sleighs came into fashion in the Renaissance and remained in vogue until the French Revolution.”1 No expense was spared in the construction of sleighs, which were executed by leading court artists and sculptors, and no detail was overlooked, as even the upholstery and blankets were lavishly decorated and the horses were outfitted with silver, feathers, and jewels.2 All parts were most tastefully coordinated, ‘a huge cost and effort is expended when the horses, harnesses, and sleighs and all other necessary aspects are presented in the most elaborate and magnificent manner, one element corresponding to the other and all forming a perfect whole…”3

Traîneaux were in use at the French court—Marie Antoinette commissioned several for her sleighing parties—and they were driven on the grounds, and even on the frozen Grand Canal of Versailles. They were also popular amongst the nobility in Austria, Germany, Russia, Poland and Holland. Many of them took the form of fantastic creatures such as  hippocampi, and chimeras, while others were “… decorated with all kinds of wild animals such as bears, tigers, lions, stags or birds, such as herons, pelicans, swans, eagles and ostriches, either stuffed or carved.”4

Figure 1 shows a drawing, circa 1729, of a winter masquerade parade of sleighs in the duchy of Württemberg, while another cavalcade of revelers is depicted in a painting by Claude Deruet, a baroque painter from Nancy, France, entitled “L’Eau” (1640) (figure 2) about which Jean de La Fontaine said in 1663: “One sees here fireworks, racing rings, carousel, entertainment, sleds and other similar niceties. If you ask me what all this means, I would say that I do not know anything of it.”5

Julius von Rohr pointed out in his Ceremoniel Wissenschaft des Grossen Herrn of 1733 that these grand processions played an important part in court ceremonial and were designed as elaborate displays for the populace to emphasize the ruler’s superiority, “for wonder instills fear and respect which are the basis for submission and obedience.”6

For this reason the displays were tightly structured and organized. Participation was restricted to only the highest ranks and the position within the train of different nobles was carefully arranged. The processions, often themed, resembled triumphal trains in honor of the rulers and were accompanied by drums and trumpets and other instruments and “for best effect the sleigh processions were staged preferably at night illuminated by torches.”7 These would be carried by the townsfolk and the viewers thereby became part of the spectacle.

A further interesting aspect of 18th century “traîneau culture” was that it enhanced the woman’s role in court ceremony. As was the case with the present piece, the occupant of the sleigh would be female “the real center of the event was the lady…in which she displays in the most magnificent attire her wealth and beauty…the head covered with diamonds…she appears as a Venus in her vehicle, and is conscious of the admiration of thousands of people.”8 Her cavalier, not a groom or footman, would drive the sleigh and games would be organized in which the pair would compete in displays of speed and agility.

Great 18th century ornamental traîneaux are extremely rare, and those that remain are held mostly within a handful of prestigious national collections in Europe. A number of 18th and 19th century sleighs of Dutch, German and French origin are now preserved in the Musée des Carrosses of Versailles and the Musée National de la Voiture et du Tourisme in Compiègne.  A sled, in the collection of the latter museum is particularly related to the present piece in that it also takes the form of a dragon, with similar gaping mouth and treatment of the fur, and the upward incline of the head (figure 3).  A sleigh in the form of a dragon in the Musée des Beaux-Arts Montréal, circa 1720-50, shares further traits with the present example. Both have the feature of the dragons’ paws joining the tops of the curved runners at the front of the sleighs (figure 4).

There also exists a collection of traîneaux in the The Cinquantenaire Museum of the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, which share similar stylistic features, including the foliate carved uprights and iron s-form suspensions at the base of the runners, as well as the repeating nodules which decorate the front of the runners.

In the case of the present traîneau, it is of a quality of design, detail, and execution that is almost unmatched by other extant examples. As such, it may be viewed beyond its function as a supreme example of a three-dimensional rococo sculpture. The rococo is one of the few decorative movements in the history of the applied arts that can be considered truly original, owing no stylistic debt to that which had gone before. The style is loosely, and, at times, specifically, based on natural structures such as rock and shell forms, although many other motifs from nature also inspired its vocabulary. It rates as perhaps the most complex and challenging medium for the carver to practice. Another curious aspect indicative of this traineau’s extraordinary caliber is the prominent red tongue of the dragon, which is hinged deep within the the dragon’s throat and would have moved rapidly when the sleigh was in motion.

The dragon is common to both European and Eastern cultures. In China, dragons are associated with imperial majesty; Chinese emperors were known as the “true dragon,” and their imperial robes were embroidered with images of the mythical beasts. Dragons also have an archaic tradition as being associated with precipitation and rivers, an appropriate connotation for a carriage that can only function on snow or ice. The dragon led by a lady by a collar and leash is part of ducal iconography and personifies the Power of Virtue, which is able to bridle even the most frightful monsters symbolizing Passion.

As a decorative device during the early rococo, the dragon is found on some of the most important and extravagant examples of decorative work in France, where the rococo is thought to have been born. French carver Nicolas Pineau, working in both St. Petersburg and Paris, used the dragon’s serpentine asymmetry to great effect on boiseries and tables such as a console circa 1730 in the Collections of the Crown at Versailles, while magnificent commodes attributed to the ‘Pagoda Master’ employ dragons as a device for the gilt-bronze corner mounts, such as that from the collection of Joanne Toor Cumings, sold at Christie’s New York 21 May 1996, Lot 238. A further example of a dragon of overt French rococo design is found in a drawing for a “Winged Griffin on a Rocaille Bracket,” by Alexis Peyrotte (1699-1769).

While it is not certain for whom it was made, the present traîneau has an interesting and, as yet, unverified note in the archive of a former owner which states that it belonged to the Polish royal family, in particular, Marie Leszczyńska, wife of King Louis XV of France. It is said to have been made in Nancy, the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine, which was ruled by Maria’s father, Stanislas Leszczyńska, the last Duke of Lorraine.

It is known that traîneaux of very high quality and ambitious design were also created in Holland. A sleigh depicting Diana and her hounds, from Amsterdam circa 1760, now in the Rijtuigmuseum, Leek, is one such superior example. It has marked similarities to the present piece, most notably, the rear s-form iron braces and upward swelling shape of the carriage section, as well as the foliate carved supports (figure 5). Another highly developed center for rococo carving in Holland was den Haag. “The famous sculptor A. [Agostino] Carlini,”9 in the employ of architect Pieter de Swart, carried out numerous commissions for the Dutch Court between 1748 and 1754. Some of his works from that time include a set of torchères with dragon motifs among naturalistic foliage, which today are in the Dutch Royal Collections and the J Paul Getty Museum and the ‘bed of parade’ in which William IV of Orange lay in state. Interestingly, Carlini is also known to have carved a wooden horse sleigh.10

Thepresent traîneau was once owned by the renowned New York City interior designer and collector, Rose Cumming. Figure 6 shows the sleigh in situ in the home of Miss Cumming’s sister, Eileen, and her husband Dr. Russell Cecil, for whom Rose decorated every apartment.

1.Fischer, Fritz, Ed. Dem Volk zur Schau: Prunkschlitten des Barok. München: Württembergisches Landesmuseum Stuttgart und Hirmer Verlag GmbH, 2002. p 13
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. Fischer, 13.
5. “Claude Deruet”, L’art en Lorraine au temps de Jacques Callot, Jean-Claude Boyer, éd. Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1992, p. 347.
6. Ibid., 15.
7. Ibid., 17.
8. Ibid., 23.
9. “Details of Sculptor: Carlini, Agostino.” A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851. The Henry Moore Foundation, n.d. Web. 2009.
10. Droth, Martina, and Penelope Curtis. Taking Shape: Finding Sculpture in the Decorative Arts. Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2009. 80.

Post to
Comments are closed.