Every now and again when working with a Museum’s collection, you will come across an object that was acquired so long ago that little is known about its provenance. There are a few meagre clues to help uncover what you hope will turn out to be an enriching and surprising story, something that shows that this piece is special. And once and a while, the story exceeds your expectations.
This was the case with one piece being considered for A Fine Possession: jewellery and identity, a French gold pendant featuring a gouache miniature that depicted an intriguing scene.
All that was known about the mysterious pendant was the place of purchase: Elincourt-Sainte-Marguerite, a commune situated in northern France, and an approximate date of production: early 19th century. It was the finely detailed image framed in gilded filigree that would eventually reveal the significant event that inspired the pendant’s creation. A group of men and women dressed in late 18th century garb stand around a bonfire in the countryside, their heads raised up toward a great balloon in the sky. There are two important aspects of this miniature scene: the distinctly late 18th century attire of the crowd and the balloon that has captured their attention. These two clues considered along with the place of purchase, France, point to a significant moment in history – the flying of the world’s first hot-air balloon, the Montgolfier.
While hot-air ballooning really took off in the mid-19th century, the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with balloon aviation in the late 18th century. Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne are credited as the inventors of the ‘aérostatique’ balloon. In 1783 they attracted much attention for a series of three experiments documented by artists who captured the fascination of people viewing this momentous historical event. These artworks are notably similar to the gouache miniature in the pendant. You can view many of these artworks via the online archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.
Only one question remained concerning our scene shown on the pendant: which one of the three experiments of 1783 does it depict? (You can read a short outline of them here.) As the scenery looks like Annonay, we have concluded that it is the first experiment, where the first balloon took flight on June 4, 1783. I’ll leave you with a close-up of the pendant image If you’d like to see this beautiful neoclassical jewel and many other examples of jewellery from many periods and cultures, make your way to the Powerhouse Museum and see A Fine Possession: jewellery and identity.
Written by Dionysia McPherson, Curatorial Intern