"October 1982 - Visited Giacometti - ordered two trees - saw most marvelous lantern - would like one for Paris. " (1)
This handwritten note by Mrs. Rachel Lambert Mellon (1910-2014), known as Bunny Mellon, makes it possible to date this lantern to 1983, and together with the lantern created for Hubert de Givenchy, to the large commission Diego Giacometti was working on for the Picasso Museum in Paris.
The commission for the Picasso Museum came into place after the first contact between Diego Giacometti and Dominique Bozo, who had been designated as the curator responsible for planning out the museum. This took place as early as September 1981, but it was not until early 1982 that the artist accepted the commission for the decoration of the Hôtel Salé, the building chosen as the site of the new Picasso Museum in Paris.
In June of that year, the Picasso Museum’s request was formalized for the creation of a lantern and two chandeliers. By October, when Bunny Mellon visited his studio, Diego had finished the lantern, and in November the life-size plaster cast was placed for testing in the grand staircase of the Hôtel Salé, which at that time was still an open building site.
A first contract was signed on November 25, 1982 for the purchase by Mobilier National of the demi grandeur (half size) and grandeur nature (real size) maquettes of the lantern and the four- and eight-armed chandeliers.
On November 29, 1983, a second contract was signed for the creation of maquettes for the bench, chairs, torchères and low tables. So, in October 1982, Bunny Mellon and, we imagine, also Hubert de Givenchy were amongst the first to be able to admire the lantern. This was not surprising: by then, both had not only been among his best customers for years, but a relationship of warm friendship and absolute mutual esteem had been established.
Givenchy had first seen Diego Giacometti's work in Zurich at Gustav Zumsteg, an art collector and formidable entrepreneur in textiles, whose Abraham company supplied the best silks to such famous designers as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Givenchy himself, and above all, Yves Saint Laurent, with whom he was close friends. Gustav Zumsteg’s mother, Hulde Zumsteg, ran the Kronenhalle, Zurich's finest restaurant, whose rooms were adorned with paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Chagall, Hodler, and Giovanni Giacometti just to name a few, all from her son's collection.
In 1965, Gustav Zumsteg decided to add a bar to the restaurant and commissioned work from Diego, who designed the door handles, a candelabra for the bar, tables, and lamps. Givenchy was impressed by the quality of the work and asked Zumsteg if it was possible to meet Diego; Zumsteg made the introduction a short time later. This meeting marked the beginning of a 20-year friendship, and the auction held at Christie's in 2017 testified to the variety and very high quality of the objects created by Diego for Givenchy's residences at Le Loges en Josas and Château de Jonchet (2).
Bunny Mellon, at the time one of the richest women in the world, was a legendary American icon of style and elegance. She was an accomplished botanist, very good at topiary and garden design. She is credited with the design of the Rose Garden at the White House. She also participated in the restoration of the Potager du Roi at Versailles.
She was an art collector along with her husband Paul Mellon, and both enlightened philanthropists and great benefactors. Bunny Mellon assembled one of the most extensive collections of books on horticulture, botany, natural history and garden design preserved today in the library of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, Virginia, which she established in what was her principal residence.
Bunny Mellon was a loyal client of Cristobal Balenciaga and it was he who personally introduced her to Givenchy when he announced the final closure of his fashion house in 1968. From this date on, it was Givenchy who designed all her clothes. Over the years a solid friendship was established; there was a room reserved for Givenchy in Bunny Mellon's Antigua home and she also had one in the Château du Jonchet. Bunny designed the gardens of Givenchy's houses, first at Les Loges en Josas and then at the Château du Jonchet.
Bunny fell in love with Diego's work and soon began to commission works from him. Each visit to the atelier was accompanied by bouquets of flowers or small trees she expertly pruned, which Diego particularly appreciated.
In 1971, Hubert de Givenchy had asked Diego to create a bronze statue of Mill Reef, Paul Mellon’s thoroughbred, to be offered to the couple as a gift in case he won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe held on October 3 in Paris.
On October 11, Diego wrote this letter to Bunny Mellon to congratulate the victory:
"Chère Madame Mellon, Merci chère Madame pour Votre très gentille lettre, et pour les jolis bleuets que Votre chauffeur m'a apporté ce matin. Je regrette beaucoup que Vous n'ayez pu me joindre au téléphone, j'aurais aimé pouvoir Vous féliciter de vive voix pour la merveilleuse victoire de Mill-Reef.
Évidemment quand j'ai vu à la télé cette merveille qu'est Votre Mill-Reef j'étais un peu honteux de mon petit animal, mais fier quand même d'avoir pu, grâce à Monsieur de Givenchy, graver son Nom dans le bronze, et cette date qui restera pour Vous et pour Monsieur Mellon un très beau souvenir, et prendre ainsi un peu part à la joie de cette Victoire. Je suis toujours ici, et, j'espère beaucoup Vous voir, cette semaine peut-être, pour Vous montrer le lustre, et en attendant je Vous prie de croire, chère Madame, à ma respectueuse amitié. Diego Giacometti."(3)
"Dear Mrs. Mellon, Thank you for your very kind letter, and for the lovely blueberries your driver brought me this morning. I am very sorry that you could not reach me by phone; I would have liked to have been able to congratulate you in person for Mill-Reef’s wonderful victory. Obviously, when I saw this marvel, your Mill-Reef, on the TV, I was a little ashamed of my little animal, but proud all the same to have been able, thanks to Mr. de Givenchy, to engrave its name in bronze, and this date, which will remain for you and Mr. Mellon, a very beautiful memory, and thus to partake a little in the joy of this victory. I am always here, and I hope to see you, perhaps this week, to show you the chandelier, and in the meantime dear madam, please accept my respectful friendship. Diego Giacometti. "
The chandelier mentioned by Diego at the end of the letter is a unique piece that Bunny had requested for her home in Antigua. The form is highly articulated: on two horizontal bars, two female busts, adorned with long locks flowing in the wind, terminating in a hexagonal structure with six light holders of stylized five-petaled flowers and narrow vertical stems. In the center of the chandelier, three rods provide stability and balance and tie it to the central chain. Diego animated the composition by placing a dog, a small bowl and two male figures; one holding a stick with his arm raised.
As difficult as the scene is to interpret, I believe the most plausible hypothesis must be sought in the Odyssey when Odysseus, with his son Telemachus at his side, swears revenge against the Proci after being recognized by the faithful dog Argos.
Year after year, commissions followed one after another in abundance. Bunny Mellon ordered many low tables of different models, "au dragon," "aux harpies," "aux cerfs et aux chiens," "aux deux oiseaux," "a X," "aux feuilles," some in white painted bronze, two models of Console "arbre de la vie," a pair of firedogs, a door knocker and door handles.
In addition to the Mill Reef statue, an "Oiseau presse papier" and two "Tourterelles" are also likely gifts from Hubert de Givenchy.
The "Lanterne à quatre lumières" is probably one of the last works Diego created for Bunny Mellon as he then devoted himself totally to producing works for the Picasso Museum. The Museum represented, in fact, a great challenge because his creations had to harmonize with the monumental spaces of the ancient palace and simultaneously establish a dialogue with Picasso's works. Rightly, Dominique Bozo asserted that "these works constitute a new stage in Diego's artistic evolution [...] adding to his talent as a sculptor, that of a creator" and emphasizing his sense of architecture, volumes and space in designing these objects "épris de la géométrie dans l'air" (4) "geometry in the air".
Needing to operate on a larger scale and expand the measurements of his creations to fit the vastness of the salons, Diego drastically restricted the decorative elements to the plant theme only, eliminating all reference to his fairy-tale bestiary, present only with two owls on the lantern of the Museum’s staircase. At the ame time, the structure of the candlesticks was refined, becoming linear and geometric, giving a light and airy feeling to the space. Bunny Mellon’s "Lanterne à quatre lumières" and the lantern for Givenchy belong to this same formal theme of pure, essential and extremely elegant lines.
For Spencer House, Jacob Rothschild’s London home, Diego made an exception and authorized a second bronze casting of the lantern he created for the Hôtel Salé staircase; whereas for Bunny Mellon and Hubert de Givenchy he undertook to create two distinctly new lanterns. The Givenchy one being slightly smaller and without lights.
Both lanterns are masterpieces of absolute formal rigor. Diego’s work, achieved by subtraction, reduced the lanterns to their essential lines. By choosing plaster and adding small decorative leaves, referencing the plant world, these elements gave the lanterns their lightness and luminosity.
Bunny Mellon installed the lantern at the top of the staircase of her Parisian apartment at 84 Avenue Foch; she later gifted the lantern to a friend, when she moved her apartment to 15 Rue de l’Universite.
Diego completed all the work for the Picasso Museum, but unfortunately died of a heart attack on July 15, 1985, a few weeks before the official opening on September 23. He thus had no opportunity to witness his final acknowledgment as an artist. Indeed, the opening of the Picasso Museum established the unanimous recognition of his great artistic qualities.
The first retrospective of Diego Giacometti's work was inaugurated in February 1986 at the Musée des Arts décoratifs, organized by Daniel Marchesseau, who was also responsible for the monograph that accompanied the exhibition. Bunny Mellon and Hubert de Givenchy were among the lenders.
Givenchy gave Bunny Mellon a copy of the book with this dedication dated, Thursday, Feb. 20, 1986:
"Chère Bunny. Ce livre en souvenir d'un ami qui nous admirions et que nous aimions beaucoup et en souvenir aussi pour toute la joie qu'il a su nous donner par son immense talent. Hubert. " (5)
"Dear Bunny. This book is in memory of a friend whom we admired and loved very much and also in memory of all the joy he gave us through his immense talent. Hubert. "
By Casimiro Di Crescenzo
I am deeply grateful to Thomas Lloyd, Bunny Mellon’s grandson and President of the Gerard B. Lambert Foundation, for giving me access to Mrs. Mellon’s private archives (Oak Spring Garden Library).
I would like to thank Tony Willis, Head Librarian at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation and Nancy Collins, Assistant Librarian and Archivist at the Oak Spring Garden Library, for the great support I received in my research. Their precious work made this text possible.
Last but not least, my thanks go to Thomas L. Woltz, Landscape Architect, for his help at the first stages of my study.
1) Handwritten note from Mrs. Rachel L. Mellon, October 1982, Archives Mrs. Mellon, Personal
Papers, Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, VA.
2) Catalogue of the sale Les Giacometti d'Hubert de Givenchy, Christie's Paris, Auction 14610,
March 6, 2017.
3) Diego Giacometti's letter to Mrs. Mellon, dated [Paris], October 11th 1971, Archives Mrs. Mellon,
Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, VA.
4) Dominique Bozo, Diego Giacometti à l'Hôtel Salé, in Daniel Marchesseau, Diego Giacometti,
Paris, Hermann, 1986. Pp. 195-197. New edition, Paris Hermann 2005.
5) Dedication by Hubert de Givenchy to Mrs. Mellon dated February 20, 1986 written on the book
Diego Giacometti by Daniel Marchesseau, Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, VA.
Diego Giacometti (1902-1985)
Lanterne à quatre lumières, pièce unique, 1983
Metal and plaster
140 x 57,5 cm – 55 x 23 in
Mrs. Rachel L. Mellon, commissioned directly to the artist
Private Ccollection, offered as a gift by Mrs. Rachel L. Mellon
M. Gordon, Bunny Mellon, The Life of an American Style Legend, Grand Central Publishing, 2017
L.J. Holden, T. Lloyd and B. Huffman, Bunny Mellon Style, Kaysville, UT, Gibbs M. Smith Inc., 2021