North Wall of the Metamorphoses wallpaper. Produced by the Arthur & Robert factory, Paris, after 1789.
North Wall of the Metamorphoses wallpaper. Produced by the Arthur & Robert factory, Paris, after 1789. Swiss National Museum

A Parisian treasure in the Bernese Jura

A magnificent 15-metre length of wallpaper now on display in the Museum came originally from an unremarkable farmhouse in what is now the Bernese Jura. The owner was probably able to afford the exquisite wall decoration thanks to the contraband business.

Helen Bieri Thomson

Helen Bieri Thomson

Helen Bieri Thomson is an art historian and managing director of the Château de Prangins.

Picture the pastures of the Jura mountains, dry-stone walls, pine trees and a cool breeze… Amid this landscape, in La Cibourg on the road from Saint-Imier to La Chaux-de-Fonds, there is a farm called “La Bise noire”. To catch the sun, the building’s white façade faces south, presenting a vision of graceful symmetry with pilasters as windbreaks and an arched, panelled pergola. In actual fact it’s not a farmhouse, but a country manor house. In any case, the people of the region evidently knew that behind these thick walls there was a hidden treasure, because they called the property the “Château”.
“La Bise noire” farm in La Cibourg in the Bernese Jura.
“La Bise noire” farm in La Cibourg in the Bernese Jura. Jacques Bélat, 2013
This unassuming building was home to a sumptuous wall decoration that one would expect to find in a grand palace rather than a house in the countryside: a 15-metre length of wallpaper dating from the late 18th century. The wallpaper comes from one of the best Paris factories and depicts, over three walls, selected scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Iphigenia is led to the sacrificial altar, Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree, Eurydice is bitten by a snake and Orpheus charms the animals. The charm of this wall decoration lies, firstly, in the beautifully balanced visual composition, alternating between arches and pilasters and, secondly, in the nuanced grey hues of the picture panels, which contrast with the radiant blaze of colour of the flowers. The entire work was printed using wood plates, one per colour – in the case of the flower patterns, that’s 16 different colours! How did such a magnificent piece of wallpaper end up in the depths of the Jura?
West Wall of the Metamorphosis wallpaper. Produced by the Arthur & Robert factory, Paris, after 1789.
West Wall of the Metamorphosis wallpaper. Produced by the Arthur & Robert factory, Paris, after 1789. Swiss National Museum
Charles-François Robert, heir and owner of “La Bise noire”, provides the solution to the puzzle. In 1795 he married Eléonore Humbert-Droz. The marriage was the ideal opportunity to redecorate the building’s interior and put up the wallpaper. But who was this Charles-François Robert? He was born in Renan on 22 July 1769, the son of Samuel Robert, a wine merchant from the Montagnes neuchâteloises region and a member of the parishes of Saint-Imier, Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds, and a citizen of Valangin. Charles-François followed in his father’s footsteps.
Charles-François Robert with his wife, Eléonore, née Humbert-Droz, painted by Joseph Reinhard, around 1797.
Portrait of Charles-François Robert and his wife, Eléonore, née Humbert-Droz, painted by Joseph Reinhart, around 1797. With the blue, white and red cockade emblazoned on his bicorne hat, Robert is expressing his support for the French Revolution. Swiss National Museum
How expensive was wallpaper from Paris? And how was a wine merchant from the Bernese Jura able to afford a wall decoration like this? The price is handwritten in ink on the back of one of the bezels: 15 pounds. This sum is equivalent to around five to seven days’ work for a paperhanger at the renowned Réveillon wallpaper factory in Paris. Based on extrapolations and comparison with other wallpapers for which prices are known, the total cost for this particular section of wallpaper, from purchase to installation, is around 2,000 pounds. This is equivalent to an average of five years’ salary for a worker in the Fabrique-Neuve, an indienne factory in Neuchâtel. It is thus clearly a high-quality luxury item, with a price comparable to that of the furnishings produced by Parisian manufacturer Arthur & Robert for the French royal family’s Tuileries Palace in the early 1790s. So it seems that Charles-François Robert’s financial means far exceeded those of a simple wine merchant. But was he really a simple “wine merchant”?
Jean-Charles Develly, View of a wallpaper factory. Painting on porcelain (Service des Arts Industriels), 1828. Manufacture et musée national, Sèvres.
Jean-Charles Develly, View of a wallpaper factory. Painting on porcelain (Service des Arts Industriels), 1828. Manufacture et musée national, Sèvres. © RMN-Grand Palais (Sèvres – Manufacture et musée nationaux). Photo: Martine Beck-Coppola
The 15 pound price tag noted on the back of a bezel.
The 15 pound price tag noted on the back of a bezel. Swiss National Museum
In the 18th century the borders of the Principality of Neuchâtel, in particular its borders with France and the Diocese of Basel, were the setting for a range of smuggling rackets: grain, fabrics, salt, tobacco, watches, alcohol, etc. It was a problem that caused great concern for the authorities, as evidenced by a number of judgments issued by the Council of State, among them a report on the wheelings and dealings of a swindler who illegally transported foodstuffs from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Besançon. In addition, French wine was very popular in the Montagnes neuchâteloises region and in the Val-de-Travers. Red wines from the Franche-Comté of Burgundy were highly sought after because of their favourable prices compared to the wines produced “down below” in Neuchâtel’s Littoral region. In order to protect the interests of the Neuchâtel producers, the State Council pursued a very protectionist policy and, as far as possible, closed the borders to foreign wines. The ongoing issue only stepped up the tensions between the authorities and the population of the Neuchâtel mountains.
Report of 18 February 1785, on the fraudulent schemes of a rogue who engaged in smuggling food items.
Report of 18 February 1785, on the fraudulent schemes of a rogue who engaged in smuggling food items. Archives de l'État de Neuchâtel
Against this background, it seems plausible that Charles-François Robert was involved in smuggling wines, liqueurs or other goods – especially since the trafficking was literally taking place on his doorstep. “La Bise noire” farm is located on the road between Saint-Imier and La Chaux-de-Fonds, which crossed the border between the Diocese of Basel and the Neuchâtel region. This road was one of the smuggling routes. The question remains as to where Charles-François Robert acquired the wallpaper. He was well acquainted with Besançon through spending time in the city on business, as evidenced by a transit permit from a private archive. Besançon is around 100 kilometres from La Cibourg and has had trade connections with Neuchâtel for centuries, particularly in the watch- and clock-making sector. It was there that Robert could have purchased the wall decoration of the Metamorphoses, as several wallpaper merchants had thriving businesses in this town of the Franche-Comté of Burgundy. The decision to embellish his salon with a lavish, high-priced wallpaper was probably part of his personal image cultivation strategy: Charles-François Robert wanted to display his wealth for a select group (family, friends, clients), but preferred not to parade it in front of the public at large. Who would have suspected that the thick walls of his farmhouse concealed this breath-taking wall decoration?

Ovid in the Jura. The Extraordinary Story of a Wallpape

18.02.2022 30.10.2022 / Château de Prangins
How did a decor fit for the Tuileries Palace find its way into a farm in the Bernese Jura? The exhibition at Château de Prangins explores a luxurious parlour decorated with wallpaper from the late 18th century – a masterpiece from the Swiss National Museum that is being shown in public for the first time – and tells the fascinating story of its colourful owner. This is a tale of wine, wallpaper, countryside and contraband!

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