Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild recalls a Sotheby’s wine auction in which a 1977 magnum of Château Mouton Rothschild was sold for an astronomical price. While it wasn’t a good year, the buyer longed for that particular year to complement his vertical collection.
When it comes to Bordeaux First Growth Mouton collectors want them all, even poor vintages appreciated because they feature a small work of art on the wine label. “It’s a bit irrational, something you can’t explain, which is more related to feelings,” notes de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, a sixth-generation family member and co-owner of Château Mouton Rothschild.
For nearly a century, the estate has put art on its labels, since 1924, when these labels helped Mouton’s young 22-year-old owner at the time, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, change the way Bordeaux made wine. At the time, most of the castles of Bordeaux shipped the new wine in barrels after the harvest to the merchants’ warehouses in the city. The merchants matured the wine for two years, then bottled it and sold it all over the world.
Winemaking was a joint effort and quality control was shared between the castle and the merchant. When paper labels became the norm around 1860, the shopkeepers (wine merchants) designed and applied them, with the name of the merchant often appearing as evident as that of the estate.
A bold decision engaging artist Jean Carlù
Baron Philippe de Rothschild rejected the system and made the bold decision to have his wine left from his castle in its bottles with its labels. But these weren’t the small, ordinary text-only labels of the time. To show how different it was, he commissioned a distinctive label to Jean Carlùavant-garde French graphic designer specializing in posters and known for introducing Cubism to advertising.
Carlu became the first ever artist to place a commercial artwork on a wine label. “My grandfather’s initial connection with art was the bottling of the château,” says de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, who is now responsible for producing the label. “At the time it was revolutionary to bottle the entire harvest at the castle with the owner present. He really wanted to change this place to do something different. He felt, before anyone else in his family, that there was something to inaugurate and improve in the world of wine. His motivation for him was the fact that Mouton was classified as Second Growth, and the art was a way of saying he was different because he was the only one doing it at the time. “
Carlu’s unconventional cubist-inspired composition in bold red, black, and gold depicted a ram’s head (Mouton’s emblem or the baron’s Aries horoscope sign) along with five arrows symbolizing the five mighty established dynasties by the five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who puncture a chai. The phrase “ce vin a été mis en bouteille au château” (French for “this wine was bottled at the château”) also played a prominent role.
The four Bordeaux First Growths – Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Margaux – followed the baron’s lead and bottled the entire crop. And gradually the rest of Bordeaux’s top producers did the same. The customer was now guaranteed that each bottle was an authentic product of his castle.
Ahead of his time, Baron Philippe de Rothschild scandalized the highly traditional wine market which fiercely criticized the artist’s label and subsequently Château Mouton Rothschild abandoned it after three vintages. “This beginning was so new in Bordeaux that it was very conventional in its habits and labels at the time that it was not at all well received,” admits Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild.
“My grandfather had to change because there was a strong protest against the artist’s label, so he didn’t continue.” However, undeterred, he waited two decades for the idea to resurrect in 1945 to celebrate the end of World War II. Young illustrator and author Philippe Jullian conceived a “V” for “Victory” for the label, which was a smash hit that made Mouton famous again. It was a time when fine artists rarely took part in commercial art, so the label’s earliest artists were friends of Baron Philippe such as Jean Cocteau or Jean Hugo. It was very casual, just for fun, and some designs were even done on the napkins at the dinner table.
The international artist George Braque arrives
That all changed when Baron Philippe got an unexpected phone call from Giorgio Braque, who wanted to know more about artists’ labels. They did not know each other, but Braque eventually became the first artist of international stature to participate. His design for the 1955 label was an ink and watercolor of a glass of wine next to a bunch of grapes.
That label changed the rules of the game, as other artists sat down and noticed. Suddenly, famous artists began appearing on Mouton labels such as Salvador Dalí in 1958, Henry Moore in 1964, César in 1967, Joan Miró in 1969 and, perhaps best known of all, Pablo Picasso in 1973, the year in which Philippe has finally achieved his lifelong goal of elevating Mouton to the status of First Growth.
“My grandfather was the label,” reveals Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild. “It was very important to him that under the artwork, Mouton didn’t forget his roots, this incredible terroir that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The art had a purpose; it wasn’t just art for art. There was art, but also Mouton “.
On the 1970 label, Marc Chagall depicted the live fruit of the vine being eaten by a thrush and fed to its chick. For the 1975 vintage, Andy Warhol imagined two extravagant portraits of Baron Philippe turned sideways, while for the prestigious 2000 vintage, instead of commissioning an artist, Mouton Rothschild deviated from tradition. The entire bottle has become a collector’s item with a design of the Augsburg Ram, a 16th century chiseled gilt silver drinking vessel by German goldsmith Jakob Schenauer, enameled in gold on the glass.
More recent names have included Bernar Venet, Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, Lee Ufan, Jeff Koons, William Kentridge, and even Prince Charles. “The artist must be like Mouton: an extremely well-known artist who doesn’t need Mouton to promote his art,” explains Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild. “It is important that we like the artist, what the artist creates and the artist’s career.”
Château Mouton Rothschild: wine for art
A compendium of the greatest artists of their time offering an intimate glimpse into the life of a respected family and the changing times they lived in, the artist’s label collection has become a body of work important enough to be exhibited in museums around. the world. “During a trip to the company in the United States, my mother Philippine was invited to an elegant mansion where she saw the framed Mouton labels hanging in the hall,” recalls Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild. “She was really surprised at why they framed the labels as they are not the original artwork. There was a sudden change in her mind and she thought there might be something to do with the originals, that’s why she started looking for the designs. “
In 1981, Philippine, daughter of Baron Philippe, decided that the original artworks donated to Mouton by the artists and their corresponding labels should go on a traveling exhibition rather than be hidden, so the labels have been seen internationally in over 40 museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
After touring the world, they found a permanent home in Mouton in 2013, displayed in display cases in the Hall of Paintings for the labels, along with information about the artists, artifacts, photos and correspondence. After several months of renovations that began in September 2021 to redesign the space for these works, led by the Mazières architecture firm, by appointment only Paintings for labels recently reopened exhibition with new scenographies by the French designer Hubert Le Gall and showcases restored by the artisan Véronique Debord.
The artist who created the most recent label – Olafur Eliasson for the 2019 vintage – has a place of honor in the room. Juliende Beaumarchais de Rothschild had been fascinated by her art for years and a visit to Eliasson’s exhibition at the Palace of Versailles in 2016 finally convinced him to commission the artist. The result is Mouton’s solar iris, which is divided into two halves: the gold-colored upper part represents the day, while the lower midnight blue part represents the night. In the center is a mirrored oculus in homage to Château Mouton Rothschild, surrounded by a ring of ellipses that traces the path of the sun in relation to the position of the estate, surmounted by eight elongated figures known as analemmas showing the declination of the sun recorded by the castle at the same time every day of the year.
Eliasson says: “Mouton’s solar iris is a map of all the sunsets and sunrises that take place in one year at Château Mouton Rothschild. Representing every hour of light and night that accompany grape cultivation, it is a sort of signature for the vineyard, telling us something about the conditions in which the wine is grown and the intimate relationship between the wine and its location. Tasting wine binds us to the local environment, the soil, the climate, the seasons and the particular lighting of the place “.
Today Mouton Rothschild is co-owned and managed by the three children of Baroness Philippine: Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, Camille Sereys de Rothschild and Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild. Having studied art history, worked for the Artemis Fine Arts gallery and founded Salamander Fine Arts, Julien may be tasked with commissioning the artist’s annual label, but it’s clear that the final choice comes from collegial decision-making.
The relationship between the artists and the owners of the estate has always been an accomplice, made up of friendship and mutual respect. Although artists have complete freedom to express themselves on labels, Château Mouton Rothschild has the final say and can reject or alter works of art. Instead of monetary compensation, artists are provided with several cases of the vintage for which they contributed a label, as well as cases from another vintage.
As for the name of the label’s next artist for the 2020 vintage, it remains a closely guarded family secret. We just have to enjoy a glass of Château Mouton Rothschild while we wait.
For more information please visit www.chateau-mouton-rothschild.com.
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