The compotier (a generally long-stemmed dish or bowl for serving dessert or uncooked fruit) has been reworked in exceptional ways by Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960), Juan Gris (1887-1927), Marcel Mültzer (1866-1937), and Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933).
Like many French words, compote and compotier were absorbed into the English language. The posthumous publication of Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie (c.1626-1688) in 1690 had been picked up by John Evelyn (1620-1706) who then published his translation of it in 1693, which gives the meaning of compote as “Fruit stew’d in Sugar, after a manner peculiar to the French.” Using the word compote to mean a compotier is an Americanism. In 1926 The Tribune (Chicago) on June 11th noted that “Compotes . . . These may also be used as mayonnaise or bonbon dishes.” The word compote was not yet used in this way back in 1776 America, as the April 20th edition of The Pennsylvania Ledger noted that a certain “Joseph Stansbury . . . is selling off . . . his baking dishes, compotiers, pudding dishes [etc.].” The French word compotier was still relatively new then, an early usage of it being compoptier from 1733, as noted on page 475 of the 1903 Bulletin du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques : Section d’histoire et de philologie.
What kind of a new compotier would take shape in the reader-viewer’s mind when he/she tries to fuse Reverdy’s poem “Compotier” with Gris’s drawing “Compotier”? After moving to Paris in 1906, Juan Gris soon began to create artwork that experimented with Cubism. In Gris’s circle of acquaintances the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979) was encouraging artists and poets to create collaborative works, and so Pierre Reverdy and Gris started planning a book together. Their project was interrupted by World War I and then by Gris’s death in 1927. It was only many years later in 1955 that Reverdy published a scaled-back version of their original plans: Au soleil du plafond. In this book Gris’s drawing of a fruit bowl (and more) is paired with a poem by Reverdy about a fruit bowl (and more).
The poem “Compotier” by Pierre Reverdy:
Une main, vers les fruits dressés, s’avance et timidement, comme une abeille, les survole. Le cercle où se glissent les doigts est tendu dessous comme un piège —puis reprennent leur vol, laissant au fond du plat une cicatrice vermeille. Une goutte de sang, de miel au bout des ongles. Entre la lumière et les dents, la trame du désir tisse la coupe aux lèvres.
(Translation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website: A hand reaches toward the arrangement of fruit and, like a bee, hovers over it. The circle where the fingers glide is drawn tight as a trap— then they resume their flight, leaving at the bottom of the dish a bright red scar. A drop of blood, of honey, on the fingertips. Between light and teeth, the web of desire weaves the bowlful of lips.)
In the early twentieth century a compotier made of Favrile glass was created by artisans working for Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). There were many sources from which Tiffany drew inspiration for inventing Favrile glass (patented in 1894), one of which was the work by Emile Gallé (1846-1904) that he saw at the 1889 Exposition Universelle (Paris).
There has also been a character called “Le compotier” for an unspecified show dating from the late 19th-early 20th century. In Marcel Mültzer’s sketch different parts of the compotier hat are echoed in the character’s raised arms, the garland, the upside-down “bowl”-bottom of the tunic, and even his legs and feet (as the compotier’s stem and base, respectively). Mültzer designed costumes for operas and operettas, and he often collaborated with Charles Bétout (1869-1948) who did this same line of work for the Comédie-Française and the Folies-Bergère.
At the root of compote and compotier is the Latin verb compōnĕre, meaning “to put together,” which opens us up to wonder, “What else can be put together —in cuisine, the fine arts, the sciences, and a host of other areas —that would result in something that works well?”
References & Suggested Reading
Braun, Emily, and Rebecca Rabinow, eds. Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.
Caws, Mary Ann. La main de Pierre Reverdy. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1979.
Costume Designs for French Opera, Theater and Music-Halls, circa 1890-1940 (MS Thr 1137). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Evelyn, John. The compleat gard’ner: or, Directions for cultivating and right ordering of fruit-gardens and kitchen-gardens; with divers reflections on several parts of husbandry. In six books / By the famous Monsr. de La Quintinye … To which is added his Treatise of orange-trees, with the raising of melons, omitted in the French editions. Made English by John Evelyn … illustrated with copper plates. London: printed for Matthew Gillyflower, at the Spread Eagle in Westminster-Hall, [etc.], 1693.
France. Comité des travaux historiques, scientifiques. Section d’histoire, and de philologie. Bulletin du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques: Section d’histoire et de philologie. Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1903.
Gee, Malcolm. Dealers, Critics, and Collectors of Modern Painting: Aspects of the Parisian Art Market Between 1910 and 1930. Diss. Courtauld Institute of Art (University of London), 1977.
Kahnweiler, Daniel-Henri, and Juan Gris. Juan Gris, sa vie, son œuvre, ses écrits. Paris: Gallimard, 1946.
La Quintinie, Jean de. Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers. Paris: Claude Barbin, 1690.
“Louis Comfort Tiffany.” The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, 2016. https://www.morsemuseum.org/louis-comfort-tiffany
Reverdy, Pierre and Juan Gris. Au soleil du plafond. Paris: Tériade, 1955.
Sokol, David M. “Tiffany, Louis Comfort.” Encyclopedia of Interior Design, edited by Joanna Banham. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997. 1291-93.
Trente-sept maquettes de costumes pour des spectacles non identifiés : trente-sept maquettes de costumes par Marcel Mültzer (1866-1937), Jules Muelle (18.. – 19.. ), Charles Bianchini (1860-1905), Paul Eugène Mesplès (1849-1924). Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Bibliothèque-musée de l’opéra. https://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb438177154