FRANCIA DOLLS

Dominique Pennegues

 

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Francia dolls were created on the initiative of Marie-Christine Bronno Bronska and Antony Joly, at the begining of World War One, to help disabled soldiers and their families, the name of the Co. being "La Poupée Artistique Française".
 Marie Christine, Countess of Bronno-Bronska, was born in Paris in 1851 of a Polish noble family. She married Emile Seligman Baron Von Eichthal in 1872, in Bordeaux, from who she had a son, Guy Robert.

It seems that after the death of her husband in 1900, Marie-Christine, Baroness  d’Eichthal, has chosen to leave the family castle of Saint Selve for settling in Paris.


 After World War One started In 1914, the castle of Saint Selve served as hospital for wounded soldiers and Marie-Christine d’Eichtal followed the lead of her compatriot Stefania Lazarska in the doll making for the profit of war victims. The dolls were sold under “Francia” label.

 

These dolls, unknown to current collectors, have the sad fate of belonging to that "orphan" group of dolls anonymously sold, or presented at various exhibitions with a single-approximate dating.


 Few articles published during the first war talk about their existence, but give not much informations. One of them, "The Renaissance of French doll", written by Jeanne Douin for the Gazette des Beaux Arts 1916 (1), is often choosen by modern authors . In her article, Jeanne Douin evokes war dolls innovative outfits, and cautions, among others, Marie Christine d’Eichtal’s "Francia" dolls for their elegant clothing of good taste, such as a  Britton blouse with lace.

 Further on, Jeanne Douin evokes Aristide Botta’s model of doll for Francia which has been exposed at Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs in 1916 with no success. She is complaining dolls have been for too long given a body formed with an absolute disregard for the truth, such as ridiculous narrow chest and disproportionate body. Then, after more complaints, Jeanne Douin note Baudelaire’s comment : “Toys are the first introduction of a child to art ”.so its duty is to be of good quality. However, says Jeanne Douin, “ it is not so, and  Mr Botta’s model of doll is neglected, because it contravenes the habit. Reason hateful, but has its strength, alas! The work itself is excellent, simple and pure, it can be put in the hands innocent. Moreover, what is the artist? He made the wonder of the body of a little girl five years: shoulder pocket, protruding belly, bust perfectly level on small farms kidneys - typical mixture of strength and gracefulness, this tender age " .
However, one point must be made: the model that is shown to us in the picture is obviously the Albert Marque doll’s body sold in December 1915, 6 months before the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in May 1916, and on which no disparaging comment seems to have been issued by the press of the time.
 We do not know what happened to this project, having found no Francia doll with this kind of body. Thus, the existence of Francia dolls are known by collectors due to the transient appearance of a model that would not have been used for Francia dolls, or even more, this model could have been missunderstoodly attributed to a "project for Francia dolls" while it was only for Albert Marque dolls.. Curious fate.


 Even more curious : when looking closely at some of the rare examples encountered, we find they are almost replicas of the creations of German artist Kathe Kruse, while during WW1, virulent remarks were made by  French "experts" on the ugliness of German toys. These include Leo Claretie in his article of May 13, 1916 for “Le Monde Illustraté” : welcoming the new French creations, the author, says that those "take us back on the path of art and beauty that articles Made in Germany had taken us apart ".


 The Francia dolls we studied are of two types:

-          papier-mache shoulder head dolls with stuffed cloth body

-          Stokinette molded and painted mask with stuffed cloth body


 Dating-Francia papier mache shoulder head dolls  is difficult because we have not found at this time any documentation that could allow us to accurately locate the beginning of the production of this type of dolls. It seems that Marie-Christine d' Eichtal, with the help of Misses Ambruster and Brauer, has started her dolls production at the beginning of the first war, in the same time as other “femme du monde” (society women), with which she had in common willingness to help disabled soldiers and their families. That makes around 1915.


The oldest Francia dolls we have been able to study are a peasants couple, whith an artistic hand painted papier-mache shoulder head on a cloth stuffed body. These two rare specimens are not really toys but reither ornaments.

The style of the painting is already characteristic of all dolls produced by Francia.

 

From about the same period, we have study a hand painted papier-mache shoulder head doll representing a young girl with brown human hair wig.

This interesting and rare doll has a stuffed body with unusual composition hands. The painted features are graceful, with the mouth slightly opened on a smile, and we can easily conclude this time that this beautiful doll was very probably made to be played with.

Another early Francia doll has a shoulder head on a stuffed cloth body with stuffed cloth hands. She, too,has a human hair wig.

Those early dolls show no marking to identify them.


 In February 1916, Marie-Christine d'Eichtal patented her trademark "Francia". We usually find the first trademark stamped on one of dolls feet, simply mentioning "Francia".

 

In July of the same year, Marie-Christine d'Eichtal filed another patent for an unbreakable and washable head. This includes several diagrams showing the contours of woven fabric forming the head of the doll.

Cloth dolls produced before this patent had a painted stokinette molded mask, and a stuffed head, covered by a natural hair wig.

The later dolls most often have painted skull, sometimes covered by a wig for the most luxurious. A new stamp on their feet mentions "Francia Paris" and "Trademark, Patented SGDG."

 

The mold used for Francia dolls heads is actually a molding from one of Italian artist Donatello’s sculpture. Leo Claretie wrote about this information in his article "The Toys of Pays de France" published in 1918. The idea was not new since Kathe Kruse herself had used the same molding for her first dolls.


 Two types of body are observed on these dolls. The first is a simplified copy of the German Kathe Kruse dolls, the second is an almost perfect copy, with minor exceptions.

So, once again, the so called "Renaissance of French doll" comes paradoxically abroad of Poland with Stefania Lazarska’s “Ateliers Artistiques Polonais” dolls, as well as Italy and Germany for Francia dolls.

 

Two names appear to have been given to Francia babies : Yves (boy) and Cita (girl). These names were used from time to time by the medias, but we do not find them on documents and/or publications issued by the manufacturer itself, which leads us to be cautious about their use.


 The U.S. "Playthings" magazine published in June 1918 a two-page advertising for toys made by disabled veterans, showing photos of six Francia dolls, but it was not until 1921 that we find one of these dolls, dressed in ethnic costume, on the Spring issue of Printemps store catalog, and this is their only one appearance.

The production seems to have stopped the same year, or possibly even before, because this  Francia doll shown on the 1921 catalog is not available for sale but figures on the photo of a girl and her doll.


The magic of the talent of the artists who hand painted these sweet colorful faces provokes  an emotion rarely felt when looking at dolls having been made in larger numbers by ordinary workers.

 

This rare quality invites us to classify Francia dolls in the “Artist's dolls” category.


 Marie-Christine Bronnot Bronska, Baroness d’Eichthal, died at Sevres in 1929, a few years after having stopped the production of her line of dolls which very few copies remain in France.

To-day, the majority of these rare dolls are found in the States, where they were exported during the first war, and carefully preserved since then.


 (1) Reprinted for the first time in its entirety in 1986 by Mr François Theimer in Polichinel magazine.

 

Documentation

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