The Vintages of the Baroness
By Clifton Thuma
Her father had always said “Wine is Art”. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild would live on both sides of that equation. She was known as the only child of the famed owner of a great wine estate. She became an actress and lived in the spectacle of the theater for the first half of her life. Then she began to learn the business of making and promoting wine. It was on that stage that she played her greatest role before an international audience. She became the face and personality not only of her estate, Château Mouton-Rothschild, but all of Bordeaux while being the patroness of a generation of artists.
The spotlight on that stage went dark this August when the Baroness Philippine died quite suddenly following a medical procedure. We pause to remember this talented doyenne of art and wine – at home as much in museums as salons and a remarkable presence everywhere.
A youthful beauty, she became an actress, rising to the acclaimed Comedie Francais. At midlife, her father, Baron Phillipe, called her to work with him in his famous Bordeaux vineyards. To this project she brought the eye and skill of an artist and the grace and talent of a proper chatelaine. These attributes served her well as she was the future heiress of one of the world’s most famous wine estates – Château Mouton-Rothschild.
Her father began in 1945 to ask an artist to create a piece for the most recent vintage’s label. A short list would include Braque in 1955, Dali ’58, Miro ’69, Chagall ’70, and Warhol in ’75. Most famously, however, is the year the château was proclaimed of the highest provenance, a “First Growth” (there are only four others). The year was 1973. The artist was Pablo Picasso.As an actress and artist, Philippine was drawn to the series of art-labels. These paintings began to be shown about the world in 1981 and she wrote a catalogue text to complement the show. She has accompanied them to over 40 museums worldwide over the past three decades. In 2009, the pieces were displayed in Miami Beach’s Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University. The label collection, as it grew by one artist each year, she said was… “an exhibition to which a new work is added each year, bringing together from one label to the next the most famous, and very different, contemporary artists.”
It fell to the Baroness Philippine, upon the death of her father, to take over the management of the family’s several châteaux and wine companies. Nothing more symbolized this transition than Philippine’s
signature on her father’s last vintage of 1987 – his 65th. One of the tasks that was hers alone now was to select an artist to create the next year’s label. She was always engaging and interested in the new talent and her commissions were always good. In 1996, she selected the calligraphic artist who survived the Cultural Revolution in China, Gu Gan. 2004‘s was a watercolour by none other than HRH Prince Charles to mark the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain in 1904. She selected Anish Kapoor born in Mumbai now living in Britain for the 2009 vintage and France’s Guy de Rougemont for the 2011 label.
To mark her accomplishments, she was made an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2007. Her most enduring accomplishment has been to renew the château’s wine facilities. Philippine’s father had built a beautiful cave to house the barrels of the new wine in the 1920s. Philippine has matched that by building a new wine press and ‘vat room’ as well as a new museum and gallery. Here are displayed her father’s collection of wine artifacts as well as his (and now her) commissioned artwork for the château’s labels.
The museum of wine has met with universal acclaim and the ‘Art for the Labels’ gallery is equally admired. This, her last great project for the château, opened in 2013 after three years of work. Elegant, clean, enhancing not competing with the painters’ works, she has again written a catalogue for the label collection – this time in stone.
Now her sons, Phillipe Sereys de Rothschild and Julien Beaumarchais, will oversee the artistry of Mouton, the sixth generation of Rothschilds to steward the château for their families if not, as did their mother, forthe world.
Madame Philippine de Rothschild died at age 80. She was buried September 1, 2014, next to her father at Château Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux.