Madame du Barry appears to have had an insatiable taste for furniture embellished with porcelain plaques. Between 1768 and 1774 she acquired ten such pieces from Simon-Philippe Poirier. On December 30, 1773, the dealer sold his frequent client a secretary with French porcelain on a green ground lavishly decorated with giltbronze mounts, a description that matches the Museum’s piece. Furthermore, the Sèvres plaques attached to the front and sides are marked with the letter U for the year 1773, making that an even more plausible date for this secretary, which is stamped by Martin Carlin.
Madame du Barry does not appear to have kept this desk for her personal use. Herself the recipient of magnificent gifts, the king’s favorite seems to have been generous to others. She may have offered this particular piece as a wedding gift to Marie-Thérèse of Savoy (1756 – 1805), who married the comte d’Artois, the future Charles X of France, in November 1773. Among the belongings of the comtesse d’Artois seized by the Revolutionary government at Versailles in 1795 was a similar secretary. Although the dimensions of the countess’s piece match those of the Museum’s secretary, the ground color of the Sèvres plaques is not mentioned in the list of confiscated furniture. For that reason it may never be possible to establish a royal provenance for the Museum’s example, especially since at least one nearly identical secretary is extant.
The two oval compositions on the front showing baskets spilling over with lovely garden flowers are the work of Jacques-François Micaud, one of the floral painters at Sèvres known to have decorated differently shaped plaques for furniture. The large number of high-quality giltbronze mounts lends this piece a sumptuous air. Access to the interior of the secretary appears to be given by a pair of doors, but it is actually fitted with a fall front that lowers to form a writing surface, also revealing the multiple drawers and pigeonholes inside. This type of desk is called secrétaire à abattant (drop-front secretary) or secrétaire en cabinet (secretary on an open support or stand ).
That the interior of a closed secretary could awaken the curiosity of visitors is illustrated by an amusing passage in one of the letters of Marie-Anne de Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du Deffand (1697 – 1780), to Horace Walpole. On June 3, 1766, she regaled him with the story of two friends of Madame de Beuvron who had seen a pretty desk in the boudoir of their hostess. Desiring to know what it was like inside, the ladies used their own keys to try to open the piece but one of them broke in the lock. They begged a valet whom they suspected of having witnessed their action not to betray them and promised to fetch a locksmith to repair the lock. The servant gave them no encouragement, stating coldly that it would have been better not to touch something that belonged to his mistress. (footnote 1)
1. Walpole 1937 – 83, vol. 3 (1939 ), p. 62.
Signature: Stamped on underside of left apron: M CARLIN with joined initials of the cabinetmaker's jury: J[urés] E[bénistes] (guild mark)
Marking: Painted on reverse of all plaques in blue enamel: crossed L's enclosing u (Sèvres factory mark and date letter for 1773)
Painted on reverse of all plaques with basket: Bn (decorator's mark for Bulidon)
Painted on reverse of all plaques with bouquets: Maltese cross (decorator's mark attributed to Mlle. Xhrouuet)
Painted on reverse of remaining plaques: underlined Omega (decorator's mark of Noël)
Possibly Comtesse du Barry ; Sir Charles Mills, Baronet ; The Lords Hillingdon ; The Samuel H. Kress Foundation (until 1958; to MMA)
Artist: Coffer attributed to Martin Carlin (French, near Freiburg im Breisgau ca. 1730–1785 Paris)Date: ca. 1775Medium: Oak veneered with tulipwood, sycamore, holly, and ebonized holly; thirteen soft-paste porcelain plaques; gilt-bronze mounts; velvet (not original)Accession: 58.75.42On view in:Gallery 529
Artist: Martin Carlin (French, near Freiburg im Breisgau ca. 1730–1785 Paris)Date: ca. 1775–80Medium: Oak veneered with tulipwood and amaranth, holly, and ebonized holly; gilt bronze, soft-paste porcelain, marble, mirror glass, silkAccession: 58.75.51On view in:Not on view
Artist: Coffer attributed to Martin Carlin (French, near Freiburg im Breisgau ca. 1730–1785 Paris)Date: ca. 1770Medium: Oak veneered with tulipwood, amaranth, stained sycamore, holly, and ebonized holly; thirteen soft-paste porcelain plaques; gilt-bronze mounts; velvet (not original)Accession: 58.75.41On view in:Gallery 529
Artist: Martin Carlin (French, near Freiburg im Breisgau ca. 1730–1785 Paris)Date: ca. 1780Medium: Oak veneered with tulipwood, gilt bronze, soft-paste porcelain, marbleAccession: 58.75.56On view in:Gallery 546