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Commode (Secrétaire à abattant)

Jean Henri Riesener (French, Gladebeck, near Hessen 1734–1806 Paris)

Date:
1783
Culture:
French, Paris
Medium:
Oak veneered with ebony and 17th-century Japanese lacquer; interiors veneered with tulipwood, amaranth, holly, and ebonized holly; gilt-bronze mounts; marble top; velvet (not original)
Dimensions:
H. 36-3/4 x W. 56-1/2 x D. 23-1/2 in. (93.3 x 143.5 x 59.7 cm)
Classification:
Woodwork-Furniture
Credit Line:
Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920
Accession Number:
20.155.12
  • Description

    Jean-Henri Riesener created this splendid commode and its companion secretary (20.155.11) for Marie-Antoinette in 1783. They were commissioned for the queen’s Grand Cabinet Intérieur at Versailles, where she kept the collection of Japanese lacquer boxes she had inherited from her mother, Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780) of Austria. So that their surface decoration would harmonize with that of the boxes, choice fragments of seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer were reused as veneer for these pieces of royal furniture. The shiny black and gold lacquer and lustrous ebony form a striking background for the exceptionally beautiful gilt-bronze mounts. Consisting of swags and interlaced garlands of naturalistic flowers, these jewel-like mounts incorporate the queen’s initials in the frieze as well as handles shaped like rippling ribbons. Enclosed behind the fall front of the secretary, several secret drawers are hidden beneath the hinged floor of the central compartment. These small drawers, as well as a strongbox that could be locked separately, offered places to store valuables and protect personal correspondence from prying eyes. The queen undoubtedly used them, for she never believed any papers were safe at the court, according to the Austrian diplomat Florimond-Claude, comte de Mercy-Argenteau (1727–1794). He had reported to her mother many years earlier that the dauphine was fearful of duplicate keys and apprehensive that things would be taken from her pockets at night.

    The history of these famous pieces of furniture is remarkably well documented. Marie-Antoinette frequently changed the decor of her private rooms, and in 1787 she had the commode and secretary sent from Versailles to her new summer palace at Saint-Cloud. Both pieces left the royal collections when they were given in lieu of payment for his services during the Revolution to Abraham Alcan, a contractor of supplies for the army of the Rhine and Moselle. During the nineteenth century, the queen's secretary and commode were part of several notable British collections. George Watson Taylor (1770–1841) kept them at his country house, Erlestoke Park, in Wiltshire, and later they belonged to the dukes of Hamilton. At the famous Hamilton Palace sale of 1882 the royal pieces were acquired for Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt (1853–1933), one of the reigning society hostesses of New York City, for her mansion on Fifth Avenue. Her daughter Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (1877–1964) remembered Marie-Antoinette's lacquer secretaire and commode standing in the white drawing room, which was hung with a set of Boucher tapestries.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: In center of frieze, in bronze gilt: MA (monogram of Marie Antoinette); on back of commode, branded: crowned MA within legend GARDE MEUBLE DE LA REINE; under marble top, stenciled: inventory mark of the Château de Saint-Cloud

  • Provenance

    Marie Antoinette, Queen of France , Château de Saint-Cloud, Seine-et-Oise (ca. 1783, by 1789) ; [ sale held by Directeurs of the Directoire (Directorate) , 1798 ] ; Abraham Alcan , Paris ; William Beckford (until 1823; sale, Phillips, London, October 22, 1823) ; George Watson-Taylor , Erlestoke Park, Wiltshire (until 1832; sale, July 9–August 1, 1832, possibly lot 23); Dukes of Hamilton (1835/40–82) ; William Alexander Louis Stephen Douglas-Hamilton, 12th Duke of Hamilton (until 1882) ; [ Hamilton Palace sale, Christie, Manson and Woods , London, July 10,1882, no. 1297; sold to F. Davis ] ; F. Davis (from 1882) ; S. Wertheimer (from 1882, sale, Christie Manson and Woods, London, July 10, 1882, no. 1298); William K. Vanderbilt (until 1920; bequeathed to MMA)

  • See also
    Who
    What
    Where
    When
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
    MetPublications
194623

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