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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

French Furniture in the Eighteenth Century: Case Furniture

The ébénistes were responsible for veneered and marquetried case furniture such as tables, cabinets, and commodes or chests of drawers, one of the popular new types of furniture introduced during the eighteenth century. The first pair of commodes was made in 1708 by André Charles Boulle (1642–1732) for the bedchamber of Louis XIV at the Grand Trianon. This remarkable design, a combination of a table and a sarcophagus-shaped chest executed in marquetry of tortoiseshell and brass, a technique known as Boulle work, was repeated several times by the cabinetmaker (1982.60.82). Noteworthy are the sculptural gilt-bronze mounts, such as the winged sphinxes and the winged lion paws. These were designed and cast in the workshop of Boulle himself who, as royal cabinetmaker, was not bound by guild regulations. In general, only the members of the guild of bronze casters and chasers (fondeurs-ciseleurs) were allowed to make such mounts, which were subsequently chased (i.e., tooled or modeled) by them or members of the gilder’s guild (ciseleurs-doreurs), who would also be responsible for the mercury gilding. These rules were not always observed, and the cabinetmaker and sculptor Charles Cressent (1685–1768) found himself in trouble when it was discovered that the mounts were made on his premises. Among Cressent’s work is a group of commodes with distinctive and playful mounts such as a monkey on a swing (1982.60.56). The shape of this commode, with its serpentine outline, two drawers, and shaped apron resting on tall cabriole legs, became the standard form of the Rococo commode. Its carcase is completely covered with marquetry in a fine geometrical pattern known as parquetry. Other commodes displayed fine trelliswork motifs simulating depth, floral ornament, trophies, or figurative scenes in marquetry that could be derived from decorative prints. By carefully selecting contrasting woods, the natural color of which could be enhanced with different dyes, the patterns and compositions, now faded, were originally very bright and surprisingly naturalistic.

The commodes were generally made in pairs and could be supplied with corner cabinets, or encoignures (1983.185.1a,b). With the arrival of Neoclassicism, the commodes received a more rectilinear shape and were supported on short tapering legs. Their facade was often divided in three parts with a central projecting section, known as a breakfront commode. If the drawers were enclosed by doors, the piece would be called a commode à vantaux (1977.1.12). Additional drawers were placed in the frieze. The large writing table, or bureau plat, fitted with drawers would be serpentine with cabriole legs in the Rococo style, and rectangular resting on straight supports during the Neoclassical period (1973.315.1).

Instead of marquetry, panels of Chinese or Japanese lacquer could also be used as veneer. The eighteenth-century marchands-merciers (dealers), who played an important role as decorators, creators of new fashions, and middlemen between craftsmen and clients, would supply the cabinetmakers with such lacquer panels. These were often cut from old-fashioned chests or cabinets that had been imported from the Far East during the previous century. Certain marchands-merciers also ordered porcelain plaques from the Sèvres manufactory to be mounted on furniture.

A proliferation of small tables with specific functions occurred in the French interior from the 1730s onward. Among these new models were dressing tables, bedside tables, various work and game tables, guéridons, and so-called bonheurs-du-jour, or small desks. Bernard van Risenburgh (ca. 1696–ca. 1767), who stamped his work with the initials BVRB, made a number of small writing tables, each fitted with a drawer containing a leather- or velvet-covered writing surface and receptacles for ink, sand, and a sponge. Many of them had exquisite marquetry showing stylized flower sprigs of endcut kingwood against a lighter ground of bois satiné (bloodwood) or tulipwood (1984.471.1). Van Risenburgh was also one of the first cabinetmakers to use Sèvres for his porcelain plaque furniture. The production of small luxury pieces mounted with painted porcelain became the specialty of the cabinetmaker Martin Carlin (ca. 1730–1785), who worked almost exclusively for the marchand-mercier Simon Philippe Poirier (ca. 1720–1785). Poirier supplied him with the required gilt-bronze mounts and Sèvres plaques (58.75.48) specifically ordered for this purpose.

Mechanical Tables
Other tables combined multiple functions and could have elaborate mechanical devices that allowed, for instance, the top to slide back, as in a superb table of around 1761–63 by Jean François Oeben (1721–1763) (1982.60.61). A royal cabinetmaker with a workshop at the Gobelins, Oeben was known for his realistic floral marquetry as well as his mechanical fittings. With its undulating top and cabriole legs, the table—which was intended for Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV—has the curving outline of the Rococo style. Its main drawer is fitted with a writing surface that can be lifted to form a bookstand. The two side compartments were used for the storage of toiletries, while the smaller drawer below would have held the necessities for the popular pastime of letter writing.

Another mechanical table at the Museum, with the restrained rectilinear shape typical of the Neoclassical manner, could similarly function as a writing, reading, or dressing table (33.12). With the aid of a crank at the side, the top could be raised or lowered for use in a standing or seated position. This table, with its fine trelliswork pattern enclosing sunflowers, was the work of Jean Henri Riesener (1734–1806). One of the most gifted and successful cabinetmakers of the second half of the eighteenth century, Riesener was the favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette, for whom this table was made in 1778. She also commissioned a fall-front secretary (secrétaire en armoire) and its matching commode from Riesener that were veneered with panels of black and gold Japanese lacquer (20.155.11). Particularly beautiful are the exceptional gilt-bronze mounts that include many different kinds of flowers, ribbon-shaped handles, and the initials of Marie Antoinette.

It became more and more fashionable during the Neoclassical period to use veneer of plain mahogany, imported from Central America and the West Indies. A hard, close-grained wood, mahogany can be strikingly veined or mottled. Finely chiseled mounts in a variety of antique motifs such as Vitruvian scrolls, fretwork, interlaced bands and palmettes, columns and caryatids, or plaques with classical scenes were used as decoration for furniture with mahogany veneer.