Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), Low cabinet, Paris, c. 1775-1780

Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), Low cabinet, Paris, c. 1775-1780

Carcase of oak, sycamore and satinwood veneer, marquetry
89 x 114 x 53.5 cm
Bequest of Alexandrine Grandjean, Grandjean collection, 1923
Inv. GR 825
© Les Arts Décoratifs

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Jean-Henri Riesener, the son of a chair maker from Westphalia, learned his trade in the Parisian workshop of his compatriot, the cabinetmaker Jean-François Oeben whom he succeeded in 1763 and whose widow he later married. Riesener continued his activity in the same premises in the Paris Arsenal, away from the excessive regulations imposed by the guilds. He contributed to the creation of Louis XV’s famous roll-top writing desk, which Oeben had begun and which Riesener delivered in 1769; as a result, he was awarded royal commissions and became the natural successor to Gilles Joubert as “cabinetmaker to the king” in 1774. He was the principal supplier of royal furniture for the next ten years, delivering pieces of unrivaled luxury and refinement. When Thierry de Ville-d’Avray became director of the Garde-Meuble, Riesener was deemed too expensive and in 1786 he ceded his place to Guillaume Benneman. Marie Antoinette had her own furniture repository, however, and she continued to commission works from Riesener until the outbreak of the French Revolution. This low cabinet is typical of Riesener’s style. The three-part façade, which became usual in the Régence period, conceals the construction of the piece (doors in this case, drawers in the case of commodes) and is treated as an architectural element. The slightly protruding, trapezoidal central panel with curved sides is fitted onto a second panel (which it seems to partly cover) with a horizontal veneer of satinwood, framed with an amaranth molding; each of the sides is decorated with satinwood panels. The subtle effect of successive planes (whose total thickness is barely one centimeter) is accentuated by the trompe l’œil treatment of the central marquetry: a bouquet of flowers in a “lapis lazuli vase embellished with flowers of natural colors,” placed on a boldly designed base, stands out on a sycamore ground. This low cabinet was not a royal commission, but belongs to the type of furniture produced by Riesener for the Furniture Repository in the mid-1770s-1780s. Furniture pieces delivered during that period for members of the royal family – the Comtesse de Provence in 1776, Madame Élisabeth in 1778 – share features such as the frieze of interlacing on the apron, the bronze mounts on the canted corners adorned with acanthus (described by Riesener in his memoirs as “ornamental leaves”) and trailing foliage. The two large, ribbon-tied drops of naturalistic laurel leaves framing the central panel are more unusual in Riesener’s work, however. They appear on a commode recorded in the journal of the Furniture Repository in January 1775 and intended for the bedroom of the Marquise Randon de Pommery, wife of the supervisor of French royal furniture; they also foreshadow the even more ornate drops of varied flowers adorning the furniture made for Marie Antoinette’s private apartment at Versailles and delivered by Riesener in 1783 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

B. R. Christian Baulez, “La bibliothèque de Louis XVI à Versailles et son remeublement,” Revue du Louvre, no. 2, April 2000, pp. 59-76.

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