This exquisite mahogany bureau plat, with its distinctive overhanging top resting on unusual scroll mounts, spirally-turned legs and demi-lune discs, is an early example of a piece of furniture in the so-called goût grec style, the early phase of French neo-classicism. Additionally, the rare use of novel and exotic solid mahogany suggests this piece was executed circa 1770 for a knowledgeable amateur with a discerning eye for the most avant-garde designs as well as novel exotic materials.
THE EARLIEST GOÛT GREC FURNITURE
Around 1754-1756, the first experimental items of furniture in this style were conceived and produced, notably the great bureau plat made for Ange-Laurent Lalive de Jully, probably by Joseph Baumhauer (died 1772) and Philippe Caffiéri (1714-1774) to the designs of Louis-Joseph Le Lorrain (1714-1759), which is now at the Musée Condé at Chantilly (S. Eriksen, Early neo-classicism in France, London 1974, figs. 85-89). This extremely monumental piece (and some related pieces of furniture as well), is veneered in ebony and richly mounted in gilt bronze, turning it into a showpiece of the new style with the presence of a manifesto; its monumental size and the materials used also hark back to the Grand Siècle, the age of Louis XIV that was an inspiration to many of the early neo-classical artists and critics.
Within a few years, this bold manner had gained wide popularity, and in 1763 Baron de Grimm was writing in Paris: tout se fait aujourd'hui à la grecque (ibid, p. 264). In the field of furniture, too, the style had spread outside the sphere of a rarefied group of avant-garde patrons and collectors. One of the earliest recorded examples of goût grec furniture produced in lighter woods and on a less alarming scale, concerns the purchase in the years 1763-1765 by George William, 6th Earl of Coventry, of a number of items from the famous marchand-mercier Simon-Philippe Poirier. In 1763 Coventry acquired the celebrated commode by Roger Vandercruse, called Lacroix (sold, Christie's, New York, 2 November 2000, lot 264); in 1765 this was followed by un Bureau à la grec fitted with deux tablettes qui se tirent sur les côtés, which has been likened to a desk by René Dubois (ibid, fig. 100).
GOÛT GREC WRITING TABLES BY RENÉ DUBOIS
René Dubois was the son of the well-known ébéniste Jacques Dubois (1694-1763) at whose death he took over the workshop, continuing to use his father's stamp. He had already become a maître-ébéniste in 1755 and obviously worked with his father from then on, presumably introducing a more up-to-date manner in the workshop. Indeed, the inventory taken at the death of Jacques Dubois already lists une table de bois d'amarante à la grecque, probably similar the one supplied by Lacroix to Lord Coventry, demonstrating that the Dubois workshop produced writing-tables in the latest fashion (A. Pradère, op. cit., p. 300). These small-scale, elegant writing-tables are highly successful essays in transmitting the new idiom to a less forbidding domain. In the turned, gilt-bronze legs, reminiscent of the work of André-Charles Boulle, these even retain an echo of the age of Louis XIV. The present bureau has elongated spirally turned legs as well as distinctive demi-lune discs, which also relate to Boulle’s oeuvre, and appear on some of his most sumptuous cabinets between drawers such as the celebrated Grimod de la Reyniere cabinet now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (A. Pradère, op. cit., p. 300).
The present bureau boldly translates the new idiom in with an audacious and unusual design incorporating motifs rarely seen in the oeuvre of Dubois or his contemporaries. The distinctive overhanging top was used twice on pieces stamped by Dubois: a pair of ebony and ormolu console tables formerly in the Stroganoff collection and subsequently with Galerie Segoura, and the celebrated green-painted bureau, part of an ensemble with a cartonnier and inkwell, reputedly from the collections of Empress Catherine the Great and now in the Wallace Collection. The Stroganoff tables feature a variant of the scroll motif supporting the top which features on the present bureau; the green-painted bureau has, besides the overhanging top, spirally fluted legs and distinctive leaf cup sabots which also feature on the present bureau (A. Pradère, op. cit., pp. 301-302). In this instance, Dubois employs exotic mahogany as a precious background for his jewel-like mounts, demonstrating his diversity and ability to use a wide range of costly materials for his ambitious a la grecque designs.