Jean Franois Oeben, maître in 1760. Ébéniste-mécanicien du Roi
This mechanical table is undoubtedly the work of Jean-Franois Oeben (1721-1763), the leading Parisian ébéniste circa 1760. It has all the hallmarks of his style: impeccable cabinet-making, a supremely elegant shape, a sophisticated mechanism and superb, realistic floral marquetry combined with geometric patterns.
Born in Heinsberg, a small city north of Aix-la-Chapelle, Oeben came to Paris probably in the mid-1740s. By the early 1750s he had caught the attention of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's influential mistress who was to be his most important patron. On several occasions in 1752, the famous marchand-mercier Lazare Duvaux sold her frames for engravings made by Oeben; some of them were described as being en bois d'amaranthe incrusté á fleurs, indicating that already at this early stage he specialized in floral marquetry (Louis Courajod ed., Livre-Journal de Lazare Duvaux, Paris 1873, vol. II, no. 124, 24 August 1752). His is the only name of an ébéniste to appear in Duvaux' livre-journal, solely in connection with deliveries to Madame de Pompadour. No doubt due to her influence, in 1754 he was appointed ébéniste du Roi and accorded lodgings in the Gobelins, a Royal establishment where he was immune to the rules of the guild; in 1756 he moved to the Arsenal where he enjoyed the same privileges.
Oeben acquired a reputation for furniture with ingenious mechanisms such as those on the present bureau. In 1760 he executed for the young and ailing Duc de Bourgogne, the King's eldest grandson, a kind of wheelchair with all kind of devices (Stratmann, op. cit., p. 24) which may have earned him the honorary title ébéniste-mécanicien du Roi. Oeben appears to have perfected these devices by the mid 1750s. A portrait by Franois Guérin shows Madame de Pompadour with her daughter Alexandrine who died in 1753, seated next to a table fitted in this manner; examples corresponding to that represented in the painting are at the Louvre and the J. Paul Getty Museum (Stratmann, op. cit., ill. pp. 18, 34, 37, 92, 93, 94, 96 and 97). The present table, with its beautifully restrained shape, is typical of the work of Oeben's last years.
Another indication that this table was made during the final flowering of the rococo period, when the neo-classical style was already enjoying a certain vogue, is the preponderance of geometric marquetry. Only the top has a central shaped panel of floral marquetry. Oeben composed his panels from separate flowers which he assembled into the finished composition; the inventory made up after his death in 1763 lists a small strongbox filled with individual flowers ready to be employed in this way (Jules Guiffrey, 'L'inventaire après décès de Jean-François Oeben', Archives de l'Art Français III, vol. XV (1899), p. 356). It is therefore possible to recognise separate flowers cut from the same template in different arrangements on various examples of his furniture. For instance, the large tulip at the top of the bouquet on this table appears twice on one of Oeben's most celebrated masterpieces, a secretaire in the Residenz in Munich. In both cases applied in reverse, it occurs in the large basket of flowers veneered on the fall-front and in the bouquet on the left-hand door (Brigitte Langer, Die Möbel der Residenz München, Die Französischen Möbel des 18. Jahrhunderts, Munich/New York 1995, pp. 128-132, no. 26). This secretaire was almost certainly supplied to one of Oeben's few foreign clients, Christian IV, Duke of Pfalz-Zweibrücken (1722-1775), a great Francophile and a friend of both Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour.
Because of his privileged position, Oeben was not required to become a master cabinet-maker, but he nevertheless joined the guild towards the end of his life, in 1761. Even before that date he appears occasionally to have stamped his furniture; however, a large proportion of his work is unstamped.