The Vitruvian scroll frieze and elegant yet rigorous lines of this table à la grecque exemplify the revival for the nascent neoclassicism of the 1760s. What is yet perhaps the most interesting feature on the present example is the successful mélange - characteristic for the Restauration - of stylistic elements from the Louis XIV period, such as the powerful legs en gaine and masks of Heraclitus, so recurrent in André-Charles Boulle's oeuvre with the avant-garde motifs à la grecque.
THE GOÛT GREC
The first experimental items of furniture in the goût grec were conceived and produced as early as around 1754-1756 with the celebrated bureau plat executed for the connoisseur 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), now in the Musée Condé at Chantilly (S. Eriksen, Early neo-classicism in France, London, 1974, figs. 85-89). The celebrated suite of furniture supplied for the Parisian hôtel of the financier Lalive de Jully furthermore included a set of four meubles d'appui, of which one was sold by the Marquess of Cholmondeley, 'Works of Art from Houghton', Christie's, London, 8 December 1994, lot 80.
Such a novel, unparalleled and unprecedented vogue rapidly gained popularity as evidenced by the notorious quote from the Baron de Grimm in 1763: '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 somewhat less enormous scale, concerns the purchase in the years 1763-1765 by George William, 6th Earl of Coventry; within the group of items Coventry purchased from the celebrated marchand-mercier Simon-Philippe Poirier was a fantastic commode by Roger Vandercruse, dit Lacroix (sold Christie's, New York, 2 November 2000, lot 264).
The same rigorous combination of mounts à la grecque on an ebony ground can be found on a bureau plat stamped by Claude Montigny (maître in 1766) and illustrated in F.J.B. Watson, Louis XVI Furniture, London, 1973, fig. 111, while a further related example executed by Guillaume Beneman (maître in 1785) and branded with the mark of the château de Saint-Cloud was formerly in the Schloss Museum, Berlin and is illustrated Ibid., fig. 107.
BOULLE AND HERACLITUS
The mask of Heraclitus which centres the frieze of the present centre table is recurrent in the oeuvre of André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), 'ébéniste du Roi' from 1672.
Known as 'le philosophe qui pleure' as often represented weeping, the mask of Heraclitus is generally portrayed paired with that of the smiling Democritus, known as 'le philosophe qui rit', on many pieces by the foremost ébéniste. Indeed, as J.-P. Samoyault reveals, models for 'masques d'Héraclite et de Démocrite' were listed in the inventory of Boulle's possessions drawn up after his death in 1732 (J.-P. Samoyault, André-Charles Boulle et sa famille, Genève 1979, p. 138, no. 21):
'une boite contenant les masques d'Heraclite et de Democrite de diffirentes grandeaurs ciselis pesant ensemble 18 livres'
Boulle's répertoire of bronzes was indeed largely inspired both by classical mythology (namely Ovid's Metamorphoses) but also by such themes as The Four Seasons, The Stoic and Epicurian Philosophy with masks of Heraclitus as featured here and Democritus being often featured on his furniture (see A. Pradère, French Furniture Makers, Paris, 1989, p. 90-1, fig. 48).
Virtually identical period masks of the laurel-crowned Heraclitus can be found on a Louis XIV bureau plat attributed to Boulle, formerly in the collection of Adelbert Wellington, 3rd Earl Brownlow, Ashridge Park, Hertfordshire, until sold Christie's, London, 3 May 1923, lot 91 (to Touzain), and subsequently in the Wildenstein Collection until sold 'The Wildenstein Collection', Christie's, London, 14-15 December 2005, lot 15. The same mask of Heraclitus appears on a Régence regulateur, also formerly in the Wildenstein Collection until sold Christie's, London, 14-15 December 2005, lot 12. Further such masks appear on bureaux plats sold respectively, 'Le Pavillon Chougny, A Private Collection', Christie's, London, 9-10 December 2004, lot 337, and 'The Property from the Collection of Lord and Lady White of Hull', Christie's, New York, 30 April 1007, lot 239.