These athéniennes are striking examples of the revival of interest in Antiquity that was sweeping Paris in the 1760s and 1770s. Their design follows very closely an engraving by Jean-Henri Eberts (illustrated here) for a new form of furniture which derived from the perfume burner of classical Antiquity. Eberts described the athénienne in the accompanying caption as a "Nouveau Meuble/Servant/de console/de Casolette/de Rechand/de Pot de Fleurs/de Terrasse/de Reservoir." It combined the functions of washstand, perfume-burner and jardiniere all in one form. While the engraving is undated, it appeared in an advertisement in L'Avantcoueur of September 27, 1773 (Eriksen, op cit., p. 403, pl. 484). Eberts was a banker who came to Paris from Strasbourg. He was involved in publishing in 1775 Les Monuments de Costume with engravings by Moreau le Jeune. He seems to have been involved in both the artistic and financial sides. Eberts owned the painting by Joseph Vien which includes in it a similar Neoclassical perfume burner. This painting acquired the title "La Vertueuse Athénienne" when it was engraved in 1765 and this presumably was the inspiration for the name that Eberts gave to this form (ibid, pp. 138, 385).
Between 1773 and 1776, when he went bankrupt, the maître peintre-doreur, Jean-Félix Watin, was probably retailing examples of this form, as his engravings, L'Art du peintre, doreur of 1776 lists them at between 300 and 750 livres depending on the quality of the gilding and carving.
Among the earliest buyers of athéniennes was Mme du Barry who purchased one for Louveciennes between May 13 and June 23, 1774 (Watson, op cit., 1966). Another of this form appears in a portrait of the duc de Chartres of circa 1775 by Charles Lepeintre. Other examples include a pair in the Wrightsman Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (illustrated here), a pair in the Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris, featuring strikingly similar pierced lids (illustrated in Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris, 1983, p. 16, cat. 37), formerly in the collection of Madame Burat. Further examples that have sold at auction include a pair from the collection of René Fribourg, sold Sotheby's, London, 18 October 1963, lot 794, and a pair from the collection of the Marquis de Ganay, sold Galerie George Petit, Paris, 8-10 May 1922, lot 273.