With their rigorously architectural style, neoclassical yet Louis XIV-inspired marquetry and plain ebony-veneered surfaces, these elegant meubles d'appui epitomize the fashionable revival of Boulle furniture of the late 1770s and 1780s and are characteristic for the oeuvre of Etienne Levasseur.
LEVASSEUR AND THE RENEWED FASHION FOR BOULLE
Like many of his contemporaries - Philippe-Claude Montigny, Joseph Baumhauer (dit Joseph) and Adam Weisweiler - Etienne Levasseur (1721-1798) collaborated extensively with marchands-merciers such as Philippe-François Julliot (1727-1794), who had mastered the art of 'updating' Louis XIV pieces into furniture 'au goût du jour'.
As Alexandre Pradère admirably revealed in his introductory essay to volume III of the Wildenstein catalogue, these new forms reflected the vogue for cabinet furniture in the 'antique' taste associated with Boulle, albeit of a more modern interpretation to suit the most fashionable Louis XVI interiors (A. Pradère, 'Curieux des Indes, The Compendium of the Wildenstein sale catalogue', Christie's, London, 14-15 December 2005).
The nouvelle vogue for Boulle furniture reached its apogee in the 1770s. Every important auction catalogue would then have comprised a section dedicated to the 'meubles précieux de Boule le père' or those in the 'genre de Boule', prompting Boulle furniture to reach very significant prices. That so many of these Louis XIV pieces were successfully re-sold more than half a century later unequivocally illustrates the renewed appeal for Boulle furniture at the end of the Ancien Régime, as well as the correlative need for the likes of Levasseur, Montigny, Joseph, Weisweiler, Dubois or Nicolas-Pierre Séverin to re-fit, refurbish and restore or simply'rejuvenize' these earlier Boulle pieces.
This new taste was further illustrated in the interiors of Blondel de Gagny, Radix de Sainte-Foix, and Grimod de la Reynière, amongst others. A passage from a letter from the marquis de Marigny, celebrated brother of Madame de Pompadour, to his ébéniste Pierre Garnier concerning the choice of furniture for his library is very revealing of the preference for ebony: 'Vous conviendrez avec moi que les meubles en ébène et bronze sont beaucoup plus nobles que les meubles en acajou.' Such a trend would last well into the early 19th century, as demonstrated by the remark in the catalogue of the sale of Madame Lerouge on 27 April 1818: 'Le genre de ces meubles magnifiques est de toute nécessité pour l'ornement et la richesse des cabinets de tableaux'.
A PROBABLE COMMISSION FROM THE MARCHAND JULLIOT
These meubles d'appui form part of a small group of low cabinets - some of which are stamped by Levasseur - which can be related to commissions from the celebrated marchand-mercier Julliot in the 1780s. The general composition of these cabinets indeed derives from a pair of low cabinets included in the sale of Julliot's stock (lot 719), between 20 November and 11 December 1777, and was subsequently included in the sale of the Comte de Merle in 1784 (ill. in 'Curieux des Indes', Ibid and reproduced here). On this basis, it would therefore not be unreasonable to suggest that a significant number of these meubles d'appui would have been executed under the direction of the marchand-mercier in the years preceding the revolution.
This small identified group of related low cabinets comprises:
1. A pair in contre-partie, with a drawer below the central door, each featuring the same mask of Daphne as featured here, formerly in the Aranc de Presle collection, sold in Paris, 30 April 1795, lot 259, subsequently with Galerie Segoura, Paris, in 1996 (94 cm. high, 65 cm. wide and 36 cm. deep) (illustrated Ibid);
2. A pair (again featuring the same mask of Daphne, the door panels as the première partie versions of the preceding cabinets), formerly in the collection of Lord Essex, subsequently in the Sichel collection, sold in Paris, 28 June 1899, lot 504 (89 cm. high, 78 cm. wide);
3. A set of four, stamped by Levasseur, comprising a pair in première-partie and another in contre-partie, sold Sotheby's, New York, 7 May 1983, lot 212 (one of which ill. in A. Pradère, French Furniture Makers, Paris, 1989, p.309, fig.350);
4. A further pair, also stamped by Levasseur, sold Couturier-Nicolaÿ, Paris, 14 March 1972, lot 122 (one of which illustrated bid, fig.349).
5. A further pair in contre-partie (with female masks to sides and uprights) from the collection of the countess Halifax, sold Christie's, London, 7 July 1977, lot 103 (95 cm. high, 81 cm wide, 47 cm. deep);
6. Another pair sold Sotheby's, Monaco, 22 June 1986, lot 553 (96.5 cm. high, 78.5 cm. wide);
7. A pair from the Leverhulme collection, Thornton Manor, Wirral, sold Sotheby's, London, 26 June 2001, lot 59 (93.5 cm. high, 77.5 cm wide, 46 cm. deep);
8. A single meuble d'appui stamped by Levasseur, sold Auction Perrin-Royère-Lajeunesse, Versailles, 16 November 1986, lot 99, and recently offered 'Monsieur and Madame Francois: A Lifetime of Collecting', Christie's, London, 9 June 2011, lot 150;
9. A further related pair stamped by Levasseur, sold 'The Champalimaud Collection', Christie's, London, 6-7 July 2005, lot 125 (£859,200 including premium); and
10. A single cabinet in contre-partie of pewter and brass on tortoiseshell, with a door (albeit devoid of the Daphne mask) and masks to side panels, from the collection of the marquise de Pomereu, sold Maître Bailleul, Bayeux, 12 April 1998, lot 219 (90 cm. x 43.5 cm.).
Although the descriptions for all such cabinets in the sale catalogues from the late 18th and early 19th century to which they relate, are not specific enough to allow us to identify each of these with certainty, several 18th century descriptions for closely related low cabinets nevertheless remain and are stated below (in chronological order):
The description for a pair of meubles d'appui in the sale of the Comte de Vaudreuil, on 26 November 1787 reads:
'357. Un joli petit meuble ouvrant à leur entablement d'une frise de feuilles d'eau, masques de femmes et autres ornements. Il est soutenu sur quatre pieds et la tablette est un brèche violette. Hauteur 33 pouces [89 cm.], largeur 30 pouces [81 cm.] ; profondeur 16 pouces [43.2 cm.]. [sold] 861 livres Lebrun f'.
358. Un meuble pareil au précédent. Marbre bleu turquin. Hauteur 35 pouces [95 cm.]. [sold] 900 livres. Lebrun jr.'
The description for two further cabinets in the Lambert sale on 27 March 1787 reads :
'306. Deux petits meubles de forme carrée, le milieu ouvrant d'une porte à fond de marqueterie, encadrée de bronzes & pilastres en étain & cuivre, avec plates-bandes à feuilles d'acanthe, soutenues sur quatre pieds. la table est de bleu Turquin Hauteur 34 pouces, largeur 30 pouces, profondeur 17 pouces' [92 cm. x 81 cm. x 46 cm.], [sold] 2299 livres Paillet'.
Finally, the description for two related low cabinets in the sale of the duc de Choiseul-Praslin, on 3 April 1793 reads:
'246. Deux charmants meubles nommés cabinets, en marqueterie cuivre & étain, première partie sur un fond d'écaille ; ils sont de forme carrée régulière, chacun à un vanteau avec entablement orné de larges feuilles d'acanthe, & porté sur quatre pieds en gaine droite. Ces morceaux enrichis de moulures & mascarons & rosettes, sont composés dans le meilleur goût par de très habiles ouvriers en ébénisterie qui ont suivi la manière du célèbre Boulle si exactement qu'il faut être prévenu de la différence ; ils sont aussi couverts de beaux dessus de marbre de Sicile plaqué, portant 12 lignes d'épaisseur. Haut. 35 pouces. Larg. 29, profondeur 17 [(94 cm. x 78 cm. x 46 cm.], [sold] 901 livres Verdun'.
Although slightly larger than the pair of meubles d'appui offered here, the Choiseul-Praslin cabinets above-mentioned must have been very closely related to the present pair. The rather detailed description from 1793 indeed describes two cabinets of delicate proportions (comparable to the present pair), each fitted with an acanthus-decorated frieze, a door mounted with masks, resting on square sectioned tapering legs 'en gaine', and with a top made of Sicilian marble.
The Choiseul-Praslin cabinets also appear in the family house, the hôtel de Belle-Isle on the rue de Bourbon (now rue de Lille), although only after the death in 1785 of the 1st duc de Choiseul-Praslin, making their acquisition by the 2nd duke perhaps more likely, and allowing us to date the present pair more precisely to circa 1785.
The above sale description closely relates the Choiseul-Praslin cabinets to the oeuvre of Boulle, stressing that a distinction between these and the latter's work would be difficult, if not virtually impossible, to draw.
The presence of the mask of the nymph Daphné to the doors of the present cabinets is particularly relevant in the context of the Louis XIV Boulle revival of the 1780s, in that such distinctive mask is of the exact model used by Boulle on many of his most iconic pieces. It would therefore not be unreasonable to suggest that these masks could have been modelled on existing Louis XIV mounts executed by Boulle himself. With her laurel crown and drapery swags beneath her chin - Daphne is indeed very often portrayed in Boulle's oeuvre (often paired with Apollo as the theme most infused with Royal symbolism) as our scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses more generally. The distinctive mask of Daphne appears on several pieces of note attributed to Boulle, which include:
The 'parrot cabinet' executed circa 1670-80, now at Versailles (ill. in P.Arizzoli-Clémentel, Versailles, Furniture of the Royal Palace, 17th and 18th Centuries, vol. 2, Dijon, 2002, pp.30-1, no. 1); a pair of cabinets and two pairs of torchères in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (ill. D. Alcouffe et. al., Furniture Collections in the Louvre, vol. I, Dijon, 1993, p.60, no. 17, and p.90, no.23, respectively); a coffre de toilette sur son pied and a pair of torchères, in the Wallace Collection (ill. in P.Hughes, The Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Furniture, vol. II, London, 1996, p.669, fig.143 (see frieze drawer) and p.616-20, fig.132, respectively) and a bureau plat with cartonnier supplied to Jean-Baptiste de Machault d'Arnouville, 'Contrôleur Général des Finances' and formerly in the collection of the marquis de Vogüe.
THE ENDURING INTERNATIONAL APPEAL FOR LEVASSEUR'S OEUVRE
Closely related examples of meubles d'appui can be found in some of the most renowned English collections. The present pair of meubles d'appui relates particularly to a pair stamped by Levasseur in the collection of the Duke of Wellington at Stratfield Saye, Berkshire (ill. in F.J.B. Watson, 'The Great Duke's Taste for French Furniture', Apollo, vol CII, July 1975, p.47 (fig. 8)). The latter pair - together with a further set of four bibliothèques basses, two meubles d'entre-deux and four pedestals all executed by Levasseur - were acquired by the triumphant 1st Duke of Wellington from Le Chevalier Firiol de Bonnemaison, circa 1817. An otherwise little-documented marchand-mercier, Le Chevalier is now thought to have been responsible for supplying much of the 'Buhl' furniture that found its way into English collections in the early 19th century, possibly working alongside Edward Holmes Baldock (d.1843). This includes two further closely related pairs dated circa 1775-80, stamped by Levasseur (one of the pairs further bearing the 'EHB' stamp for Baldock), in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch at Boughton House, Northamptonshire (ill. Boughton House, the English Versailles, 1992, p.127, figs 123-4) as well as a larger pair of bas d'armoires formerly in the Buccleuch collection, which now forms part of the Grog Bequest to the Musée du Louvre. It is interesting to note that Buccleuch, like Wellington, is known to have been in Paris shortly after Waterloo.
A further pair of bas d'armoire of the same model as that of the Duke of Wellington at Stratfield Saye, formerly in the collection of the Marquess of Londonderry and now in a Parisian private collection, was also probably supplied by Le Chevalier (A. Pradère op.cit, p.310).
LA DYNASTIE DES LEVASSEUR
Etienne Levasseur learned his craft with the sons of André-Charles Boulle, probably from A-C. Boulle the younger (1685-1745) or Charles-Joseph Boulle (d. 1754) and by 1765 was established as a privileged craftsman in the faubourg Saint-Antoine at a shop known as 'Au Cadran bleu.' Levasseur was received maître-ébéniste on 2 April 1767 and could count amongst his most important patrons the King's aunts, Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire at Bellevue, as well as rich collectors, such as the fermier-général Mulot de Pressigny.
Etienne Levasseur (père) does not appear to have continued working after the Revolution and died in 1798. Both his son and grandson however followed in his footsteps, perpetuating his specialisation in Boulle marquetry furniture well into the 1820s and continuing to use his stamp. Pierre-Etienne married a daughter of Roger van der Cruse, dit Lacroix but was never received maître, most probably as a result of the Revolution. The latter, known as Levasseur the Younger, is recorded as having placed an advertisement in the Bazar Parisien in 1822 where he described himself as perhaps the only ébéniste making and repairing Boulle furniture in all of Paris, 'furniture seldom seen but avidly sought by collectors and dealers' (A. Pradère, Ibid, p.316).