This highly important pair of cabinets-on-stand belongs to a group of four cabinets commissioned by King Philip V of Spain (reigned 1701-1746) in Antwerp at the beginning of the 18th century from the workshop of Hendrick van Soest (1659-1726). An exceptional tour-de-force in the art of late Baroque marquetry furniture, they were commissioned to celebrate the victory of the new Bourbon king and his grandfather, Louis XIV, over the Habsburg claimant, Archduke Charles, in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The cabinets are among the few last surviving examples of the distinctive type of Baroque cabinets produced in Antwerp at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, and arguably represent the most ambitious furniture ever manufactured in Flanders at that time. They were by family tradition acquired by Baron Gustave de Rothschild (1829-1911) from the collection of the de l'Ecluse family in Belgium.
Van Soest produced a total of four cabinets for this foremost royal commission, the present pair in première-partie marquetry (with brass and pewter inlays on a tortoiseshell ground), and an identical pair in corresponding contre-partie marquetry (with tortoiseshell inlay on a metal ground). Two coats of arms symbolizing two different continents appear on the marquetry decoration of every cabinet in the group, each pair featuring the four continents (Europe and the Americas; Asia and Africa), in reference to Philip V’s new-gained Spanish Empire.
The cabinets in première-parite here offered, are the only two that remain as a pair, the pair in contre-parite having been split-up when auctioned in Brussels in 1944. One of the contre-partie cabinets is now in the collection of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid; the other was sold at Sotheby’s, London 30 October 2002, lot 75, and remains in an important private collection (both illustrated).
The principal differences between the two pairs are in the design of the stands, and the additional carved giltwood side-wings found on the pair in contre-partie. The frieze on the cabinet’s stand on the pair in contre-partie features scrolling foliage, while the frieze of the pair in première-partie is decorated with a gilt-bronze cartouche medallion on a plain tortoiseshell ground.
By virtue of their conception in première-partie, the Rothschild cabinets should be considered as the richer pair in the group, the larger preponderance of tortoiseshell vis-à-vis metal representing a higher cost. For example, pieces by Andre Charles Boulle in première-partie cost approximately fifty percent more than pieces in contre-parite. What is more, furniture in première-partie, with pewter and brass inlaid decoration, could be worked with greater detail – metal being more easily engraved than tortoiseshell – thus achieving a higher degree of realism and sophistication, as evidenced by the present pair.
THE UNIQUE DESIGN & ICONOGRAPHY
In their overall form and exceptional marquetry design, the present cabinets exude a certain Parisian spirit, leading several authors to erroneously suggest they were of French origin, perhaps even the work of André-Charles Boulle, ébéniste privilegé to Louis XIV. Boulle’s influence on our group of cabinets is nevertheless undeniable: the recessed central tabernacle, overflowing upper corners, and choice of terms for the stand, recalls his early cabinets in floral marquetry (see examples in the Wallace Collection and the Getty). Yet the style of production of these two leading European ébénistes is quite distinctive, and there is no doubt today that Van Soest is the author of these cabinets. The form of Van Soest’s cabinets retain the archaism typical of Antwerp, and his marquetry differs from Boulle’s in its penchant for narrative themes, which he typically derived from the Bible, mythology or secular tales such as those of ‘Reynart de Vos’ (from the Romance of Renart). By contrast, very few cabinets with narrative or allegorical panels are known to have been produced by Boulle, who favoured a design of scrolling foliage on his marquetry work.
Van Soest’s group of cabinets for Philip V were the first in Antwerp to follow a decorative scheme that directly depicted a contemporary historical event or (as in the present case) the life of a monarch and his military triumphs. The converging design of the cabinet draws the viewer’s attention to the central marquetry panel, which depicts Philip V in majesty, with two chained prisoners at his feet, against a background of radiating military trophies. The prisoner on the left, with an eagle-headed helmet (a Habsburg emblem), could symbolize the Holy Roman Empire, the prisoner on the right, their Dutch allies. The figure of the king relates to a portrait by Vivian engraved by C. Vermeulen in 1701. The young king is depicted in three-quarter profile with the same youthful appearance, bearing the order of the Golden Fleece and with armour, and holding a sceptre in his hand. Above him a renomée playing the hunting horn carries a terrestrial globe on her knees bearing the words Spain and Madrid. On the pediment, an allegory of War is flanked by trophies and music-playing putti inlaid in mother-of-pearl. The bases of the mother-of-pearl columns are also decorated with bust of Philip V.
On each side, eight metal marquetry panels illustrate on the drawers various unidentifiable battle scenes and city sieges. These scenes are thought to relate to engravings by Van der Muelen who is also credited with painting some of the most important battles of Louis XIV. Van Soest might have also found a model for these battle scenes in the engravings of Gaspard Bouttats, a personal friend who is known to have drawn views of Van Soest’s workshop. The difficulty in attributing the battle scenes of the cabinets to a specific artist or series can be explained by Van Soest’s ‘cut and paste’ technique, which would see him amalgamate details of different contemporary scenes in an ad hoc basis, as he was recorded doing on a group of furniture decorated with Chinoiserie scenes.
The superb tortoiseshell and engraved metal panels of the Rothschild cabinets are further enlivened by beautifully carved giltwood term supports, which are directly inspired by an engraving by Daniel Marot (1661-1752) dated to the last quarter of the seventeenth century (here illustrated). This superb quality of figures is rarely encountered on furniture made in Antwerp at that time, highlighting van Soest’s capacity to hire specialized craftsman to elevate his most important commissions to a new plane.
A ROYAL COMMISSION
The study of Van Soest’s archives provides us with valuable information regarding his royal commissions for the Spanish crown. Indeed, these record the shipment to Madrid in 1703 of several ‘four colour’ marquetry bureaux, amongst them a bureau with a tortoiseshell ground bearing ‘los tropheos de Rey Phillippo a las portillas’. Seven and maybe even eight pieces of furniture bearing the monogram of the young Philip V are also recorded in Van Soest’s workshop inventory of 1713, the very same year of the Treaty of Utrecht, which marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. We also find in the inventory ‘two large bureau cabinets bearing the monogram ’PV’, depicting his trip to Spain and featuring his portrait and the portrait of the Queen with five gilt vases on four pillars and two black wings’. The inventory also refers to two large bureaux bearing the armorial of Spain on a rosewood ground, and describes two others which could refer to the Rothschild examples:
- ‘Deux grands bureau de marqueterie representant la victoire de PV et son portrait’
- ‘…Tres grand cabinet triomphe de PV, a fonds d’ecaille… un grand pieds dores’. This inscription is unfortunately incomplete, as this manuscript is in a poor state of conservation and illegible in the pertinent place.
HENDRICK VAN SOEST (1659-1726)
Hendrick van Soest can be considered to be the last great representative of the marchand-ébénistes of Antwerp. He was the successor of the celebrated Forchoudt and Musson dynasties, who propagated Antwerp’s great tradition of marquetry furniture across Europe through their highly-successful branches in Vienna and Madrid. He never reached the same celebrity as his predecessors, partly due to the political troubles that followed the Austrian takeover of Spanish-dominated Flanders, but more significantly still, due to the financial woes that affected his leading patron, the Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria (1597-1651). The Prince’s setbacks caused him to default on payments to Van Soest which he enumerated at 2 million livres in his memoirs. This forced Van Soest to sell his Brussels and Antwerp shops in 1713, which provides a terminus post quiem for the making of the Rothschild cabinets.
A number of comparable cabinets by Van Soest are recorded in important public and private collections. These include:
- The cabinet-on-stand of Maximilian I of Bavaria (1597-1651), in the Munich Residenz. This impressive cabinet follows a similar design to the Rothschild pair: its base consists of two imposing giltwood caryatids, the crowned coat-of-arms of the Elector appears within a cartouche flanked by the figures of Hercules and Minerva, and the marquetry panels allude to the prince’s victory over the Turks.
- The cabinet-on-stand of the Archbishop-Elector of Trier, Johann Hugo von Orsbeck (1675-1711), known through its preparatory design (R. Fabri, Meubles d’apparat des Pays-bas méridionaux, 1989, p. 39-40). On eight spiraling legs, the iconography of this cabinet is derived from Biblical and secular sources. The central tabernacle represents an allegory of Monarchy resting on a terrestrial globe, symbolizing sovereignty. The semicircular pediment features the Elector's coat-of-arms surmounted by giltwood figures.
- The cabinet-on-stand of Prince Franz Karl of Auersperg (1660-1713), in the Hungarian National Museum, Budapest (Hedvig Szabolcsi, ‘A late seventeenth-century cabinet in Hungary’, The Burlington Magazine, June 1980, p. 432). Two panels decorate its central section: one depicting an allegory of Triumph, the other, the four continents. These are flanked by further panels depicting battle scenes, military trophies and Turkish prisoners.
- A cabinet-on-stand sold Christies, Monaco, 1 July 1995, lot 19, which features a central portico decorated with a more unusual military triumph consisting of a pyramid of soldiers playing music.
- The bureau from the Spoelberch de Lovenjoul collection (1830-1907), in the University Library of Leuven. The cabinet features the coat of arms of William III, Prince of Orange (1650-1702), alongside his famous motto ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ and the coat-of-arms of the city of Namur. The central panel depicts an intricate triumph flanked by 8 drawers decorated with scenes from ‘the hunt of the elephant’, all surmounted by a giltwood pediment.
- The cabinet-on-stand in the Royal Collection at Windsor. Its size, giltwood elements and exquisite interior – in the form of a theatre adorned with twisted columns, mirrors, balustrades and a staircase that stands out on a parquetry floor of tortoiseshell and ivory – strongly recall the Rothschild pair.