André-Charles Boulle, appointed ébéniste du Roi in 1672.
This magnificent bureau plat with richly scrolling marquetry flanked by satyr-mask chutes and with central frieze mounts in the form of the weeping Heraclitus, 'le philosophe qui pleure', and the smiling Democritus, 'le philosophe qui rit', is part of a well-defined group of tables which can confidently be attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732).
A design for a table closely related to this example and traditionally attributed to Boulle is in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (see A. Pradère, Les Ebénistes Français de Louis XIV à la Révolution, Paris, 1989, p. 83 ). It is probably from a large portfolio that Boulle would have shown to prospective clients to demonstrate the various models he could produce. The Heraclitus and Democritus masks appear on several of the bureaux plats in this group and were certainly a product of Boulle's workshop as an inventory taken after his death in 1732 included :
une boite contenant les masques d'Heraclite et de Democrite
de différentes grandeaurs ciselés pesant ensemble
T. Dell has identified three distinct variants within this group (see: T. Dell, The Frick Collection, vol. V, New York, 1992, pp. 204-210). The smallest type in scale includes this example and has a straight profile to the drawers which is accented by a central slightly projecting section. The distinctively deep concave outline of this table is shared by an example in première partie which is closest to it in all respects (save for the fact that both of the central masks are of the weeping Heraclitus) in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, illustrated in T. Murdoch, ed., Boughton House, The English Versailles, London, 1992, pp. 121-122, fig. 113 . Other examples of this sub-group include one in contre partie in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and one in première partie exhibited in Louis XIV: Faste et Decors, Paris, 1960, no. 80, pl. XLI (lent by Dr. A. Roudinesco).
The other groups identified by Dell are: a slightly larger, more sculptural version with a more undulating profile to the drawer fronts, the central one usually recessed, but retaining the satyr mask chutes
and many of the other mounts of the table offered here. Examples of this type are in the Frick Collection (interestingly altered about twenty five years after its original construction to give it a lighter feel), illustrated in Dell, op.cit., p. 205, cat. 16.5.1, and one in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, in contre partie, previously in the Flahaut collection (see C. Bremer-David, An Illustrated Summary Catalogue of the Collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1993, p. 48, fig. 60). The third sub-group and of the largest scale is adorned with female mask chutes and includes an example almost certainly acquired by Thomas, 2nd Earl de Grey, for Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, and sold by a descendant, Christie's London, 15 June 1995, lot 33, another from the collection of the Earls of Warwick, sold in these Rooms, 18 May 1989, lot 93, and one in the British Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.
The production of bureaux plats was obviously an important part of the output of Boulle's workshop as a list of the items destroyed in the disastrous fire of 1720 included:
cinq bureaux de cinq à six pieds de long de marqueterie d'écaille de tortue et de cuivre, et deux de bois de
couleur trés avancés
Although the earliest recorded example in an inventory is that of the marchand Paul Verani in 1713, the form was introduced much earlier as a bureau plat similar to the one offered here appears in a portrait in the Louvre dated 1702 by Hyacinthe Rigaud of Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet.