Jean-Henri Riesener, fournisseur du Garde-Meuble Royal between 1774-85, matre in 1768.
This magnificent secrtaire, dating from circa 1770-5 and celebrating the Triumph of Lyric Poetry, represents an important addition to Riesener's documented oeuvre. Previously unpublished, save for the Privately Printed Catalogue of the Bergsten Collection in 1950, it belongs to a celebrated group of eight secrtaires stamped by both Jean-Franois Oeben (matre in 1761) and, subsequently, by his compagnon Riesener (matre in 1768).
Born in Gladbach, Westphalia in 1734, Riesener came to Paris in 1754 and was apprenticed to Oeben. On the latter's untimely death in 1763, Oeben's widow ('La veuve Oeben') took over the reins of the business, retaining both her husband's stamp and the extensive ateliers documented in the 1763 Inventory. Initially concerned with the execution of unfinished commissions (such as the Bureau du Roi started by Oeben in 1760 and finally delivered by Riesener in 1769), as well as the resourceful use of already prepared carcases, which often had to be modified to comply with the ever-shifting dictates of fashion and urgency, from circa 1764-5 'la veuve Oeben' became increasingly dependent upon Riesener, culminating in their marriage in 1767. Riesener established himself in Oeben's ateliers at the Arsenal and, following his matrise in 1768, the Oeben stamp was finally abandoned in favour of his own.
The Oeben Riesener Secretaires
This model of secrtaire, probably initiated under Oeben, although Riesener's likely involvement in the genesis of the design can by no means be ignored, enjoyed enduring popularity. Executed with subtle variations and predominantly supplied to the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, two for the exclusive use of the Royal family, the group of eight secrtaires comprises, in chronological order:-
-THE ROSEBERY SECRETAIRE. Depicting the figure of Silence to the fall-front and stamped Oeben, thus dating from before 1768, probably circa 1763-7, this is now in the collection of the Earl of Rosebery at Dalmeny House, Scotland (G. Jackson-Stops, 'The Treasure Houses of Britain', Exhibition Catalogue, November 1985 - March 1986, no. 508, p. 570). With its freer, floral trellis arbour marquetry to the lower doors and certain constructional features that have traditionally been more closely associated with Oeben than Riesener, particularly the lack of the characteristic Riesener oak flange to the door, the Rosebery secrtaire is probably the earliest of the series and may conceivably be by Oeben himself.
-THE LUTON HOO SECRETAIRE. Depicting the silhouetted figure of Silence above an Allegory of France and also stamped Oeben, thus dating from before 1768, this was acquired for Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire by Sir Harold Wernher, Bt. (F.J.B. Watson, Louis XVI Furniture, London, 1960, fig. 77).
-THE BERGSTEN SECRETAIRE offered here, stamped Riesener and probably dating from circa 1770-5. Although the exact date of its commission remains to be discovered, the distinctive cube parquetry decoration of the sides is clearly a legacy of Oeben and would suggest an earlier dating in Riesener's oeuvre.
-THE GUERAULT SECRETAIRE. Almost identical to the Bergsten secrtaire except for the flower spray marquetry of the lower doors and also stamped Riesener, this also probably dates from circa 1770-5 and was sold from the collection of Franois Gurault in Paris, 21-22 March 1935, lot 94.
-THE FONTANIEU SECRETAIRE. This was supplied to P. E. de Fontanieu, Intendant Gnral des Meubles de la Couronne by Riesener on 23 December 1771. Inlaid with a musical trophy to the fall-front, the Fontanieu secrtaire was almost certainly that subsequently at Lansdowne House, London, and sold anonymously at Christie's London, 5 December 1974, lot 5 (P. Kjellberg, Le Mobilier Franais du XVIIIe Sicle, Paris, 1989, p. 703).
-THE MICHELHAM SECRETAIRE. Stamped Riesener and dating from circa 1775, depicting an almost identical marquetry panel celebrating Lyric Poetry to the fall-front, this formed part of the Michelham Bequest to the Muse de l'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva (A. Pradre, Les Ebnistes Franais de Louis XIV la Rvolution, Paris, 1989, p. 380).
-THE WADDESDON SECRETAIRE. Depicting the figure of Silence, this was delivered by Riesener on 6 August 1777 for Louis XVI's cabinet at the Petit Trianon. Supplied at a cost of 8,880 livres, this 'secrtaire en armoire' was completed with remarkable speed, possibly from an existing carcase, having only been ordered on the 17 July! Now at Waddesdon, it is discussed in G. de Bellaigue, The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, Furniture Clocks, Gilt Bronzes - I, London, 1974, no. 69, pp. 348-357).
-and, lastly, THE WALLACE SECRETAIRE. Depicting an Allegory of France and stamped by both Riesener and Beneman, the latter acting as a restorer, this was delivered by Riesener on 8 July 1780 for Marie-Antoinette's Cabinet Intrieur at Versailles. Subsequently removed to Louis XVI's Cabinet Intrieur at Saint-Cloud in 1785, it was restored by Beneman and Galle in 1788 and is now in the Wallace Collection, London (P. Hughes, The Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Furniture - II, London, 1996, pp. 969-979, cat. 196 (F300)).
Executed between circa 1763-1780, this celebrated series of secrtaires displays a remarkable continuity of both form and ornament of the marquetry. Corresponding to an overall pattern with a large marquetry panel to the fall-front above a pair of doors inlaid with flowered panels below (except the Luton Hoo example, which has two large marquetry panels), such as featured as early as 1765 in J.-R. Lucotte's engraving published in Diderot and Alembert's Encyclopdie, all except for the Fontanieu secrtaire display either the silhouetted figure of Silence (Rosebery, Luton Hoo and Waddesdon), the Allegory of France (Luton Hoo and Wallace) or the Triumph of Lyric Poetry (Michelham, Gurault and Bergsten). As G. de Bellaigue commented with regard to the figure of Silence (op. cit., p.355), the template and even the cutting of the veneers themselves was almost identical between the Rosebery, Luton Hoo, Waddesdon and Comte d'Orsay desk- in spite of the fact that they span at least 10 years (i.e. from 1763-7 to 1777). The same is almost certainly true of the Triumph of Lyric Poetry template.
Although the engraved source for the Lyric Poetry marquetry panel remains untraced - unlike the Spanish Jasmine on the Waddesdon secrtaire, which were published by J. Chevillet in his Livre Principes de Fleurs after designs by Louis Tessier (1719-81) - it recurs, with subtle variations, on several of his most lavish commissions. These include, apart from the aforementioned Gurault and Michelham secrtaires:- the cylinder-bureau supplied to the comte d'Orsay circa 1769-70 and now in the Wallace Collection (P. Hughes, op. cit., no. 191, f. 102, p. 931; this also displays the figure of Silence); the cylinder bureau delivered for the comtesse de Provence at Versailles in 1773 and now in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon (the image reversed and enlarged and interestingly with related ribbon-tied floral poesies; illustrated in Objets d'Art Franais de la Collection Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, 1969, no. 5); the secrtaire in the Muse des Arts Dcoratifs, Paris (P. Ramond, Chefs d'Oeuvre des Marqueteurs, Paris, Tom. II, p. 106); and on the cylinder bureau delivered to the comte de Provence at Versailles in 1774 (P. Verlet, French Royal Furniture, London, 1963, vol. II, no. 10). Interestingly, this latter example was described in detail:- par derrire est un tableau represt (sic.) une lyre, un livre en 3 volumes, attributs de la posie.
A distinctive characteristic of this group are the herm-caryatid mounts heading the canted pilaster angles, of which those on the Bergsten, Waddesdon and Gurault secrtaires are of identical model. Described by Riesener as termes antiques in his 1777 Mmoire for the Waddesdon secrtaire, delivered for Louis XVI at the Trianon, there is a possibility that Riesener himself may have cast his own mounts. The Arsenal was an enclos privilegi which freed its craftsmen from many of the restrictions of the guild-system, which would have otherwise prevented an bniste such as Riesener from casting bronzes d'ameublement, and the Waddesdon scretaire displays Riesener's fragmentary trade card alongside that of Madame Drocourt - a Matre Doreuse-Argenteuse sur tous Mtaux. Riesener's statement ....Ebnisterie en Marquetterie Mchanique & bronzes on this trade card would appear to confirm Pierre Verlet's long-held conviction that Riesener was, at least in part, responsible for his ormolu mounts (G. de Bellaigue, op. cit., p. 356), although he is known to have worked with the bronzier Franois Rmond (1747-1812) in the 1780s and 1790s. He may well, however, have employed Madame Drocourt as the gilder for the Waddesdon mounts.
That Riesener did not own the exclusive rights to the models for certain mounts is confirmed by the commode executed by his wife's brother-in-law, Martin Carlin, which was almost certainly acquired from the marchand-mercier Simon-Philippe Poirier by Viscount Stormont, later 2nd Earl of Mansfield between 1772-8 (sold anonymously at Christie's New York, 6 December 1985, lot 54). For this displays identical angle and apron-mounts to the Michelham and Rosebery secrtaires. Likewise, the apron mount of the Bergsten secrtaire can be seen on Transitional commodes by Oeben, RVLC and d'Autriche.
Riesener's Inscribed Signature
Although 18th Century inscriptions in marquetry decorations are by no means unknown during the Louis XVI period (for instance on the Beaumarchais desk at Waddesdon, ibid., no. 65, 308-326), the concept of the bniste himself signing furniture in the marquetry - 'Riesener Ebeniste du Roy a Larsenal a pa..' - is almost exclusive to Riesener in France in the 18th Century. The earliest documented example of this practice appears to be on the cylinder-bureau supplied by Riesener to the comte d'Orsay circa 1769-70, which is now in the Wallace Collection (P. Hughes, op.cit., 191, F102). Like the aforementioned Beaumarchais desk, this is inscribed on trompe l'oeil scattered papers 'L an mil sept ce soixante neu Le vingt fevrie furent pre perpetu Riesener fecit a paris'. Similarly, a secrtaire and commode en suite with another in the Frick Collection, stamped Riesener and almost certainly supplied to the Garde-Meuble de la Reine circa 1784, are signed and dated in the marquetry 'Riesener.fe.i790' and 'Riesener.fe.i79i'. As T. Dell has convincingly argued, both the commode and scretaire were originally far more lavishly mounted (the mounts originally corresponding with those on the lacquer-mounted furniture supplied to Marie-Antoinette and now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York); they were, however, sent back to Riesener's atelier to be expensively altered in both form and ornament to suit the straightened circumstances of the Royal Household in the face of the Revolution. Added, therefore, at the time of this restoration, the pieces are recorded back in the possession of the Garde-Meuble in 1793 (T. Dell, Furniture in the Frick Collection, Vermont, 1992, pp. 71-91).
In view of the fact that the inscription on the Bergsten secrtaire is cut-off by the illusionistic frame, combined with the evidence that the Lyric Poetry template was employed by Riesener from at least 1769 and throughout the 1770s, on numerous different scales and with slight variations, it is certainly possible that this panel may originally have been conceived to be framed within a slightly larger trompe l'oeil surround, but was used expediently in the face of extreme time pressure - as was so often the case with Riesener's furniture for the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne.
The Sacre-Coeur Brand
The contemporary 18th Century inventory brand, depicting a Sacre-Coeur above the number '18', remains tantalisingly unidentified. Although pure conjecture, it would seem most probable that this secrtaire was supplied to a high-ranking member of the Clergy - almost certainly one that had close ties with the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne. Whilst the locking-mechanism is not as complicated as those supplied to Marie-Antoinette, the unusual compartmented divisions of the drawers in the lower section, probably for coins, may well ultimately shed light on the Patron.