Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806)
Jewel Cabinet c.1787
Oak, mahogany, gilt bronze | RCIN 31207
Mahogany and gilt bronze jewel cabinet; superstructure with a group of putti holding a crown above enjoined coat of arms, flanked by vases of fruit. The frieze with three drawers; above two cabinet doors with trophy, flanked by two female figures, enclosing eighteen drawers and three shelves. On eight legs.
Long regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of furniture in the Louis XVI style, this objet de luxe combines cabinet-making virtuosity of a high order with quite exceptional gilt bronze mounts. The well-figured, plain mahogany veneers, characteristic of Riesener's output in the later 1780s, provide a deliberate foil to the mounts, jewel-like on the doors (as befits the purpose of the cabinet) and treated as sculpture-in-the-round at the front angles and on the cresting.
Although signed, the cabinet bears no French royal inventory number. However, the prominent coat of arms identifies the first owner as Marie-Joséphine-Louise of Savoy, who married Louis XVI's younger brother, the Comte de Provence (the future Louis XVIII), in 1771. We know that, as ébéniste du roi, Riesener supplied furniture for the royal couple in the 1770s, and that he was working for them directly in the early 1780s. The jewel-cabinet stood in their apartments in the Palais du Petit-Luxembourg, but was originally made for the Princess's bedroom at Versailles. The maker of the bronzes is unknown, although the bronzier François Rémond, who certainly worked for Riesener, is a possible candidate.
The subsequent history of the cabinet provides a fascinating commentary on changing tastes. Confiscated with the rest of the Provence property in 1793, it was initially reserved for display in a national museum. Three years later, as the financial situation in France worsened, the cabinet was sold off. In 1809 it was offered to the imperial household for 30,000 francs by the then owner, who was said to have paid over 60,000 francs for it. Napoleon was strongly encouraged to acquire the cabinet for Saint-Cloud, but this advice was unequivocally rejected in 1811: 'S.M. veut faire du neuf et non acheter du vieux'. George IV had no such inhibitions when it came up for sale in the Watson Taylor collection; he purchased it for 400 guineas with the intention of using it at Windsor Castle. In 1853 Queen Victoria allowed the fourth Marquess of Hertford to have a copy made. Executed by John Webb in 1855-7, it cost the enormous sum of £2,500.
Stamped J.H. RIESENER
Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002
ProvenanceMade for the comtesse de Provence, c.1787; confiscated 1793; sold 1796; Femme Aulmont, by 1809; George Watson-Taylor; his sale, Christie's, London, 28 May 1825 (76); bought by Robert Fogg for George IV (400 guineas). This cabinet was twice offered to Napoleon; first by Femme Aulmont in 1809, when it was rejected because Napoleon thought the price of 30,000 francs too high (although it reputedly cost 80,000 francs to make) and second in 1811, because he felt it was too old-fashioned in style. 'S.M. veut faire du neuf et non acheter du vieux', wrote the Master of his Household in the margin of the letter containing the offer (F.J.B. Watson in 'The Connoisseur Coronation Book', 1953, pp.63-5).
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