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Neoclassical Decorative Arts of the Late 1700s



During the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792), many French intellectuals called for a moral austerity and social dignity that they associated with ancient Greece and republican Rome. Neoclassicism, adapting ideals from classical civilizations, replaced the pastel frivolity of the earlier rococo mode with a clear-cut sobriety. Eighteenth-century excavations at the ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, provided archeological artifacts to inspire this new, classicizing style.

Flat surfaces and straight edges reflect the architectural sources for Louis XVI design. Elements of ancient Roman moldings, friezes, and columns became important motifs. Neoclassical furniture employed geometrical forms—squares, circles, and triangles—for decorative patterns as well as overall silhouettes. Tastes had changed gradually from the time of Louis XV to that of his grandson Louis XVI. Therefore, the furniture of the 1760s and 1770s is sometimes called transitional because it incorporates both graceful rococo curves and the geometrical severity of the later neoclassical mode.

Jean-Henri Riesener, French, 1734 - 1806, Writing Table (table à écrire), 1784, veneered on oak with mahogany, sycamore, ebony, and boxwood, 76 x 81.8 x 49.1 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.407

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A ribboned, floral bouquet executed in wood marquetry fills the top of this table. The yellow of the daffodils has faded, but traces remain of the green and red dyes used to stain the leaves and roses. Otherwise, this lady's desk is extraordinarily well preserved.

When the key is inserted, springs move the top back halfway while a writing compartment glides forward, doubling the work area. Deep drawers on both sides are simultaneously unlocked and then can be pulled out manually. The owner, when finished with her correspondence or household accounts, could lift the hinged writing surface to reveal the mirror on its back and compartments for cosmetics below.

Jean-François Leleu, who signed this work, also supplied furniture for the pleasure pavilion built in 1770-1771 at Louveciennes for Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV. The decoration at Louveciennes presented neoclassicism as the approved court style. The straight lines and perfect circles of this early, transitional-style table are imposed on a curving, rococo silhouette.

Leleu gained his expertise in pictorial veneer from his teacher, Jean-François Oeben. For a man who could invent such refined designs, Leleu had a violent temper. When a fellow apprentice, Jean-Henri Riesener, inherited the studio of their master Oeben, Leleu was outraged and spent the rest of his career suing Riesener in vain.

Jean-François Leleu, French, 1729 - 1807, Combined Toilet and Writing Table (toilette à transformations), c. 1764/1775, veneered on oak with tulipwood, kingwood, pearwood, purplewood, sycamore, holly, boxwood, and ebony, some of the woods being originally stained green and other colors; drawers partially of mahogany; sparsely mounted with gilded bronze, 70.5 x 55.8 x 39.3 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.422

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This rolltop desk is stamped underneath by Jean-Henri Riesener, one of the greatest Parisian cabinetmakers. After his master Jean-François Oeben died in 1763, Riesener inherited the studio and, five years later, married Oeben's widow.

The rolltop desk was introduced about 1760 by Oeben. The top of this one includes a tilting, adjustable easel, so that a gentleman could stand to read or write. Wide writing slides and long drawers with inkwells are concealed on both sides, providing work space for two male secretaries.

Mountings with neoclassical motifs of circular laurel wreaths and symmetrical sprays of acanthus foliage enhance Riesener's desk. These geometrical plants and straight edges contrast with the subtle curve of the legs, a transitional reminder of the rococo style.

In the center of the front drawer and in the corresponding position on the back, intertwined ribbons of gilt bronze form the letters LB. This monogram could refer to any number of men named Louis in the Bourbon-Condé royal family. Since the initials are a different color metal, however, they may be later additions.

Jean-Henri Riesener, French, 1734 - 1806, Roll-top Desk (Bureau à cylindre), c. 1775/1785, veneered on oak principally with tulipwood and purplewood, with ebony (or wood stained to resemble ebony) and boxwood for stringing; gilded bronze mounts, 121.3 x 128.2 x 78.2 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.410

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According to Jean-Henri Riesener's account ledger for May 28, 1784, this table was ordered for Queen Marie Antoinette's private apartments in the Tuileries Palace, Paris. Detailed descriptions and measurements, as well as a court inventory number inked underneath the tabletop, confirm its identity. After the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the royal family was held for three years in the Tuileries. Marie Antoinette must have used this piece during that imprisonment before she was guillotined in 1793.

Besides its historical interest, the single-drawer table is a superb example of Riesener's artistry. With great perception, he emphasized the delicate taper of the legs by inlaying panels of darker wood that interrupt the paler surrounding veneer. Flanked by Roman flutings alternating with openwork palmettes, gilded central plaques depict cupids frolicking among clouds while playing musical instruments.

It may not be coincidental that Riesener, the official cabinetmaker to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, came from Essen, Germany. The French queen, born in Austria, also spoke German. Ironically, the French Revolution did not destroy Riesener's career; he was employed to remove the royal emblems from his own court furniture!

Jean-Henri Riesener, French, 1734 - 1806, Writing Table (table à écrire), 1784, veneered on oak with mahogany, sycamore, ebony, and boxwood, 76 x 81.8 x 49.1 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.407

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At a quick glance, this lady's writing table, signed underneath with Riesener's stamp, appears identical to a writing table of 1784 by the same artist, which was owned by Queen Marie Antoinette. In 1774 Riesenser was appointed the official cabinetmaker to Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI.

Each table has a wide writing slide on the front and a single deep drawer on one side. The gilt-bronze spiral ribbings, which cause both tables' legs to shimmer in the light, are so much alike that they must have been cast from the same molds.

Distinction, however, is gained in several ways. Whereas all four sides of the queen's table bear gilded plaques representing cupids, this table is ornamented with scrolling panels of classical acanthus foliage centered on sunflowers. Gilded metal covers all fronts of the queen's table, while here, much of each front is veneer that repeats the diamond or trellis pattern created on the tabletop by parallel, triple stripes of wood.

Jean-Henri Riesener, French, 1734 - 1806, Writing Table (table à écrire), c. 1780, veneered on oak with mahogany, sycamore, purplewood, boxwood, ebony, and holly; gilded bronze mounts, 78.9 x 81.9 x 49.5 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.409

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When the writing surface of this lady's table is pulled forward, the top automatically slides back. The gilt-bronze corner ornaments consist of crossed torches and quivers of arrows. These ancient military motifs act here as emblems of love-burning passions and Cupid's darts.

The top is veneered with a neoclassical pattern of checkered squares punctuated by rosettes. Fluted legs taper to a daring slenderness, and the center panels of all four sides drop below the main silhouette. These deep falls appear to defy gravity, adding to the piece's apparent weightlessness.

Martin Carlin, who signed this table, was noted for such elegant proportions. He specialized in ladies' small-scale furniture, which he usually sold ready-made through dealers instead of working on commissions from patrons. Carlin's popularity is indicated in purchases made by Madame du Barry, Marie Antoinette, and the great-aunts of Louis XVI.

Born in Baden, Germany, Carlin had moved to Paris by 1759, when he married a sister of the cabinetmaker Jean-François Oeben. Along with Oeben's other pupils, including Leleu and Riesener, Carlin was among the most fashionable of neoclassical designers.

Martin Carlin, French, c. 1730 - 1785, Work and Writing Table, c. 1770, veneered with sycamore, tulipwood, purplewood, ebony, boxwood, and various other woods; gilded bronze mounts, 73.8 x 79.6 x 46.1 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.425

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David Roentgen worked near Frankfurt in his native Germany. Through extensive travels and his showrooms in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, he supplied furniture to most of Europe's royal courts. Roentgen was famed for pictorial veneer like the Music Party on top of this large neoclassical piece. Copying a design by the painter Januarius Ziek (1730-1796), Roentgen reproduced the picture in such detail that the musical scores are legible enough to be performed!

Roentgen's passion for intricate woodwork was matched by his zeal for complicated mechanisms. This desk's drawers automatically unfold into complex storage areas with many secret compartments.

The flat top's Music Party may once have been a slanted fall-front panel. In the picture's upper center, a wood plug fills what may have been an original keyhole. The drawer units also have been reinstalled in the present table, whose legs and body are early nineteenth-century substitutions for lost elements of an entirely different piece of furniture.

In 1779, Roentgen had sold to Louis XVI a huge, upright secretary-bookcase, including a clock and musical organ, for the highest price paid by the French crown for furniture during the eighteenth century. King Frederick the Great of Prussia and the duke of Lorraine both commissioned simpler variations of that fantastic piece. The National Gallery's table probably incorporates fragments of yet another version.

In part by David Roentgen and/or his workshop, German, 1743 - 1807; in part by an unknown craftsmen, probably French or German 19th Century, Writing Table with Mechanical Fittings (table mécanique or schreibtisch), partly c. 1779, partly 19th century, oak carcass; pictorial marquetry principally of sycamore, rosewood, applewood with some traces of coloring, and boxwood; table veneered principally with tulipwood, amboyna, ebony, and boxwood; interior fittings of Cuban mahogany; gilded bronze and brass mounts; steel mechanical fitments, 76.7 x 143 x 75.5 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.416

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