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Production of French Decorative Arts in the 1700s


Comfort and convenience were hallmarks of good taste in eighteenth-century Europe. To meet these fashionable demands, designers developed a wide variety of specialized, multipurpose furniture. For instance, at her combined desk and dresser, a lady could keep household accounts, write letters, serve refreshments, play cards, sew or embroider, groom hair, or freshen cosmetics--all without leaving her chair.


Strict legal regulations governed the production of such expensive furniture in France. Major pieces, for example, are often struck or indented with their makers' marks as proof that the works met guild standards. Exceptions, or unsigned pieces, include the work of craftsmen appointed to the royal court, who could ignore guild inspections, and furniture made in shops located in the privileged, tax-free neighborhoods of Paris.

Menuisiers (carpenters) worked primarily on chairs, beds, picture frames, and other carved furnishings, including the carcasses or bodies inside veneered pieces. Ebénistes (cabinetmakers) created veneered furniture such as desks, tables, and dressers. Their name derives from an old association with ebony, an expensive, imported wood.

The veneered work consists of a structural carcass--almost always oak--encased by marquetry. The thin sheets of fine woods in marquetry are cut and arranged in "jigsaw puzzle" fashion, glued down, and sanded to an even, flat surface before final varnishing. Ebénistes used about forty trees native to France, and customs officials recorded another fifty-seven exotic inlay woods, many imported from French colonies in the East and West Indies.

Fondeurs (founders) created metal fittings and furnishings. Doré d'or moulu, or ormolu, which translates as "pulverized or ground gold," is the finest gilt metal. The sculptural design was modeled in wax, cast in bronze, and finished by engraving or chasing the details. The surface was gilded by applying an amalgam of gold and mercury. After the mercury was driven off as a vapor by kiln heating, the gold deposit remained as an integral part of the bronze. Ormolu is practical as well as decorative because the metal creates a protective sheath around furniture feet, legs, and top edges, where marquetry or lacquer might snag or chip.

In 1662, Louis XIV had founded a royal factory in the Paris suburb of Gobelins to create the furnishings, mirrors, and tapestries for Versailles and his other palaces. Because Gobelins could work only on orders from the court, another factory was sanctioned in 1664 at the northern French city of Beauvais to supply the nobility, bourgeoisie, and foreigners. Gobelins and Beauvais shared many of the same designers and weavers, causing their tapestries to be virtually indistinguishable.

Johann Joachim Kaendler (designer), German, c. 1706 - 1775, Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen GmbH (manufacturer), Candelabrum: Swan Among Rushes, c. 1750, porcelain, 68.6 x 61.6 x 45.1 cm, Gift of George D. Widener, 1972.20.2.a

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The subjects of these gilt-bronze andirons create visual puns on the English synonym firedogs and its French equivalent, chenets. Presumably made for a hunting lodge, these firedogs depict hounds fighting a boar and a wolf who both have already killed one dog. The lively sculpture groups appear to be the work of Jacques Caffiéri, a prominent Paris fondeur (founder) of Italian descent. The rococo stands, holding hunting horns and quivers of arrows, swirl in abstract shapes.

Fantasy marks the marble chimneypiece (cheminée), carved about 1750. Its motifs of seashells are so extravagantly scalloped that they dissolve into curves purely for the sake of curves.

The relief sculpture of the cast-iron fireback is cleverly chosen from classical mythology. In the cavern of Hades, Pluto carries his two-pronged poker for brimstone. Entertaining him, the musician Orpheus plays bagpipes in an attempt to reclaim his wife Eurydice from the realm of the dead. Behind blazing logs, this scene would take place, appropriately, in hellfire.

Atop the mantel is a charming marble statuette, The Punishment of Cupid, a highly popular design by Etienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-1791). Venus, the goddess of love, spanks her mischievous son with a bouquet of thornless roses. Chinese porcelains, imported to France, flank the statuette. Representing grotesque fish monsters, the inner pair was mounted about 1730/1755 in French gilt bronzes of cattails and seaweed, scrolling amid shells and rocks, the epitome of rococo ornament. The outer pair bears neoclassical gilt-bronze mounts made about 1780/1785. Despite their mermaid handles and masks of Bacchus, the god of wine, these vases are purely decorative and were never intended to hold water or wine.

Attributed to Jacques Caffiéri, French, 1678 - 1755, Andiron (feu or chenet), probably 1750/1755, chased and gilded bronze and cast iron, 46.4 x 44.7 x 24.8 cm, Gift of George D. Widener and Eleanor Widener Dixon, 1957.7.11

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This two-drawer commode, with its sides undulating in bombé swellings, defines the rococo style at its most opulent. Like the Chinese porcelains and the furniture with Japanese lacquer in these rooms, it is an escapist fantasy based on exotic cultures. As trade with the Far East increased, importing Oriental materials and customs such as wearing silk and drinking tea became fads in eighteenth-century Europe.

In the commode's veneer, peonies, which are Oriental blossoms, emerge from horns of plenty to create large oval shapes. This bold, spotted effect continues in the choice of a splotchy marble, called breccia, for the top. Jean-Mathieu Chevallier, who stamped this piece, was a furniture dealer as well as a cabinetmaker specializing in complex, colored veneers. Although very faded now, the pinks and greens of the peonies and leaves were stained into the woods with dyes.

The lively gilt-bronze mounts include cattails as well as Chinese men holding dragons, parrots, and parasols. Two fighting dragons guard the lower keyhole. Two more dragons, with serpentine tails and arrowhead tongues, fly upside-down across the bottom edge near the front legs. In a rococo whimsy, they are contrasted to each other. The one at the left has feathered bird wings, but the dragon on the right flies on membraned bat wings.

Jean-Mathieu Chevallier, French, 1696 - 1768, Chest of Drawers (commode), mid-18th century, possibly 1743/1744, veneered on oak stained black with tulipwood, kingwood, sycamore, purplewood, boxwood, and other woods, some showing traces of having been colored by staining; gilded bronze mounts; marble top, 85 x 139.2 x 64.6 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.414

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This chest of drawers with bombé (convex) surfaces veneered in floral sprays has gilt-bronze mounts of fanciful foliage, which cunningly disguise the upper and lower drawer handles.

The oak body is stamped with the name "Joseph," the mark of a cabinetmaker of German birth, Joseph Baumhauer. He may have used his first name to escape prejudices in Paris against foreign-born craftsmen. Joseph was among the most prolific and versatile of rococo cabinetmakers. His studio held eight workbenches, suggesting he employed at least that many assistants.

Joseph Baumhauer, German, active c. 1749 - 1772, Chest of Drawers (commode), probably between 1767 and 1772 but possibly a decade earlier, oak veneered with tulipwood, kingwood, casuarina, and purplewood; gilded bronze mounts; breccia marble top, 84 x 124.5 x 57 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.412

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This porcelain swan was produced about 1750 from models attributed to Johann Joachim Kændler, the remarkably inventive and skillful artist who was chief sculptor at the celebrated Meissen factory in southeastern Germany. (Europe's earliest true porcelain had been invented at Meissen in 1709.) Kændler animated the large-scale swans with flapping wings, coiling necks, and parted beaks. Creating a rococo caprice, each bird nests in a marsh of gilt-bronze reeds. A five-branched candelabrum was made in Paris to hold the recently imported German swans.

Johann Joachim Kaendler (designer), German, c. 1706 - 1775, Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen GmbH (manufacturer), Candelabrum: Swan Among Rushes, c. 1750, porcelain, 68.6 x 61.6 x 45.1 cm, Gift of George D. Widener, 1972.20.2.a

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The maker of this magnificent writing table is Charles Cressent, one of the greatest French ébénistes of the eighteenth century. Trained in sculpture by his father, he became a master in the sculptors' guild in 1719. After his father's death in 1746, Cressent succeeded him as the court sculptor to Louis XV. By then, Cressent had long since been working mainly as a cabinetmaker, which had been his grandfather's profession.

As cabinetmaker to the young king's regent, the duc d'Orleans, and later to the king himself, Cressent may have grown arrogant. He was fined three times by tribunals for casting or gilding his own bronze mounts, which, by law, should have been done by specialists in metalwork.

The overall silhouettes of Cressent's furniture flow in fluid, sculptural masses. The gilt-bronze mounts, such as the four female busts emerging gracefully from this table's corners, reveal the finest modeling and hand-finishing. Details of the women's faces and lace caps were engraved or chased with stippled, shimmering textures.

Charles Cressent, French, 1685 - 1768, Writing Table (bureau plat), c. 1740/1745, veneered on oak and pine with kingwood, tulipwood, purplewood, boxwood, and ebony; gilded bronze mounts, 83.8 x 194.2 x 89.8 cm, Widener Collection, 1942.9.423

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