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Members' Research Report Archive

The Furniture of Bernard Vanrisamburgh II, Master Cabinetmaker in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Grace Chuang [New York University]
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2016–2018

Bernard  Vanrisamburgh II, Lean-to Writing Desk (secrétaire en pente), c. 1750c. 1750

Bernard Vanrisamburgh II, Lean-to Writing Desk (secrétaire en pente), c. 1750, veneered on oak (stained purple on the underside of the top) with tulipwood cut on the quarter, root-cut kingwood, and other end-cut woods; gilded bronze mounts, Widener Collection, 1942.9.419

In the years immediately following his death, Bernard Vanrisamburgh II (1696/1705–1766) was given an honor more frequently granted to painters, printmakers, or clockmakers than to cabinetmakers: His name was included in descriptions of his works in several auction catalogs. Indeed, in the catalog for an auction in 1771 of the porcelain collection and furnishings of a retired Parisian merchant, the following note was inserted between the descriptions of two lots: “These two cabinets, as well as the following writing desk, are by Bernard, skillful artist, and are capable of holding their own in the most distinguished settings.” This catalog was compiled by one of the luxury dealers with whom Vanrisamburgh had a close professional relationship, so it is unsurprising that the dealer could identify him. However, the fact that the dealer felt it pertinent to inform prospective bidders of the first name of his deceased supplier—in italics, no less—suggests that for connoisseurs of luxury furnishings, “Bernard” was a known quantity with a reputation for quality.

However, a more cynical interpretation of Vanrisamburgh’s mention
by name in catalogs only during the decade following his death could be that while he was still alive, the various middlemen to whom he invariably sold his furniture found it prudent to conceal the actual source of his finely constructed furniture from their clients, even when the piece in question was created in response to a specific commission. Consideration of such divergent yet nonexclusive possibilities shapes the first chapter of my dissertation, which investigates the socioeconomic conditions under which Vanrisamburgh produced and sold his furniture. Unlike the other Parisian cabinetmakers of the ancien régime whose oeuvres epitomize the style of a period, Vanrisamburgh—whose output does so for the style rocaille during the reign of Louis XV—never held an official title of cabinetmaker to the king or regent that would have freed him from guild regulations and given him the liberty to conduct the multiple steps in the creation of a piece of furniture in his own workshop.

The son of a cabinetmaker who immigrated from The Netherlands, Vanrisamburgh lived and worked his entire career in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, a working-class neighborhood of Paris with a high concentration of both immigrants and cabinetmakers. Although his father became a member of the guild of cabinetmaker-joiners of Paris and Vanrisamburgh followed in his footsteps, he never took advantage of guild regulations giving him the right to open a boutique and sell directly to the public. When Vanrisamburgh sold the contents of his workshop to his son in 1764, the inventory mentions only three workbenches, implying that it was a small operation. My analysis of the surviving archival traces of Vanrisamburgh’s overlapping professional and personal networks has led to a working hypothesis that he chose to sell exclusively to luxury dealers and fellow cabinetmakers as part of a business model that minimized his financial risk and reward alike.

The middle chapter of my dissertation is framed by the related question of why successive luxury dealers dominating the highest end of the market repeatedly chose to call upon Vanrisamburgh for case furniture. After assembling a database of his extant works and conducting in-depth examinations of select pieces by Vanrisamburgh and his contemporaries, including his secrétaire en pente in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, I have concluded that two characteristics made Vanrisamburgh’s workshop the choice for these dealers. The first is that the workshop produced carcasses that were carefully designed, meticulously assembled, and more tidily finished than those made by Parisian cabinetmakers. Luxury dealers could thus be sure that the geographically and/or technologically exotic materials such as Japanese lacquer and Sèvres porcelain plaques they provided for Vanrisamburgh would be set on carcasses that posed the least risk of splitting, warping, or otherwise straining the costly surface decoration to the point of breakage as a result of fluctuations in temperature and humidity or frequent use.

Second, Vanrisamburgh may well have pioneered and was certainly the most technically accomplished producer of a type of marquetry in exotic woods. It consisted of a combination of sinuous and attenuated floral and foliate elements rendered in a darker wood set against a background of lighter wood, often  surrounded by a curvilinear frame in yet another darker wood. Owing to their abstract planarity, the design elements in this type of marquetry resist identification beyond their status as representations of flowers and leaves on calligraphic tendrils, highlighting the natural patterning of the wood grain as well as the unified smoothness of the curved surfaces of most of his case furniture.

The final chapter of my dissertation asks how furniture by Vanrisamburgh participated in the performative construction of identity in the élite domestic interior. Specifically, I examine how the two characteristics described above facilitated the activities of inhabitants of these interiors and their social interactions with family, servants, friends, colleagues, and guests. The skill of Vanrisamburgh’s workshop in carcass design and construction made his writing furniture ideal for experimentation with rudimentary strategies of concealment beyond the primary defense of lock and key. For example, in his National Gallery of Art secrétaire, the frame housing the drawers can be removed, allowing the insertion of shims to block access to the recesses underneath the sliding panels in front of the drawers even when the secrétaire is unlocked.

One of the most salient features of marquetry in the style of Vanrisamburgh is that the floral and foliate elements are, by and large, disposed with approximate symmetry with respect to the form they adorn, as is also the case for carved wall paneling in the restrained manifestation of the style rocaille in France. I propose that by echoing and amplifying underlying rhythms in the surroundings, case furniture with floral marquetry in the style of Vanrisamburgh played a role not only in orienting individuals in these richly decorated interiors but also in subtly encouraging them to adopt standards of comportment appropriate to the underlying order of their surroundings.