An extremely fine and rare Empire gilt bronze mounted mahogany, satinwood and ebony credenza attributed to Jacob-Desmalter et Cie with magnificent bronzes attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire almost certainly after designs by Percier and Fontaine, the black Portoro marble top above gilt bronze ovolo banding and an inlaid satinwood and ebony frieze with palmettes and lotus motifs above scrolls and rosettes, with a central hidden frieze drawer that can only be opened once the door beneath is open, the frieze mounted at the front by four magnificent male herms, each with long curly hair and conforming beards and set upon squared pilasters enclosing a central square door mounted with a gilt bronze figure of Venus carried on the back of a hippocampus within an octagonal ebony frame, to either side two rectangular shaped doors mounted with pairs of inverted dolphins with entwined tails wrapped around Neptune’s trident, the central and right hand doors opening as a single entity while the left hand opens independently, the sides similarly decorated with two conforming herms above conforming dolphins and trident, the columnar supports upon a shaped rectangular base with gilt bronze foliate banding upon eight gilt bronze spiral tapering feet
Paris, date circa 1810
Height 98.5 cm, length 165 cm, depth 64 cm.
Provenance: The studio of Mes Laurin-Guilloux-Buffetaud-Tailleur, sold Drouot, Paris, 19th March 1985, lot 84.
Literature: Jean-Pierre Samoyault, “Mobilier Français Consulat et Empire”, 2009, p. 85, pl. 151, illustrating a comparable commode attributed to Jacob-Desmalter et Cie in the Toledo Museum, Toledo.
This handsome credenza compares closely with other luxury furniture made for the French Imperial palaces during the very early years of the nineteenth century. In particular it relates to a commode attributed to Jacob-Desmalter commissioned for Château de Malmaison, the residence of Napoleon’s first wife the Empress Joséphine, which is now in the Toledo Museum. Although the latter is of burr yew and features Egyptian style female caryatid herms, it nevertheless is of the same symmetrical and robust design and likewise is ornamented with sumptuous high quality bronze mounts. Furthermore the overall design of the present work which integrates youthful bearded herms on pronounced columns, mythical marine motifs in conjunction with a frieze of palmettes, anthemions and other classical decoration compares closely with the designs of Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853). Percier and Fontaine were largely instrumental in creating the Empire style that would define Napoleon’s reign as one of grandeur, power and order. Many of Percier and Fontaine’s designs were used by Jacob-Desmalter, Napoleon’s favourite firm of ébénistes. In turn Jacob-Desmalter was often supplied by the finest bronzier of the day, namely Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843). It is therefore believed that this work was designed by Percier and Fontaine and made by Jacob-Desmalter et Cie using mounts supplied by Thomire.
Among other similar works one can compare it with an equally sumptuous gilt bronze mounted cabinet (270 cm in height), which was commissioned in 1809 by Napoleon for the Empress Joséphine which is now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris(illustrated in Pierre Kjellberg, “Le Mobilier Français de la Transition Louis XV-Louis XVI à 1925”, 1980, p. 179). Of significance it was designed by Percier and Fontaine and made by Jacob-Desmalter with mounts by Thomire after models by the sculptor Antoine-Denis Chaudet (1763-1810). As here the cabinet features striking gilt bronze mounts which at centre show Venus flanked by a pair of inverted dolphins. Venus, the mythological goddess of love, was said to have been born of the sea hence she is riding on the back of a hippocampus, a fabulous marine creature with the fore parts of a horse and hind parts of a fish. Because of Venus’s association with the sea, dolphins became one of her attributes while the trident was represented in art as an attribute of Neptune, god of the sea.
In their “Recueil des décorations intérieures” (1812 edition), Percier and Fontaine include a number of designs integrating similar decorations as seen on the present piece. Among them bearded male busts upon a column often feature; sometimes they are slightly older as in a design for a chimney piece (pl. 31) or surmounting a sécrétaire à cylinder (pl. 32) but in other instances they are as young and handsome as they appear on the present piece, for instance in two designs for the Salle de la Venus for the Musée Napoleon at the Louvre (pls. 67 and 70). Again Percier and Fontaine’s Recueil includes hippocampi on a commode (pl. 40), a tea urn (pl. 34) and as a pair with a central trident on a sceau à laver (pl. 52). Likewise they often created similar designs as seen on the present inlaid ebony and satinwood frieze, for instance a design for a bedroom (pl. 19) includes a similar styled frieze above the canopied bed.
The renowned Parisian firm of ébénistes Jacob-Desmalter were masters at inlaid marquetry and often as here created a running frieze of dark organic motifs against a lighter background and even the figure of Venus reclining on a cockleshell being pulled across the water by a pair of swans, as featured on the side of a bed, once in the collection of J-B Chantrell (illustrated in Denise Ledoux-Lebard, in “Le Mobilier Français du XIXe Siècle” 2000, p. 356). The esteemed firm of Jacob-Desmalter et Cie at rue Meslée was run by François-Honoré-Georges Jacob (1770-1841) and his father Georges Jacob (1739-1814). Georges, who had made his name as one of the very finest menuisiers during the pre Revolutionary years retired in 1796, after which he handed his business on to his two sons, Georges II (1768-1803) and F-H-G Jacob. However Georges II died shortly after so his brother, who added the suffix of Desmalter (named after one of his father’s properties in Burgundy), went back into business with his father, renaming the firm Jacob-Desmalter et Cie.
Following Jacob-Desmalter’s appointment as ébéniste de l’Empereur the firm’s activities significantly increased. Numerous commissions came from the Garde-Meuble Imperial to supply furniture to various Bonaparte residences, especially those of the Empress Joséphine. The firm was also patronised by many notable figures and rich Parisian bourgeoisie. Commissions also came from abroad, from Czar Alexander I of Russia and Charles IV of Spain. Among the firm’s most important surviving items are the Imperial throne at Fontainebleau, the jewel cabinet made for Marie-Louise and the display cases in the Cabinet des Antiques at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Jacob-Desmalter’s work can also be admired in numerous other collections including the Châteaux de Compiègne, Fontainebleau, Malmaison, Versailles and Sceaux l’Ille-de-France as well as the Musées du Louvre, Marmottan, Mobile National, Grand Trianon, Napoléon and Tours. The Bibliothèque Marmottan, Banque de France, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères and the Palais d’Aranjuez in Spain are among many others to own Jacob-Desmalter’s work.
As noted many of their finest bronziers were supplied by Pierre-Philippe Thomire. So great was his repute that Thomire received numerous commissions to furnish the Imperial palaces with candelabra, centrepieces, vases, clock cases and other luxury bronzes though he also worked closely with the leading ébénistes of his day. Among many quality pieces, Thomire created bronzes with bearded male masks such as those appearing on an attributed gilt and patinated bronze vase now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Similar male mask heads also decorated a pair of gilt bronze wall-lights attributed to Thomire, previously owned by this gallery. In many respects the male heads recall the youthful features portrayed in the herm form bronze bust of Napoleon as Imperial Emperor made by Thomire in 1812 (Palazzo Pitti, Florence; illustrated in Hans Ottomeyer and Peter Pröschel, “Vergoldete Bronzen”, 1986, p. 346, pl. 5.5.16).
The appearance of bearded male masks in art was largely inspired by ancient Roman painted and low-relief wall and ceiling decorations, known as grotesques which came to light when excavated during the Renaissance period. The most famous were those found in Nero’s Golden House on the Esquiline, Rome, which revealed an array of painted arabesques and fanciful images including bearded male masks. Such images inspired the Renaissance painters such as Raphael and were later integrated within Neo-classical art during the reigns of both Louis XVI and Napoleon Bonaparte.
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