Fig 1. Percier et Fontaine, Recueil des Décorations Intérieures, 1801-1812, Plate 40 no.3

Documents such as the Recueil des décorations intérieures by the designers and architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, published in 1801, provide us with information on works of art made for wealthy patrons between 1795 and 1800. Plate 40 lists as N° 3 a commode à tiroirs exécuté à Paris for Mr du R [Fig. 1].

The façade of the present commode with five drawers, comprising three shorter drawers above a large central drawer above a smaller lower drawer, is extremely similar to the engraved plate. The design of the bronzes is almost identical, repeating the Winged Victory, the hippocamps, the scrolls and the friezes. There is no doubt that the present commode, stylistically a few years earlier than the one made for Mr de R., was made in one of the large cabinetmaking workshops at the time. Using the model of the commode à encoignures or commode à l'anglaise, the design is reminiscent of pieces produced by various prestigious Late Louis XVI cabinetmakers such as Martin Carlin, Adam Weisweiler, and Claude-Charles Saunier as well as the creative innovation of Guillaume Benneman or Bernard Molitor.

Palais Erzherzog Albrecht (now the Albertina), Vienna, in the 19th century
Fig 2. Serre-bijoux supplied to Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Ferdinand Schwerdfeger, 1787, Versailles, Vmb14266;OA5515. Photo: Christophe Fouin. Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Several clues point towards Jean-Ferdinand Schwerdfeger as the possible author of this work. Amongst the German cabinetmakers who worked in Paris on the eve of the Revolution, Jean-Ferdinand Schwerdfeger remains one of the least well known. Born in Lower Saxony in 1734, he moved to rue Saint-Sébastien, Paris in the 1780s. On 26 May 1786, at the age of 52, he became a master in the Cabinetmakers' Guild. A few pieces of furniture bearing his stamp are known, including the celebrated jewellery cabinet delivered to Queen Marie-Antoinette in 1787 [Fig. 2], proving that the remarkable quality of his production was already recognised by the Crown Garde-Meuble. The exquisitely luxurious decoration of this exceptional piece of furniture, now back in its original home at the Palace of Versailles, would have required collaboration with other preeminent craftsmen: the ornamental designer Jean Démosthène Dugourc, the bronze caster Martincourt, the chaser Thomire, the gilder Mellet, the sculptor Boizot, the engraver Libouis, the painters Lagrenée, Sauvage, and De Gault, as well as the silk merchant Nau. It is probable that Schwerdfeger was able to take advantage of Riesener's disgrace in 1784, as after this date, in 1786, the Queen commissioned furniture for her bedroom at the Petit Trianon from Schwerdfeger. Comprising a commode, a table and a console, this ensemble was delivered in 1788 and today it is partially preserved in its original location, as the commode is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A console table sold at Sotheby's Paris, 14 September 2017, lot 99 [Fig. 3], has been attributed to the Schwerdfeger based on its similarities to Marie-Antoinette's Trianon bedroom suite.

Fig 3. Console attributed to Jean-Ferdinand Schwerdfeger, sold Sotheby’s Paris 14 September 2017, lot 99

The present commode and the console table mentioned above have an identical structure and an irreproachable quality of manufacture to the carcase, which is highly typical of Schwerdfeger’s work. The upper section of the feet have a hexagonal section surmounting the tapered faceted feet, with fine mahogany veneers, mounts to the feet with threaded rods and copper nuts and invisible bronze fixings. The latter are always of admirable finesse and originality with varied patterns, and this furthermore suggests Schwerdfeger worked closely with the bronziers Thomire, Duport, Morant, and the gilder, Mellet.

A close examination of the gilt bronze mounts reveals further similarities between the commode and Marie-Antoinette's jewel cabinet. The monumental antique figures depicting the seasons on the cabinet are comparable to the full-length caryatids forming the stiles on the present commode. The same small rosettes at the upper section of the legs of the console are identical to those delicately emphasizing the frame encompassing the drawers on the present commode. The innovative quality of the bronze ornaments is recurrent in both the present commode and the stand of the cabinet, as seen in the finesse of the swags, vine motifs and the scrolling foliage.
A few archival documents available on the cabinetmaker of the present commode allows us to trace his eventful political career and sustained activity during the Revolution and Directoire periods. An inventory drawn up in 1803, on the death of his wife, confirms that Schwerdfeger ran a busy and prosperous workshop up until his death in 1818.

The Habsburg provenance of the commode further supports an attribution to Schwerdfeger, as there is a strong possibility it was acquired by the Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Teschen. The Saxon prince Albert Casimir, son of King Augustus III of Poland, married Archduchess Maria-Christina, fifth child of Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and elder sister of Marie-Antoinette, in 1766, and was granted the Imperial title of Duke of Saxe-Teschen. The couple were well traveled and cosmopolitan in outlook, serving as governors of Hungary and traveling to Italy in the 1770s, where they began their collection of works of art, particularly drawings and prints, which would become a lifelong passion.

Fig 4. The Roter Salon, Palais Erzherzog Friedrich (now the Albertina), Vienna, before 1919

In 1781 the couple were named Governors of the Austrian Netherlands (the present day Kingdom of Belgium), with their seat in Brussels, where they had a palace constructed outside the city in Schoonenberg, now called Laeken, after designs by Charles de Wailly between 1782 and 1784. The palace was furnished in the most up-to-date neoclassical taste using suppliers from Brussels, Paris and Vienna. They visited their sister Marie-Antoinette in Paris in August 1786, where they received gifts of furniture and Gobelins tapestries, and also visited the marchand mercier Daguerre, who is likely to have provided furnishings for their Brussels interiors. An important set of drawings and watercolours of furniture, mounted porcelain vases and other objects, now in the Metropolitan Museum, is believed to have been a sort of sales prospectus sent by Daguerre to the Duke and Duchess.

The advance of the French Revolutionary armies on Brussels compelled the couple to return to Vienna in 1793, where they were given a 1744 palace adjacent to the Hofburg, later enlarged by architect Louis Montoyer. Maria-Christina died prematurely in 1798, and the grief-stricken Albert devoted the remainder of his life to enriching his impressive collection of graphic art. After his death the palace and its contents passed to Albert's nephew and adopted son Archduke Charles, then to his son Archduke Albrecht, then to Albrecht's nephew Archduke Friedrich, who until 1919 inhabited the palace, where the commode is seen in a pre-World War I photograph of the Roter Salon [Fig. 4]. After the war, the collection of prints and drawings was nationalised by the new Austrian Repbulic, and the palace was converted to a museum, renamed the Albertina. Archduke Friedrich retired to his property in Ungarisch-Altenburg (now Mosonmagyaróvár) in Northwest Hungary, but was allowed to to retain the furniture from his former Vienna residence, much of which was sold at auction in 1933. Today the Red Salon forms part of the Habsburg State Rooms in the Albertina.