The Beurdeley family was one of the most important furniture production dynasties of the 19th century. They brought their art to a level of excellence rarely matched and which they maintained for three generations from 1818 to 1895. Particularly renowned for the quality of their gilt-bronze mounts, their systematic use of mercury gilding and their talent for chiseling enabled them to perpetuate the tradition of excellence from the 18th century.
The founder of the dynasty, Jean Beurdeley (1772-1853), settled in Paris in 1804. He first created a tabletier shop at 355 rue Saint-Honoré in 1818-1819, then an upholstery and furniture store at 364 rue Saint-Honoré after 1820. In 1834, he passed his business onto his son, Louis-Auguste-Alfred (1808-1882).
Louis-Auguste-Alfred moved to the prestigious Pavillon de Hanovre in 1840, situated at the corner of the Rue Louis-le-Grand and the Boulevard des Italiens. He soon gained fame and honor by continuing his father’s craftsmanship and creating furniture inspired mainly by the Louis XVI style. Excellent both in bronze work and in cabinet making, he became one of the main suppliers of the Imperial Garde-meuble during the Second Empire and notably received the commission for the Empress Eugénie's wedding chest in 1853.
Considered among the most talented creators during the second half of the 19th century, Louis-Auguste-Alfred naturally participated in the Great Exhibitions held in Paris in 1855 and 1867. In 1855, he exhibited the furniture made by him for the Empress’s boudoir, but regrettably was only awarded a bronze medal. Very disappointed, he did not enter the 1862 Exhibition. It was only in the context of the Great Exhibition of 1867 that he presented this splendid cabinet.
Louis-Auguste-Alfred had married an American, Constance-Virginie Fleytas (1804-1861), bearing a son, Alfred-Emmanuel-Louis (1847-1919). The latter, after a law degree, finally joined his father's workshops at the Pavillon de Hanovre. He took over the reins of the family business in 1875 and developed it considerably by opening additional workshops on rue Dautancourt, as well as a gallery in New York. This success, attested by his participation in the Paris Great Exhibition in 1878, as well as that of Amsterdam in 1883, continued until 1895, the date of his retirement and the closing of his workshops.
The cabinet at the Great Exhibition of 1867
In 1867, the second Great Exhibition organized by the Second Empire opened in Paris. Installed for the first time along the Champ-de-Mars and reached directly by train, it welcomed more than 5,200 exhibitors and 11,000 visitors in a palace built by the architect, Le Play. Nicknamed the « Colisée moderne », this edifice showed the triumph of rationality, while proving the strength and productive power of the nations represented.
According to Camille Mestdagh, "the works of the exposition were unique both by the prestige of the collaborations and by the artistic qualities of their craftsmen. The cost of their realisation was such that they were difficult to sell because of their prices: according to a report on the Exhibition, Louis-Auguste-Alfred Beurdeley thus expected 100.000 francs au bas mot for his large ebony bookcase ornated with bronze and pietre dure inlays "(Mestdagh, op.cit., p. 67). Among the artisans represented, the commonly-held opinion then considered Beurdeley, official supplier to the Emperor, as "the favorite of the crowned heads; for who other than kings and princes of finance could have the means to satisfy the delicate penchants of their refined taste when they turn to a man such as Mr. Beurdeley for a purchase, who pours an extravagant amount of money into the conscientious execution of his works.” (C. Mestdagh, op.cit., 88).
If the cabinet gained the admiration of all and won the gold medal for Louis-Auguste-Alfred, the latter was none the less disappointed and wrote to the Count of Nieuwerkerke on July 4th: "I only got the gold medal, I was hoping for the cross [of the Legion of Honour] "(C. Mestdagh, op.cit., 141). It was his son Alfred-Emmanuel who would finally obtain the precious insignia in 1883, at the end of his triumph at the Great Exhibition of Amsterdam.
A tribute to the Renaissance, Louis XVI and Empire Styles
Though the furniture’s overall appearance initially recalls Renaissance furniture with two sections, an impression further accentuated by the use of ebony and pietre dure, its structure and its proportions are reminiscent of the large jewelry cabinets made at the turn of the 18th and the 19th centuries. Among the most famous was one delivered by Schwerdfeger for Marie-Antoinette (still displayed at Versailles) and the one made by Jacob-Desmalter for Joséphine (now housed at the Louvre). The reliefs of deities adorning the latter may have inspired Beurdeley for the Three Graces on the cabinet’s lower part.
However, even more than the Renaissance or the Empire, it is a tribute to the Louis XVI style that prevails here, especially in the choice of gilt-bronze ornaments. The stunning arabesques of the upper doors seem to be inspired by the Pompeian style panels of Marie-Antoinette's boudoir in Fontainebleau. The side drawer handles are topped with flowery baskets based on a pattern adorning the Queen's cylinder secretaire at the Tuileries (now kept in the Louvre). Finally, to cite only the most obvious examples, the superb lower door owes a great deal, in its design and ornamentation, to the central panel from the commodes at the Queen’s Salon des Jeux in Compiègne, which includes Marie-Antoinette's initials as a flower garland. It is interesting to note that during the Second Empire, these commodes were kept in the Empress’ chamber at Saint-Cloud, and at the behest of Eugénie who worshipped the unfortunate Queen of France. The year 1867 was the pinnacle of the Louis XVI style, not only at the Great Exhibition, but also at the Petit Trianon where an exhibition was about Marie Antoinette and organized by the Empress herself. Notably, the Queen's jewelry cabinet was on display. Among the lenders were Eugénie, the Marquis de Hertford and the Baron Double. It is very likely that the Beurdeleys may have designed their bookcase for these enlightened admirers.
This scholarly interpretation of the Louis XVI models was undoubtedly the result of an active collaboration between Beurdeley father and son. C. Mestdagh suggests that Alfred-Emmanuel, "by his perfect knowledge of the 18th century, was the best of his time in copying and interpreting styles" (C. Mestdagh, op. cit., p. 13).
Due to their technical virtuosity, the Beurdeleys also appeared as the heirs of late 18th century bronze artisans. Concerning this topic, a direct witness account during the Exhibition, by Philippe Burty, said in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in January 1868: "The exposition of Mr. Beurdeley corresponds to what we just said about the use of luxury furniture for the encouragement of the art of chiseling. None of the four panels of his large bookcase, which was his main piece, were similar, and yet they answered each other and completed the ensemble with perfect harmony. The gilding, matte and fine, was comparable to that of furniture by Gouthières [sic]; the use of precious materials, jaspers, agates, lapis added to the brilliancy of a subdued and heightened richness.”
The execution of such a masterpiece required the assistance of specialized workers, especially in the bronze works. Among the names of the craftsmen employed as subcontractors by the Beurdeleys, we note « M. Hocus, ciseleur », « M. Antoine, doreur sur métaux », « M. Marquis, fabricant de bronzes » and « M. Picard et fils, doreurs sur métaux ». A sales inventory of the Beurdeleys’ stock-in-trade , conducted in 1861, also indicates that their workshops had at their disposal a large stock of hard stones, described as follows: "a considerable lot of precious materials consisting of lapis lazuli cut into slabs and uncut, a considerable lot of sanguine jasper, the rarest oriental agates [...] a considerable lot of large blocks of oriental porphyry ".
As Louis-Auguste-Alfred claimed in his letter to the comte de Nieuwerkerke: "I wanted to prove the richness of my products, the value of my trades ... my products are distinguished by their execution and exceptional finish, I am the only one to have executed work on hard materials, porphyry, granite ... I have poured millions into the business for the benefit of the many workers I have. I trained excellent artisans and artists.”
The auction of 1895
When Alfred-Emmanuel-Louis closed his workshops in 1895, it took no less than seven auctions to disperse his stock and the collections gathered by his father and grandfather. The cabinet was lot 565 of the sale which was held from May 6th to 9th, 1895 at Galerie Georges Petit. The sales expert, Charles Mannheim, also acquired many lots, including the cabinet which he bought for 11,100 French francs (C. Mestdagh, op cit, p. 100). The furniture was then lost until it reappeared on the art market during the 1950s. It was part of the collection of the Texas magnate, T.C. Morrow, from 1969 to 1989.
Expertly crafted for the 1867 Exhibition, this Beurdeley masterpiece is a brilliant testament of luxury furniture of the second half of the 19th century, whose craftsmanship was revived by the Second Empire. Unique in their production, it differs from the usual pastiches produced by their workshops and asserts itself as an original creation. A shining example of their artistic knowledge and technical know-how, it illustrates the transition from father to son.
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