Furniture by André-Charles Boulle was fashionable throughout the 18th century and although it experienced a relative disaffection during the Rococo area, it returned during the Classical Revival. Boulle's work fascinated his contemporaries as well as his clients and decorative art dealers. They were sought after and moved from one collection to another via inheritance and auctions. In the auction catalogue of the Angran de Fonspertuis collection in 1748, furniture by André-Charles Boulle is particularly highlighted by a flattering mention: "The works by this skilful man are always sought avidly by the curious, although they are different from a trend that reigns today. In spite of their age, they still serve as proof of the reputation which the excellent artist had so rightly acquired in the genre of cabinetmaking, and they still give authentic testaments of his fame. "
As Alexandre Pradère has pointed out, this cabinet à hauteur d'appui format was the result of an evolution originating in the tall cabinets on stands that, around 1770, no longer met the needs within new interior design trends. This modern interpretation required freeing a large surface above the furniture in order to affix paintings onto the walls. The height of the large marquetry panels on the cabinets on stands prevented this. The large cabinets on stands, such as those kept in the Louvre (inv. OA 5468, cf. fig. 4) were sometimes transformed. The cabinet’s upper part changed into a cabinet à hauteur d’appui and the lower part into a console table. This is obviously an evolution dictated by a very small number of collectors, but whose influence was nevertheless unavoidable.
This new design was immortalized by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin in a sketch depicting the gallery of Pierre Louis Paul Randon de Boisset in 1777 (fig. 3).
This recognition of the "antique penchant" for Boulle furniture would naturally allow for many reproductions and transformations of parts dating from the early 18th century. This type of intervention was very common, often led by cabinetmakers like R. Dubois, J.-F. Delorme, P.-C. Montigny and N.-P. Séverin, who specialized in the restoration and manufacture of "Boulle furniture". Perhaps foremost in this practice was Étienne Levasseur, who renovated, changed, adapted, reused and created furniture for his contemporaries, who loved the fashionable Boulle revival.
Étienne Levasseur and Claude-François Julliot, saviours, interpreters and creators of Boulle furniture
The collaboration between the cabinetmaker and decorative arts dealer was deemed brilliant by Alexandre Pradère. Their association, through numerous commissions and achievements, contributed to the development of the “Boulle revival” during the 1770s.
Étienne Levasseur received Master cabinetmaker status in 1767. He was trained in the workshop of one of André-Charles Boulle’s sons. Being highly-skilled, he was one of the leading Boulle restorers and furniture makers around 1770-1780 and collaborated with decorative art dealers including the Julliot dynasty. The Julliot family of marchands-merciers specialized in luxury goods and furniture retail in Paris during the 18th century. Whether it was the father Claude-Antoine (died in 1769), his son Claude-François (1727-1794), or his grandson Philippe-François (1755-1835), their name is inextricably linked to the decorative arts market at the time. As a specialist in Boulle furniture, Claude-François contributed to the appraisal and then the drafting of auction catalogues.
At the time, handwritten annotations for the lots along the margin of auction catalogues was a widespread habit and informs us very often of the name of the acquirer and the price that was bid. The name of Julliot appears frequently as a representative on behalf of a collector, or simply as a buyer. In 1770, Colonel Saint-Paul cited him in his guidebook Les bonnes adresses de Paris (The good addresses of Paris): "Julliot at the corner of Rue d'Orléans facing the Arbre Sec, Rue St Honoré, has a large furniture store and especially Boulle's works".
The auction catalogue after the death of Julliot’s wife on 20 November 1777 "where Mr. Julliot held an auction for some of his furniture and almost all the goods that were the stock of his business", Au Curieux des Indes, is particularly revealing in the fine objects that he sold: "marbles, bronzes, agates, antique porcelain, modern, new items from Japan & China, antique lacquer wares, furniture by Boulle & other genres, rock crystal and gilt bronze chandeliers, mirror frames, candles, brackets, girandoles, gilt bronze candlesticks".
Within some selected examples, we will explain the role taken by Levasseur in the conservation and reuse of Louis XIV furniture. His intervention was not always confined to a banal restoration. At times he had to undertake major re-interpretations which in turn often lead to new creations, allowing him to reappropriate some achievements by the master:
- The cabinet from the former collection of the Marquis de la Mure and Donjeux (auction Christie’s, Paris, 27 November 2018, lot 501) has all the characteristics of furniture made around 1710-1715, initially supported by a stand which disappears and is replaced by a plinth (stamped by Levasseur). This adaptation gives it a height (99 cm) more aligned with the aesthetic criteria in vogue during the 1780s. Furthermore, this structure has directly served as a model for the manufacture of cabinets like the one we present where the similar format and ornamental repertoire is often used.
- The commode à tambour from the Rohan-Chabot auction on 10 December 1787, sold at Sotheby's in Paris on 5 November 2005, lot 305 (stamped E. Levasseur). The only noticeable difference when compared to the Brownlow commode with première-partie, lies in the acanthus leaf frieze above the upper drawer, which was certainly added by Étienne Levasseur between 1770-1780 and which enables one to identify it in the Rohan-Chabot auction of 1787 with the mention of "top and sides with moldings, with leaves" whilst the rest of the description coincides in every other aspect. Levasseur enhanced the original dresser by modifying the core by adding a structure of 7 cm in height, very distinctly noticed on the rear of the cabinet. Furthermore, he adorned the cabinet with a gilt bronze acanthus leaf frieze on the facade and sides.
- The secrétaire with fall-front, auction Sotheby's London, 6 July 2010, lot 7, was transformed from a Boulle commode.
We thus find two cabinets, one identical to ours with première-partie in the Julliot sale of 20 November 1777, lot 694 (and lot 695 with contre-partie) which according to the annotation in the catalogue was bought by Radix de Sainte-Foy. This piece of furniture is found in the Charles-Pierre Maximilian Radix de Sainte-Foy auction, 22 April 1782, at no. 140, with a matching contre-partie cabinet at no. 141.
Interestingly, when analysing the furniture detailed in the Julliot auction of 1777: " No. 694: A première-partie cabinet with rich copper & tin design, the middle section with a fall-front with vase & flowers, fitted with four small drawers ; each side is enriched with a Louis XIV medallion, with laurel leaf garlands, a foliate frieze, flat band framing with zephyrs along the upper part, terminating in clawed scrolls, with masks on lower section and interlaced moulding, with rosettes enclosing the marquetry, four drawers on each side, adorned masks; the plinth support with beaded thread and square mouldings with rosettes, on four heavy spiral feet, with gilt bronze mounts and gray granite marble top". This description seems to correspond very closely to our cabinet, particularly in the catalogue Meubles curieux de marqueterie, some are explicitly mentioned as by Boule. We can perhaps deduce that those not listed in this corpus, like no. 694, were deemed to be of a later date. No indication is provided on the dimensions. It is therefore tempting to compare our piece of furniture to it. The description from the Radix de Sainte-Foy auction is scrupulously identical to that of the Julliot sale, but the furniture is presented under the title: "Marquetry furniture, By Boule", "140. A Cabinet, with première-partie (...) gray granite. Height 37 inches 6 lig., width 35 inches, depth 17 inches". We cannot rely on the attribution ‘By Boule’, however, the sizes given in the second sale are precise enough to rule out the connection with our cabinet which is not as wide.
We will list several cabinets of this model with known descriptions and illustrations to enable a relevant comparison. All have a height of about 100 cm (37 inches), a width of 95 cm (35 inches) and a depth of 44 cm (16 inches). What immediately draws our attention is one cabinet from an auction held on 31 December 1787, no. 313, which has a width of less than 15 cm (6 inches). The auction catalogue description seems to correspond to our cabinet: "313. A première-partie cabinet made by Boule, rich copper and tin [design], against a tortoise-shell layer, opening with fall-front with four drawers inside; the front enriched with a Louis XIV medallion, with laurel leaf garlands, framing with flat bands & zephyrs, terminating with a scrollwork with lion claws & masks; the sides with four drawers, [also] fitted with frameworks; the top with leaf ornaments: all above feet with a very ornate projection, speckled marble top. Height 37 inches (99.9 cm), width 29 inches (78.3 cm), depth 16 inches 6 lines (44.8 cm)" (fig. 5). During this auction, lots 1 to 99 were from the Rohan-Chabot collection and described in his wife’s posthumous inventory of 22 December 1786 (Elizabeth Louise de la Rochefoucauld, wife of Louis-Antoine Auguste de Rohan, Duke of Chabot). The supplement, from lot 100 to the end, was fully compiled by the dealer Lebrun.
This raises the question of the ebony top which is, as the pair in the Louvre, veneered with ebony and decorated with a double pewter filet. Usually all cabinets of this model have a marble top and a thin top which does not overlap seems incompatible with the structural and harmonious balance of the whole piece of furniture. The black granite top on the present piece, although added later, nevertheless contributes to the exactitude of its proportions.
As suggested by Frédéric Dassas in his publication (op.cit.), the pair of cabinets housed at the Louvre (inv.OA 5354 and OA 5454) present features that make it possible to envisage a Levasseur creation rather than a transformation of a Boulle Louis XIV piece of furniture. Our cabinet aligns with this process. Cabinet making, whether the construction of the core, or the assembly of oak drawers, is similar to a production from the third quarter of the 18th century, the bronzes with typical Louis XVI chiseling.
When they were seized from Charles-Joseph Lenoir du Breuil during the French Revolution, they had a height of 37 inches (99.9 cm). Transformed under Louis-Philippe’s reign, they increased by 14 cm by inserting an additional plinth placed between the bottom of the body and the base (the story continues ...).
Another pair of cabinets in première-partie and contre-partie from the former collection of the Earl of Essex, then the Duke of Gramont which sold at Tajan in 2000, have the same features. (fig. 7). In this regard, the Julliot provenance is to be dismissed because of the medallions of Henri IV and Sully, which decorate the facade of these pieces of furniture.
Cabinet à hauteur d’appui model with zephyr head, proposed classification:
- Cabinets with première and contre-partie maquetry panels from the posthumous sale of the decorative art dealer Julliot’s wife on 20 November 1777, lots 694 and 695, then in the Radix Sainte-Foy auction of 22 April 1782, lots 140 and 141 are very well described in these auction catalogues and allow for a comparison with those from the Louvre and those belonging to Sir Anthony Nathan de Rothschild
- A pair of cabinets with première and contre-partie maquetry panels at the Louvre (OA 5453 and OA 5454, fig. 8);
- A pair of cabinets with première and contre-partie maquetry panels, Europ Auction, Paris, 26 September 2012, lot 245 (fig. 6);
- A pair of cabinets, former Earl of Essex Collection, London auction on 12 June 1893 then Duke of Gramont, auction, Galerie Georges Petit, 22 May 1925, lot 68, then sold by Tajan, George V Hotel, 20 December 2000, lot 255 (fig. 7);
- A pair of cabinets, from the former Anthony de Rothschild collection, sold Christie's, London, 13 June 1923, lot 88, which is now identified as a work from the second half of the 19th century attributed to Charles-Guillaume Winckelsen (cf. C. Payne, Paris, la quintessence du meuble au XIXe siècle, St-Rémy-en-l'Eau, 2018, pp. 118-119);
- A pair of similar cabinets in the collection of Baron Vivant Denon (cf. op. cit. L. J. J. Dubois, 1826, p. 189, no. 330);
- A cabinet in the Hamilton Palace Sale, 18 June 1882, lot 174; marquetry panels along the facade with a different design;
- A cabinet with première-partie in the Jones Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. 118-1882), presented as an adaptation of a Boulle cabinet by Levasseur circa 1770 and then transformed by A. Weisweiler between 1785-1790, with a different marquetry door;
- A cabinet with première-partie at Blenheim, same door as the Victoria and Albert Museum, described by Peter Hugues as probably from the mid-19th century ("Boulle at Blenheim", in L’Objet d'art, no. 416, sept. 2006);
- A pair of cabinets with contre-partie maquetry panels from the Wallace Collection, London (inv. F391-392), circa 1775, each probably from a separate pair then assembled;
- A pair of cabinets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (inv. 1974.391.1-2), late 18th century, with a different central leaf door;
- A pair of cabinets at the Frick collection, New York (16.5.4 and 16.5.5), made in England, mid-19th century.
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