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Highs and Lows: the life of a cabinetmaker in 18th-century Paris

If you come to the Wallace Collection and look at the wonderful French eighteenth-century furniture, you’ll hear a lot about the people for whom it was made – Queen Marie-Antoinette, princes, dukes and aristocrats from 18th-century France. But what about the people who made these beautiful objects? Who were they and where did they live? How did they achieve that level of skill? In this blog Helen Jacobsen, Curator of French 18th century Decorative Arts explores the lives of these Parisian cabinetmakers.

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These are often difficult questions to answer, because the men (and women, by the way) who worked as cabinet-makers or ran the workshops didn’t live in great houses or palaces that we can admire today, and didn’t write hundreds of letters that were kept in archives for us to learn more about them. Some of them may not even have been able to write much more than their own name, yet they could make superb furniture.  Acquiring the skills involved in doing this took enormous time and effort and years of training; apprenticed for between three and six years to a cabinetmaker from his mid-teens (the average age was 16, but some began as young as 13), a young man was then required to spend at least three more years as a ‘compagnon’, or journeyman, working for one of the master cabinet-makers. Life was hard and relentless as an apprentice: at least six days a week, working with the daylight hours and lodging with the master or even sleeping in the workshop. Masters had legal control over their apprentices; they were obliged to train them and pass on the skills of their trade, to house and feed them and to do their laundry, but in return the apprentice was ‘bound’ to the master, had to accept his regulations and couldn’t go anywhere else to work. If he ran away, he was brought back to finish his apprenticeship. This all seems very hard to us now, and it was. But it meant that apprentices who trained in the best workshops learnt great skills and techniques that they were then able to take with them and pass on, so that the skill levels in the 18th century got better and better. The result is the furniture of exceptional quality that we now keep in museums like the Wallace Collection.

The Paris furniture trade of the 18th century was governed by the guild system – and to be acknowledged as a ‘master’ a cabinetmaker had to meet the onerous requirements of the guild of menuisiers, or woodworkers, which included coming up the apprentice route and submitting a ‘masterpiece’ at the end of the training period to qualify as a master, as well as the payment of a large fee. The guild was essentially a closed shop, and it was much harder for a foreigner, or a Protestant, to become an established cabinet-maker allowed to sell his own work. The guild oversaw quality requirements, which ensured that the standards of craftsmanship were maintained, and it demanded that a cabinet-maker should stamp his mark on a piece to prove that it had been through an authorized workshop. The guild also acted in a charitable manner, looking after widows and orphans of guild members, or cabinetmakers who had fallen on hard times.

Despite the guild, however, a large number of foreign cabinetmakers settled in Paris and became very successful – especially Germans, who brought with them a high level of technical accomplishment. Men such as Jean-Francois Oeben, Jean-Henri Riesener and Bernard Molitor went on to become favourite suppliers to Louis XV and Louis XVI, Madame de Pompadour, Marie-Antoinette, aristocrats and wealthy financiers and – in the case of Molitor whose business survived the Revolution – the newly emerging elite of the early 19th century.

F248All three of these men had arrived in Paris and worked in the workshops of other foreigners, where German was spoken and families of immigrants intermarried. Marriage was a way to become accepted, especially if a worker married the widow of a master, because then he was able to take over the business and thus inherit a client base and production space. It also meant that the price of becoming a master and a member of the guild was reduced: another privileged way of becoming a master was if your father was a master, which meant that many sons trained with their fathers and several dynasties of cabinet-makers evolved throughout the century. Thus there existed a whole network of relationships between cabinetmakers, which seems to have had implications for developments in styles and techniques, with similarities detectable in the work of many whom we know had family connections.

Eighteenth-century Paris was a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own characteristics and, often, specialisations. The faubourg Saint-Antoine, to the east of the city, was where a large number of cabinetmakers lived; for historical reasons, being outside the old city walls it was exempt from guild regulations, which ensured that foreigners particularly found this district attractive. But there were also a large number of French cabinetmakers living and working there, largely around the rue du faubourg Saint-Antoine and the rue Charenton. Flanked by the River Seine on one side, it was the area where much of the timber arrived that was shipped to Paris, making it a perfect place for woodworkers to operate from. Not only furniture-makers, but also gardeners, bakers, vintners, saddlers, bronze-founders, tanners and tapestry-makers worked in the area, although perhaps between one third and one half of all inhabitants were involved in the wood, metal and textile industries.

Of course famous cabinetmakers were only a tiny minority of those who worked in the faubourg, and while these successful men might rent or even own a large house with a workshop and its own wood store, most cabinetmakers did not attain the exalted status of master, and their lives were very different. Typically, they rented a few rooms in one of the four-storey houses that lined the streets of the area. These men might earn a few hundred livres a year working in a master’s workshop which enabled them to survive but was not enough for any of the luxuries of life; they might own some tools and some clothes, and possibly some basic furniture, but not much else. Many had to worry continually about whether there would be any work from one day to the next, because workers were on the whole employed for very short periods, for the season or even the day.

However, with hard work and dedication a good living could be made. Master cabinetmakers enjoyed a significantly better lifestyle, especially those who also ran retail premises – these men were known as marchands ébénistes (dealer cabinetmakers). Francois Mondon (1696-c. 1775) was one of these, and he lived in a large house in the rue Sainte Marguerite where he had a shop (called ‘The Magpie’) and where he employed about six or seven people, including an apprentice. He trained his three sons, two of whom went on to become quite successful cabinetmakers in their own right. Mondon sold his own furniture in the shop, like chests-of-drawers and tables, often veneered with expensive woods and geometric marquetry, but he also sold furniture by other makers, such as chairs and wardrobes. He had some quite grand clients, like the duchesse de Maine, who would have been able to afford the more glamorous furniture that he produced, like the Wallace Collection chest-of-drawers stamped by him, and he was a sub-contractor for the royal cabinetmakers Antoine-Robert Gaudreaus and Gilles Joubert.

F248In his middle age he served as a committee member of the guild and became its principal in 1764, so he was clearly well-respected in his own circles. At home he was able to afford paintings, books, and tapestries and both he and his wife owned smart clothes, such as the silk dresses listed in an inventory.  Pierre Migeon (1686-1758) was an even more successful dealer cabinetmaker from the same parish as Mondon, who ran a shop called the Duke of Brittany and who managed to build up a property empire worth over 100,000 livres; not only were his descendants able to live off the rents of these premises, but two of his grand-daughters married lawyers – quite an achievement for a manual worker in the eighteenth century.

Of course none of the cabinetmakers who made the pieces of furniture in the Wallace Collection 250 years ago could guess that a piece of his furniture would end up in a national museum in Britain! But they have, and we need to praise these men for their achievements – not leave it to the clients to reap all the glory. So next time you are at the Wallace Collection, spare a little thought for the hundreds of hours which would have gone into making one piece of furniture, and think of the years of training and sheer hard work that went into producing such skilled and gifted cabinetmakers.

By Dr Helen Jacobsen

Highs and Lows: the life of a cabinetmaker in 18th-century Paris

Interesting article, especially for someone who is stuck behind the bench a lot. I visited the Wallace Collection over 5 years ago, I will be returning as I admired your collection of Boulle furniture.

Pete Mears on 10 March 2016

Would you please send me newsletters you publish every time at my email adress : danielle.balfroid@gmail.com
I’m student in Belgium and really interested by your website and all the informations contained !
Thanks in advance and best regards, Danielle

Danielle Balfroid on 24 March 2016

What perfectly wonderful information the Wallace offers on its website! I’ve never been to this museum but it is #1 on my list for a future trip. In the meantime I adore learning about the collection online!

Martha Solodky on 1 April 2016