The Wallace Collection

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Marie-Antoinette’s Perfume Burner (F292)
View of one of the wall-panels in the Salon Doré in the Queen’s private apartment at Versailles, showing details of a perfume burner.
View of one of the wall-panels in the Salon Doré in the Queen’s private apartment at Versailles, showing details of a perfume burner.
Treasure of the Month - June 2005

Marie-Antoinette’s Perfume Burner (F292)

Marie-Antoinette, France’s most tragic queen, arrived from her native Austria in 1770 to marry the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI. At the time she was just fourteen years old and four years later she was crowned Queen.

It was not long before she started to refurbish her apartments at the royal palaces, which provided her with an attractive distraction from the monotony of court life. With her high-spirited nature and extravagant approach to life, she commissioned sumptuous furnishings for her private apartments, using the most skillful craftsmen of the day. In the turbulent times that followed the Revolution, the Queen was guillotined in 1793 and soon afterwards many of her finest possessions were sold. This perfume burner passed through the hands of various collectors until it was purchased by the Fourth Marquess of Hertford at the Beauvau sale in 1865. It remained in Paris until 1871, when Richard Wallace brought much of his Parisian collection back to London.

Although in the ancient world such burners would have been used for smouldering perfume or incense in temples and homes, we do not know if this burner would have been put to such a use in Marie-Antoinette’s apartments. It is likely that it was made solely to be admired for the quality of its materials and craftsmanship. This burner is particularly intriguing as it is an example of Marie-Antoinette’s acquisition of second-hand works of art: she did not commission the burner but purchased it at the duc d’Aumont sale in 1782. The engraving of the perfume burner in the catalogue for the sale reveals that originally there was a beaded, gilt-bronze band around the top of the fluted section of the bowl and that the snake once had a gilt-bronze tongue. According to the entry in the sale catalogue the mounts were made by one of the most famous goldsmiths of the day, Pierre Gouthière (1732-c.1812, master 1758), who produced the mounts for many works of art supplied to the Queen, indicating that the burner would have accorded perfectly with her taste. Perhaps she would have placed the burner in her private study at Versailles, redecorated from 1783 with gilded panelling featuring sphinxes and incense burners on stands.

Further Reading

  • Christian Baulez, ‘Le grand cabinet intérieur de Marie-Antoinette. Décor, mobilier et collections’, in Les lacques du Japon: Collections de Marie-Antoinette, Paris, 2001, pp.28-41
  • Marie-France Boyer and François Halard, The Private Realm of Marie-Antoinette, London, 2000
  • Peter Hughes, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Furniture, London, 1996