The Wallace Collection

Treasure of the Month - November 2003

A Chest-of-drawers for Marie Antoinette

This remarkable neo-classical chest-of-drawers was once an integral part of the sumptuous furnishings created for Queen Marie-Antoinette’s apartments at Versailles.

It was delivered on 28 December 1780 for the Queen’s most private room, her cabinet intérieur, at Versailles by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806). Riesener was the sole cabinet-maker to the French crown from 1774 to 1784 and supplied more than seven hundred pieces of furniture to the French court. The opulent neo-classical decorative scheme adopted for the cabinet intérieur of the Queen would have been a harmonious blend of colourful and luxurious materials skillfully employed to create an interior of exceptional refinement. Exquisite pieces of furniture such as this commode enable us to glimpse something of the beauty of the original scheme of the room, dismantled after only three years in favour of a more fashionable scheme. The wood marquetry veneer of this chest-of-drawers has faded, but the design and colours of the different woods originally formed a vital part of the interior and provided an important unifying factor for the other furnishings. For example, the central medallion on the front of the commode is decorated with a pastoral trophy of bagpipes, a shepherd’s hat and garlands of jasmine, roses, cornflowers and narcissi. This design corresponds exactly to one of the six embroidered medallions on the brocade, woven by Jean Charton at the Lyons silk manufactory to the design of Jacques Gondoin, used for the wall panels, curtains and upholstered seat furniture in the same room.

The jewel-like gilt-bronze mounts of entwined ribbons and garlands of scented flowers, including roses, jasmine, pinks, and lilies-of-the-valley, incorporate the cypher of Marie-Antoinette and provide ingenious motifs for handles for three drawers in the top frieze as well as discreetly disguising the keyholes. Their design would have echoed the delicately carved and gilded flowers of the newly created seat furniture supplied by François Foliot. The gilt-bronze mounts are of the highest quality and intricacy and were of the latest fashion in 1780.

The chest-of-drawers had undergone considerable alterations by 1865 when purchased for the 4th Marquis of Hertford at the prince de Beauvau sale. The original striking veined white marble was replaced by the present grey-green marble, whilst the gilt-bronze mount on the apron of the plinth is a nineteenth-century modification replacing the original cornucopiæ which evoked the design of the arms of the chairs.

The Wallace Collection has ten pieces of furniture either by or attributed to Riesener and a further two copies of pieces by him (including a copy of the famous bureau made for Louis XV’s cabinet at Versailles, in the Back State Room downstairs). The 4th Marquess, like the Prince Regent (later George IV) and Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, prized works by Riesener. Often their agents had to compete in the sale rooms to buy pieces such as this commode, which came onto the market following the Revolution and consequent break-up of many of the royal collections in France.