Riesener Collection Trail

Riesener Display

Riesener Collection Trail

Introducing Jean-Henri Riesener

A portrait of Jean-Henri Riesener
Antoine Vestier, Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), 1785. Image: RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

In this new display at the Wallace Collection, discover the extraordinary life and work of Jean-Henri Riesener, one of the most important cabinetmakers in France during Louis XVI’s reign.

A German emigrant of humble origins, Riesener worked in Paris and became the royal cabinetmaker. His work is renowned for its marquetry decoration and the quality of the gilt-bronze mounts. The Wallace Collection is fortunate to have one of the most important collections in the world.

East Galleries

An image of the 4th Marquess of Hertford
4th Marquess of Hertford (1842) - Richard Seymour-Conway, 1800–70.

Riesener worked extensively for the French Court and was a favourite of Marie-Antoinette. In the East Galleries, furniture for her private apartments is on display. The Wallace Collection has the single largest holding of furniture that once belonged to Marie-Antoinette outside France. Following the fall of the ancien régime and the Bourbon monarchy at the French Revolution, many opulent pieces of royal French furniture were sold and made their way onto the art market.

One of the most important collectors was Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-1870), who lived in Paris. An acknowledged connoisseur of eighteenth-century French decorative art, Hertford first started buying Riesener furniture in the 1840s, and by the time of his death owned over twenty pieces either by or believed to be by Riesener, showing his clear passion for the cabinetmaker’s skill.

Photograph of an eighteenth-century chest-of-drawers
Jean-Henri Riesener, Chest-of-drawers, 1780.

Chest-of-drawers, 1780. Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806).

Oak, purplewood, satiné, stained woods, burr wood, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze, vert des Alpes marble.

Designed specifically for Marie-Antoinette’s private sitting room at Versailles, this chest of drawers was intended to harmonise with the décor of the room. The delicate gilt-bronze mounts, of great naturalism, and the central cypher ‘MA’ for Marie-Antoinette, were entirely to the queen’s taste. The trellis marquetry, interspersed with flowerheads, was a design Riesener used regularly on royal furniture, while the central medallion, comprising a pastoral trophy, echoed the embroidered details of the wall silks in the room. Some of the original colours of the marquetry trophy can still be detected.

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Photograph of an eighteenth-century chest-of-drawers
Jean-Henri Riesener, Mounts gilded by François Rémond, Chest-of-drawers, 1782.

Chest-of-drawers, 1782. Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806). Mounts gilded by François Rémond (1747–1812). Reveneered with mahogany, probably c. 1795–1815.

Oak, mahogany, purplewood, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze, brocatello marble.

Riesener was commissioned to make new furniture for Marie-Antoinette’s apartments at the Château of Marly in the early 1780s. Despite it being one of the more private royal retreats, he produced some of the most sumptuous pieces ever made for the queen, with trellis marquetry, pastoral medallions and floral gilt-bronze mounts of matt gold. This chest-of-drawers was inventoried in her bedroom in 1788. After the Revolution it was sold and the marquetry removed, replaced with this plainer mahogany veneer which had by then become more fashionable.

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Photograph of an eighteenth-century corner-cupboard
Jean-Henri Riesener, Corner-cupboard, 1783.

Corner-cupboard, 1783. Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806). Reveneered with burr wood, probably c. 1794–1825.

Oak, burr wood (probably yew), purplewood, stained woods, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze, statuary marble.

For Marie-Antoinette’s small private apartments, Riesener delivered suites of complementary furniture. This corner-cupboard was supplied with a fall-front desk and a chest-of-drawers, intended for a sitting room at the Château of Marly but used instead to furnish her apartment at Versailles. With a central gilt-bronze trophy representing Love, and naturalistic mounts, Riesener’s design represents the softer Neoclassicism favoured by the queen. The burrwood veneer has replaced the original trellis marquetry of many of Riesener’s royal pieces.

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Photograph of an eighteenth-century corner-cupboard
Probably French, possibly Russian, Corner-cupboard, 1800–65.

Corner-cupboard, 1800–65. Probably French, possibly Russian.

Oak, conifer, amboyna, purplewood, stained woods, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze, statuary marble

At some stage in the nineteenth century, perhaps with no intention to deceive, this copy of Marie-Antoinette’s corner-cupboard was made to form a pair. A different wood has been used for the veneer, and over the years this has faded at a different rate from the original, making the difference between the two seem quite obvious. However, that was not always the case and in 1870 the cupboards were sold as a pair, with the claim that both had been made for Marie-Antoinette at Versailles.

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Photograph of an eighteenth-century fall-front desk opened
Jean-Henri Riesener, Fall-front desk, 1780.

Fall-front desk, 1780. Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806).

Oak, purplewood, satiné, tulipwood, stained woods, burr wood, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze, Carrara marble.

Marie-Antoinette’s private sitting room in the Palace of Versailles was a small, personal space where she could escape the rigours of court life and be at leisure. Riesener provided much of the furniture, with new models every few years appealing to the queen’s changing tastes. Here he has designed a desk in an early neoclassical style, with gilt-bronze mounts derived from architectural motifs and marquetry representations of marble vases filled with flowers. It was later moved to Louis XVI’s private study at the Château of Saint-Cloud.

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A full length photograph of a fall-front desk
Jean-Henri Riesener, Fall-front desk, 1783.

Fall-front desk, 1783. Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806).

Oak, purplewood, satiné, tulipwood, stained woods, burr wood, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze, Carrara marble.

The Petit Trianon was Marie-Antoinette’s personal retreat, where she was able to indulge her love of gardens and flowers. Her boudoir, where this desk was placed, led straight into the park. The decoration was intended to complement the natural world around her, for example the exquisite gilt-bronze mounts of flowers and grasses. Riesener provided several desks in this style, each slightly different but each providing the queen with secure spaces for her private correspondence and writing materials, bringing an element of privacy to her otherwise very public life.

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Great Gallery, c. 1890
The Great Gallery in 1890, The Wallace Collection.

After the French Revolution, much of the furniture from Versailles was sold. Riesener’s pieces became highly sought-after collectors’ items, and his name ranked alongside Old Masters in sale catalogues. The 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800–1870), one of the leading connoisseurs of his day, was a keen collector of Riesener furniture. He also had copies made of pieces that he knew he could never own.

In the Great Gallery we have displayed two magnificent roll-top desks as they were shown by Sir Richard Wallace in the nineteenth century. They illustrate the importance of this model to Riesener’s career and highlight his legacy.

A marquetry roll-top desk
Copy of the King’s Desk, mounts attributed to Carl Dreschler, c.1855–60.

Roll-top desk, c. 1853–60. Copy of the bureau du Roi, 1760–9. Cabinetwork possibly by Charles-Guillaume Winckelsen (1812–1871). Mounts attributed to Carl Dreschler (d. before 1873). Clock movement by Charles Couët (active 1812–67)

Oak, padouk, poplar (?), sycamore, purplewood, satiné, ebony or ebonised wood, box, stained woods, Sèvres porcelain, gilt bronze.

This desk is a copy of the most famous piece of eighteenth-century French furniture, the King’s Desk, made for Louis XV. Started by Jean-François Oeben in 1760, it was finished by Riesener nine years later, following Oeben’s death. It made Riesener’s reputation and secured his future as the royal cabinetmaker.

The King’s Desk was later used by Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugénie. The 4th Marquess of Hertford, a friend of the Imperial couple, obtained permission to have the desk copied. His copy is both a tribute to Riesener’s early masterpiece and a display of the cabinetmaking skills of the nineteenth-century copyists. Several copies of the desk were made later in the century, securing Riesener’s legacy, but none again reached the quality of Lord Hertford’s desk.

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A marquetry roll-top desk
Jean-Henri Riesener, Roll-top Desk (Bureau à cylindre) c.1770.

Roll-top desk, c. 1770. Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806).

Oak, purplewood, tulipwood, mahogany, stained woods, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze.

Although the King’s Desk was the first of Riesener’s roll-top desks, this one followed very closely. It was made for the comte d’Orsay, a young aristocrat who must have known about the King’s Desk while it was still in Riesener’s workshop and commissioned a version for himself.

Marquetry decoration was described as ‘painting in wood’ in the eighteenth century. Here large pictorial representations denote Poetry, Silence, Geometry and Astronomy, while bunches of ribbon-tied flowers decorate the base. The young patron’s identity is reflected in his initials and coat of arms. The gilt-bronze mounts are of the same models as those on the King’s Desk, although simpler, reflecting Orsay’s lesser status.

Riesener is not known to have made this model again, perhaps because of its size and complexity, but roll-top desks became a speciality of his production.

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The Riesener Collection Trail is part of the Riesener Season at the Wallace Collection, including a display, free online events, a new publication, a dedicated site and a digital trail in collaboration with Waddesdon Manor and Royal Collection Trust.

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