Riesener is often described as being one of the greatest French cabinetmakers of the 18th century. However, his life did not begin in France, but in Gladbeck, Germany, where he was born Johann Heinrich Riesener on 4 July 1734.
No doubt ambitious for success, Riesener left his rural hometown and had arrived in the hustle and bustle of Paris by 1754. The market for luxury furniture was flourishing under the reign of Louis XV. The streets of the city, particularly those in the area to the east of the Bastille, called the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, were full of cabinetmakers, many of them immigrants, especially Germans. Eastern Paris was also home to the Arsenal, a privileged place of production that operated outside the strict Parisian guild rules. Riesener worked here for Jean-François Oeben, another German-born furniture-maker, who was ébéniste du roi (official cabinetmaker to the king).
When Oeben died in 1763, Riesener married his widow, Françoise-Marguerite Vandercruse (1731–1775), and inherited his master’s workshop. Marrying within your own guild was a regular practice in the 18th century, a way of securing an established position and sometimes, as in Riesener’s case, of becoming head of a workshop. Riesener and his wife had a son in 1767, Henri-François Riesener (1767–1828), who later became an artist after training with Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). Riesener also adopted Oeben’s four young daughters.
One of Riesener’s major projects at the beginning of his career was finishing a roll-top desk for Louis XV’s cabinet intérieur (private study) at Versailles known as the bureau du Roi (King’s Desk). Oeben had started work on this desk in 1760, and Riesener finished and delivered it in 1769.
The King’s Desk was a resounding success and it catapulted Riesener into the French court. One of his greatest supporters was Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu (1730–1784), head of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne (the royal furniture administration), who commissioned Riesener to supply him with a suite of furniture, which included a mechanical table and chest-of-drawers.
These pieces were also well received and, with the patronage of Fontanieu, Riesener was appointed official cabinetmaker to Louis XVI (1754–1793) in 1774. In this position, Riesener supplied hundreds of pieces of furniture to the royal family, most notably Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793), and Louis XVI’s siblings Madame Élisabeth (1764–1794) and the comte de Provence (1755–1824). Marie-Antoinette had a particularly strong liking for Riesener’s furniture, and commissioned many pieces decorated with delicate floral marquetry and gilt-bronze mounts.
In 1783, some years after the death of his first wife, Riesener married for a second time, Marie-Anne Claude Grezel (1766–1814). She gave birth to his second child, Adèle (1784–1789), a year later, but she sadly died as a child. The following year his long-time supporter and influential patron, Fontanieu, died, leading to the appointment of a new head of the royal furniture administration: Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d’Avray (1732–1792).
In contrast to his predecessor, Thierry de Ville-d’Avray undertook a programme of cost cutting in order to limit royal expenditure. This involved removing Riesener from his position as cabinetmaker to the king in 1785. Without this privileged appointment, Riesener had to compete with other cabinetmakers, such as Guillaume Beneman (d. 1811), for royal commissions. Despite this, he managed to make a few more pieces of royal furniture, notably a large mahogany jewel cabinet adorned with gilt bronze, delivered to the comtesse de Provence (1753–1810) for her bedroom at Versailles in 1787.
As a result of the French Revolution, the royal and aristocratic patrons upon whom Riesener depended for business were either exiled or guillotined. After the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in 1793, the royal palaces were plundered of their artworks by the Revolutionary government and sold at public auction. Riesener tried to buy back some of the artworks he had made for the royal family (such as the fall-front desk F300) in the hope of reselling them at a profit once the country had returned to more stable times.
However, this turned out to be a poor financial speculation, as the style of the royal furniture and its provenance generally made it undesirable.
A number of pieces (such as the King’s Desk) were recognised by the Revolutionary government as being objects of extraordinary artistic merit and were protected from sale. Such was the high regard in which this piece of furniture was held that it was repeatedly copied during the 19th century.
With government assistance, Riesener was able to recover many of his debts from past clients. He promptly used these funds to try his hand at property investment and bought various properties across Paris and other areas around the capital, though these did not lead to any great financial success. On 6 January 1806, he died at his home in the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, at the age of seventy-one.
The Wallace Collection is extraordinarily fortunate to own some of Riesener’s most important works. They are remarkable for the quality of their construction, marquetry and gilt-bronze mounts, and demonstrate the virtuosity of 18th-century furniture-making.