The court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette was a glittering spectacle. Every aspect of life there was tied up with the etiquette, ceremony and grandeur of absolute monarchy, and the architecture, interiors and furnishings of royal palaces provided appropriate backdrops. As cabinetmaker to the king, Riesener supplied luxurious furniture to both the public and private apartments of the royal family for eleven years, before being removed from the position.
Louis XV was one of his first royal patrons. Riesener’s master, Oeben, had been commissioned to make a desk for the king’s cabinet intérieur (private study) at Versailles. Jean-François Oeben devised a roll-top design which would secure the king’s confidential documents and correspondence inside. However, because of Oeben’s premature death in 1763, the project was put on hold until Riesener took it up again, delivering the finished desk to Versailles in 1769.
Though the design and decoration of the desk owed much to Oeben, Riesener proudly signed his name in marquetry to claim creative ownership of the piece. The piece was so highly regarded that Pierre-Gaspard-Marie Grimod, comte d’Orsay (1748–1809), a wealthy young tax farmer, commissioned his own modified version of the King’s Desk, which shared many of the same decorative motifs, from Riesener a year or two later.
After Riesener’s appointment as cabinetmaker to Louis XVI in 1774, he worked for many members of the royal family and delivered over 700 pieces to the royal palaces. After inheriting the French crown from his grandfather, Louis XVI replaced some of the furniture in the royal apartments. For example, in his bedroom at Versailles he commissioned a chest-of-drawers to replace the one which had been delivered to Louis XV by Antoine-Robert Gaudreaus (about 1682–1746) in 1739, now considered rather old fashioned.
This was one of Riesener’s first major royal commissions, and his chance to demonstrate why he was appointed cabinetmaker to the king. The piece which he delivered was decorated with gilt-bronze acanthus leaves, female sculptures, as well as a marquetry pastoral trophy and floral vases. However, for some reason this was not considered appropriate, perhaps not grand enough, and a year later Riesener replaced it with an even larger and more costly chest-of-drawers.
Riesener continued to supply the king with furniture until 1785, when he was removed from his post of official royal supplier. These pieces included a fall-front desk and writing table for his apartments at the Petit Trianon in 1777, and a chest-of-drawers for his apartments at the Château de Fontainebleau in 1778.
The same year, Louis XVI’s youngest sister, Madame Élisabeth, had a chest-of-drawers of the same model, and with the same marquetry and mounts, delivered to her bedroom at Versailles. Madame Élisabeth was fiercely loyal to both her faith and the king and followed closely the fashions set by him.
Marie-Antoinette was Riesener’s most important patron. The cabinetmaker’s ability to create floral garlands and pastoral motifs in gilt bronze and marquetry appealed to the queen’s delicate, refined tastes in interior furnishings.
Over the course of his career as cabinetmaker to the king, Riesener produced a great number of luxurious pieces for the queen, many of them, like the fall-front desk delivered to her boudoir at the Petit Trianon, featuring a specific decoration of trellis marquetry interspersed with flower heads.
Very often, certain decorative elements were used on Riesener’s furniture to integrate them into broader interior schemes devised for the queen, as was the case with the chest-of-drawers delivered to her cabinet intérieur (private sitting room) at Versailles in 1780.
It is fitted with a marquetry plaque showing a shepherd’s hat and bagpipes, a motif which echoed the trophies on the room’s silk wall hangings. These had been designed by the royal designer Jacques Gondoin (1737–1818), and he must have worked closely with Riesener to unify the decoration of the furniture with that of the room.
Louis XVI’s younger brother and his wife were early clients of Riesener, and owned a number of his masterpieces. The comtesse de Provence commissioned some of the costliest furniture Riesener ever produced, including a marquetry chest-of-drawers for her bedroom at Versailles, which was delivered in record speed (some fifty days after it was ordered) in 1776, and a mahogany jewel cabinet clad in sumptuous gilt bronze, which was delivered to her bedroom in 1787.
Riesener also provided furniture for courtiers who lived and worked at Versailles, and for the successive heads of the royal furniture administration, Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu and Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d’Avray.
We know little about commissions he may have carried out for other people, which were not recorded in the royal accounts, but his workshop would have found it hard to cope with more work during the period 1774–1785 when he worked for the royal furniture administration. After that, however, he may have worked in conjunction with luxury goods dealers to produce pieces for private clients.