French furniture has been decorated with gilded mounts since the late 17th century. They were considered a vital part of the design, enlivening the wooden elements and adding a glittering sparkle to the furniture, particularly in candlelight.
Riesener’s furniture brought these mounts to a new level, exquisitely modelled and sumptuously gilded. They are some of the most beautiful furniture mounts ever made. He was also one of the first makers to ensure that the fixings of his mounts were cleverly hidden.
Owing to the strict guild restrictions in Paris, furniture makers were generally not allowed to make their own mounts but had to use suppliers who belonged to a separate guild.
Riesener’s master, Jean-François Oeben, had a foundry alongside his workshop, but it is most likely that he — and Riesener when he took over the workshop — used this for making simple locks or mechanical fittings for the furniture. For the decorative mounts, Riesener used founders, chasers and gilders of great skill to ensure that his mounts were always of the highest quality.
Riesener was careful to ensure that when his portrait was painted in 1786 it showed him in the pose of an artist, with red chalk for drawing in his hand, working on designs for gilt-bronze mounts. This shows that his mounts were a key element to his designs and even in the 19th century his fame partly rested on the exquisite gilt-bronze decoration on his furniture. But the question remains, who made the mounts?
Very few mounts dating from the 18th century are signed. This makes attributing the name of an individual maker very difficult, but it is further complicated by the process of making the mounts. After Riesener had drawn his two-dimensional design, this had to be modelled into three dimensions to form a kind of sculpture known as a maquette, usually made in wax or sometimes wood.
From this a plaster model was made and a foundry model was cast. This was known as the master model, from which the furniture mounts were cast in brass. This process took place in a foundry. The detail of the master model, and the final details of the furniture mounts after they had been cast, were very finely chiselled by specialists — this process is known as ‘chasing’. The better the chaser, the more exquisite the mounts.
Finally, the mounts were gilded by the process of mercury gilding. This was a complex and dangerous process, which involved exposing the gilder to mercury fumes but which left a thin layer of gold fused on the brass. Gilding was expensive, yet for the most luxurious objects, such as those made for Marie-Antoinette, an even richer matt gold was employed.
We know from archival sources that Riesener used a number of different suppliers. The mounts for the King’s Desk were modelled by Thomas Duplessis the Younger, cast and chased by the founder/chaser Louis-Barthélemy Hervieux and gilded by Anne-François Briquet. Later on, Riesener had a most successful collaboration with Étienne Martincourt, a sculptor and chaser who advertised himself as ‘a modeller for chasers’.
This implies that it was Martincourt who modelled many of Riesener’s drawings into three-dimensional form. He was also a chaser, and he and his workshop appear to have worked on many of Riesener’s mounts. We can tell this from comparing other pieces of gilt bronze that can be associated with Martincourt, particularly clocks, which use the same motifs and figures as found on Riesener furniture.
Riesener’s only well-documented collaboration is with the gilder François Rémond, who gilded several mounts for Riesener between 1781 and 1787, including some spectacular examples which were on furniture made for Marie-Antoinette.
A few other names of gilders associated with Riesener towards the end of his career can be found in the archives, but we do not know what they were responsible for.
In the 19th century, when Riesener’s furniture had become highly sought after by collectors, the myth emerged that his mounts had been made by the famous 18th-century chaser and gilder, Pierre Gouthière. We now know that this was not the case, but the association of two of the most famous artists of the Louis XVI period meant that the pieces achieved even more acclaim.
Because of the nature of the making process, which uses a master model, mounts can be copied even after an artist’s death. This was certainly true of Riesener’s designs and it is possible to find several examples of 19th-century furniture which has gilt-bronze mounts on it that we associate with Riesener. The master models were valuable, and were bought and sold by brass founders and furniture makers. Sometimes original mounts from Riesener’s furniture were overcast, in other words copies were made by making a ‘squeeze’ from the original.
And finally, a word about the material. In French gilded mounts are referred to as ‘bronze doré’. In English this has been translated as ‘gilt bronze’ but actually the metal is a copper/zinc alloy, i.e. brass. Another English name is ‘ormolu’, and again this is derived from the French ‘or moulu’ which refers to the powdered gold that is mixed with the mercury in the gilding process. For the purposes of this microsite, we have continued to use the traditional expression ‘gilt-bronze mounts’.