The Wallace Collection

French chest-of-drawers (commode) veneered with Chinese lacquer (F88)
Treasure of the Month - November 2012

French chest-of-drawers (commode) veneered with Chinese lacquer (F88)

Marie Leszczysńska (1703-1768), wife of Louis XV, was the longest-surviving queen-consort of France and yet her memory has been somewhat eclipsed by the fame of her husband’s mistresses.  She has been rather unfairly treated by history and suffers a reputation for being dull, pious and unattractive and is certainly not remembered for being a notable patron of the arts.  This is partly because her successor, Marie Antoinette, introduced radical new decorative schemes into the royal apartments and swept away much of what went before so that Marie Leszcynska has left few physical traces. Here at the Wallace Collection, however, we have one of the few surviving pieces of furniture that we know was owned by the queen and which tells us about her fashionable taste: this enchanting commode.

It was delivered with its pair for her bedroom at the palace of Fontainebleau in 1755 where they were placed between three windows.  The brèche violette marble top would have allowed for a garniture of porcelain vases to be placed on it, and it could also have served as a practical surface for leaving light refreshments.  

What strikes one most about this commode are the panels of Chinese lacquer which have been veneered onto the sides and front and the exuberant gilt bronze mounts which dance all over it. Oriental lacquer had been highly-prized since the late seventeenth century in Europe (see the cabinets F18 and F19 downstairs in the Billiard Room) and during the eighteenth century skilled cabinet-makers developed techniques which would allow them to remove the lacquer from screens and cabinets imported from the East and to re-mount it on European forms of furniture.  There is no suggestion that this is an Oriental piece of furniture; instead the Parisian craftsmen have produced a luxurious commode in the height of ‘rocaille’ fashion, which simultaneously shows off some costly and beautiful Oriental lacquer.

Far from being unfashionable, it seems that Marie Leszczysńska was a trend-setter and it was for her use that the first piece of lacquer furniture had been delivered to the royal household in 1737.  She also owned a collection of lacquer boxes mounted in gold (perhaps like some of the snuff boxes we have in the Boudoir Cabinet). At Versailles she had a Chinese-themed study where the walls were hung with Chinoiserie style paintings that she had painted herself. This commode is all that we have to remind us of her elegant taste but it is all the more charming for that reason

Gallery Talks:

13th and 22nd of November at 1pm with Dr Helen Jacobsen

Further Reading:

Hughes, P., The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture (London, 1996)
Impey, O., Chinoiserie: the impact of Oriental styles on Western art and decoration (Oxford, 1977)
Jarry, M., Chinoiseries: Chinese influence on European decorative art, 17th and 18th centuries (New York, 1981)
Salmon, X. (ed.), Parler à l’âme et au coeur. La peinture selon Marie Leszczynska (Dijon, 2012), exhibition catalogue.