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Writing Desk

Date: 1723-1730
Dimensions:
29 1/4 x 71 1/2 x 38 1/4 in. (74.3 x 181.6 x 97.2 cm.)
Medium: fir or pine, oak, and walnut carcase veneered with kingwood, tulipwood, purplewood, and ebony; lacquered bronze mounts; brass stringing; modern brass locks; modern leather top.
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection.
Inscription: Two Duveen labels: 27327
Object Number: 27.18
Label Text:This bureau plat was formerly attributed, with uncertainty, to Jacques-Philippe Carel (master 1723) but is now considered as part of the production of Charles Cressent on the basis of its construction and bronze mounts. Cressent was apprenticed both as a sculptor, with his grandfather in Amiens and, later, as an ébéniste(cabinetmaker) in his father's workshop in Paris, from about 1707. He completed his training by obtaining his mastership from the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1714. In 1719, he married the widow of the ébéniste du Régent (cabinetmaker to the Regent) Joseph Poitou (c. 1680-1719), for whom he had worked. Through his marriage, he inherited Poitou's title and workshop, and became himself one of the most highly regarded cabinetmakers of the middle third of the eighteenth century. Although, as ébéniste du Régent, Cressent was freed from the restrictions enforced by the guilds, he was subject to their regular tours of Parisian workshops and occasional confiscations of metalwork. Despite his undefined legal situation and repeated juridical problems, he operated a foundry adjacent to his cabinetry workshop on the corner of the rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoire and the rue Joquelet, where he designed and produced expressive, high-relief bronze sculpture and furniture mounts. Throughout his career, and in addition to the continuous manufacture at his own premises, Cressent commissioned other bronze casters, chasers, and gilders to work from his models and contribute to his enterprise.
The high quality of his parquetry veneers and wood- and bronzework and their harmonious combination characterize Cressent's work and attracted wealthy patrons, including members of the French aristocracy, most importantly the régent, the duc de Richelieu, and the marquis de Marigny, as well as the Portuguese and Bavarian courts. His financial success allowed him to rise in society and to become an art collector and connoisseur like many of his patrons. However, financial difficulties in the late 1740s forced him to sell a part of his collection of paintings and furniture in 1749. The sale catalogue was written by Cressent himself and provides a valuable source describing individual pieces of furniture made in his workshop up to that time. Despite the fact that Cressent is best known for his large writing desks (and commodes), according to his catalogue he offered only three bureaux plats, among fifty-two pieces of furniture in total in 1749. All his large desks continued to follow the same original design and decoration, suggesting that Cressent never decisively adapted his production to changing styles. In subsequent sales in 1757 and 1765, comparatively few desks appeared (four and one, respectively), implying that Cressent either mostly produced such large and expensive objects for specific commissions-and less frequently toward the end of his career-or that, based upon his reputation, his bureaux sold more easily than other pieces of furniture and therefore did not remain in his shop in the same numbers as did other items. Interestingly, and despite the fact that today most of the desks attributed to Cressent survive without accompanying pieces, most bureaux were described, and probably sold, with corresponding filing cabinets, some of which were surmounted by bronze case clocks.
The Huntington writing desk embodies several of the most characteristic features, including the "bronzes les plus distingués . . . en couleur d'or" (the most distinguished bronzes . . . in gold color) noted in the 1749 and later sale catalogues and found on surviving pieces attributed to Cressent. The female corner mounts on the desk were described first by officers of the founder's guild in a list of bronzes seized in Cressent's workshop in 1723 as "quatre termes de moyenne grandeur avec des testes de femmes coiffées de plumes et aigrettes, dont le buste est en console" (four terminal figures of medium size with female heads dressed with feathers and tufts) The turned heads of the female figures suggest movement, and their hair style is asymmetrical. They exemplify the third of five different corner mounts designed and repeatedly employed by Cressent, and are among the first rococo ornaments in Cressent's work. Despite the linear arrangement of the dress, this model overcomes the visual as well as physical stiffness of the earlier corseted torsos that Cressent continued to produce. The figures seem liberated, lively, and cheerful. Conversely, the Bacchus masks (fig. 00) and center escutcheon plate on the Huntington desk are more like this earlier group, typical of a more baroque style and found on other writing desks and commodes attributed to Cressent. Whereas the model of the bureau plat itself and many of these baroque-style mounts are clearly derived from the production of André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) and date from the turn of the century, Cressent transformed their rather static character by introducing irregular foliage mounts and asymmetrical espagnolettes (sculptural figure corner mounts). His continual replacing of mythological subjects with more lively human and animal figures led to a transitional style in the development of bureaux plats, of which the Huntington desk is a principal example. It shows Cressent's ability as a sculptor, since it was the bronzes rather than the woodwork that drove this stylistic advance.
Under Poitou, Cressent had worked as a sculptor of models for mounts, an occupation that he seems to have continued as an independent master and that allowed him to sell both models and cast bronzes to fellow ébénistes. Consequently, several of Cressent's mounts appear on pieces produced, stamped, or sold by other workshops. On one example, central escutcheon plates and drop handles identical to those on the Huntington desk decorate a large bureau plat dated 1732-1736, which is veneered with purplewood and stamped "N.G.," a mark attributed to the ébéniste and marchand mercier Noël Gérard (c. 1690-1736). He is known to have commissioned his bronze mounts mostly from the ciseleurs (bronze chasers) Olivier de Rouvray and Louis Regnard (d. 1779, master 1733), two craftsmen not known to have worked with Cressent. This suggests that Gérard also bought mounts from Cressent. Further, as Pradère has demonstrated, the marchand mercier Claude Carelu (active 1720-1740) bought bronze mounts from Cressent, which he applied to pieces custom-made by other ébénistes, and thereby created a number of pieces on which only some bronzes indicate the involvement of Cressent. The same business strategy was employed by André-Charles II Boulle de Sève (1685-1745), another regular supplier of Carelu's, who also purchased Cressent's mounts for his own work. However, unlike Carelu, he was paying less reliably for the merchandise he received. Moreover, as surviving sale records and pieces bearing dealer address labels indicate, Carelu, Jean Rousselot (active 1723-1756), and Louis Bosseux (d. 1726) also traded exclusively in furniture produced by Cressent.
As part of a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century restoration treatment, this Cressent table underwent irreversible changes and lost some of its originality. The now-gilt mounts were stripped of their original gold-colored lacquer (couleur d'or) and were partly rechased, gilded, and then lacquered to avoid oxidation and consequent darkening. They now appear greenish in color and resemble the bronze mounts cleaned and resurfaced in English restoration workshops in the early 1900s. Also, the original purplewood veneer and brass stringing typical of the ébénisterie (cabinetmaking) of Cressent and his contemporaries survives only on the inner surfaces of the legs and behind the corner mounts. In other areas it was replaced by kingwood and tulipwood veneers, neither of which was described in connection with the bureaux plats in Cressent's sale catalogues but which became popular and more regularly employed by Cressent from the mid-1730s onward. At the same time the modern brass drawer locks and tooled leather writing surface seem to have been added in exchange for worn original materials, probably in an attempt to improve the table for re-sale. Although this bureau was reveneered prior to its sale from the Neumann Collection in 1919, from which it was bought by Duveen, additional changes and the general condition of this and other eighteenth-century pieces at the Huntington Collection and elsewhere, suggest that Duveen Brothers, who specialized in selling European pieces to American collectors, employed restorers, such as Jean Claude Toulouse (active around 1900), to work on their stock and to attend to both wood- and metalwork.

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