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Fall-front Secretary

Date: secretary: 1812-1816; plaques: center:1783, left:1774, right:1777
Dimensions:
secretary: 56 3/16 x 33 5/8 x 16 7/16 in. (142.7 x 85.4 x 41.8 cm.)
plaque (center): 15 1/8 x 18 3/4 x 1/4 in. (38.4 x 47.6 x 0.6 cm.)
plaque (left): 8 1/8 x 5 1/2 x 5 3/16 in. (20.6 x 14 x 13.1 cm.)
plaque (right): 8 5/16 x 5 5/8 x 5 1/16 in. (21.1 x 14.3 x 12.9 cm.)
Medium: oak, walnut, poplar, and fir or pine carcase veneered with kingwood, tulipwood, purplewood, mahogany, sycamore, maple, citronnier, holly, boxwood, and ebony; soft-paste porcelain plaques; gilt-bronze mounts; gray bleu turquin marble top; leather writing surface
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection.
Inscription: Secretary: Stamped on top under the marble on the proper left side and on the top edge of the drop front: B·MOLITOR; stamped on the bottom edges of both upper drawers in the nest box, the top frieze drawer, and the large central drawer of the nest: IW; a typed paper label inside the bottom drawer: AN OLD FRENCH 18TH CENTURY / UPRIGHT SECRETAIRE OF THE / LOUIS XVI. PERIOD, INLAID / WITH TRELLIS AND FLORAL / DEVICES. AT THE SIDES ARE / ORMOLU FEMAL [sic] FIGURES WITH / CORNUCOPIAE. IN THE CENTRE / A SEVRES PLAQUE WITH SCENE FROM ROLAND, AND SEVRES / PLAQUE EACH SIDE. SIGNED / B. MOLITOR; Duveen label: 28113. Porcelain plaque (center): The front of the plaque is signed in the lower left corner on the capital of the broken column in dark brown enamel, d'Aprés F. Boucher / Dodin en 1783. The reverse of the plaque is marked in blue enamel with the crossed Ls of the Sèvres manufactory enclosing the date letters FF for 1783; below the crossed Ls is the letter k, the mark of Dodin; the horizontal strokes of the crossed Ls are additionally inscribed in higher relief blue enamel, Dodin 1783 and d'aprés F. . . . ucher. A paper label stamped with the Douanes de Paris mark was formerly adhered to the back of the plaque. Porcelain plaque (left): The reverse is painted in blue enamel with the crossed Ls of the Sèvres manufactory enclosing the date letter V, for 1774; below the Ls is the letter k, the mark of Dodin; the reverse is also marked with an L in graphite. Porcelain plaque (right): The reverse is painted in blue enamel with the crossed Ls of the Sèvres manufactory enclosing the date letter Z, for 1777; below the Ls is the letter k, the mark of Dodin; above the Ls is a single dot; at the lower intersection of the crossed Ls, the date 1777 is painted in higher relief blue enamel; the reverse is also marked with an R in graphite. A paper label inked with the number 1373 is adhered to the back of each plaque. A paper label stamped with the Douanes de Paris mark was formerly adhered to the back of each plaque. The same customs mark is stamped directly on the back of the left porcelain plaque.
Object Number: 27.22
Label Text:This secrétaire was made by Bernard Molitor, without the three large porcelain plaques, which were added much later in the nineteenth century (see below). Molitor was an ébéniste (cabinetmaker) from Luxemburg who, in 1783, emigrated to Paris, where he became master in 1787. That year, he was commissioned by Marie-Antoinette to lay a mahogany parquetry floor in her cabinet de la retraite at Fontainebleau. Molitor enjoyed a good reputation-not least because of the prestige of working for the crown-comparatively early in his career, and this guaranteed him employment among the French aristocracy until and following the French Revolution. Throughout his working life, Molitor supplied a large number of secrétaires à abattant, all of which follow the same classical and architectural design. Each is composed of a table (see also cat. 29) surmounted by a writing cabinet either with doors or, as in this example, a fall-front writing surface. The carcasses differ insignificantly; variations in style and decoration are most evident on their exterior surfaces.
On the present example, both the protruding, isolated columns of the front corners and the robust stretcher signal a stylistic departure from lighter pre-revolutionary designs. The reintroduction of marquetry (which preceded the insertion of the porcelain plaques) and especially the three different types of diaper patterns on the front, sides, and rails suggest that Molitor executed this secrétaire at a particularly innovative point in his career, at some time between 1812 and 1816. However, whereas the caryatid and palmette motifs of the ormolu mounts are exemplary of the then-fashionable Empire style, most of the other mounts, including the corner figures and the ivy garlands around the legs, were familiar features on Molitor's furniture from the 1780s.
The later addition of the Sèvres porcelain plaques, which are catalogued separately in this volume. represents a distinct part of the secrétaire's long history. The central plaque, at least, was fitted to the fall front while the secrétaire was in the collection of Alfred de Rothschild. The plaques . This plaque, painted by Charles Nicolas Dodin and depicting the story of Rinaldo and Armida (cat. 114), started life as the centerpiece of a table top given by Louis XVI to his brother-in-law, the Duke of Saxe-Teschen, in 1786. The two side plaques (cat. 113), also by Dodin, were originally mounted as doors on a cabinet made in about 1825 by A.-L. Bellangé, and were formerly in the collection of George IV of England.
Rothschild is thought to have purchased the secrétaire itself from a Russian family. It is conceivable that is was formerly in the possession of one of the generals who served in Paris during the period of the fall of Napoleon III in around 1880, though this is highly speculative. The alterations to the secrétaire took place in two stages. The central plaque was in place by 1884, when a catalogue of the Rothschild collection showed the secrétaire with the large Sèvres porcelain plaque mounted on its fall front, but yet without the addition of the plaques to the sides (fig. 00). At this date, both left and right side were decorated with oval parquetry panels surrounded by gilt-bronze frames. A larger frame of similar style may once have surrounded the marquetry on the front of the secrétaire. The side plaques were added sometime after 1884, but not necessarily by Alfred. The secrétaire was at his London house, 1 Seymour Place, when he died in 1918. It was inherited by Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, who sold the secrétaire to the Duveen firm in 1923, from which it was purchased in 1927 by Henry E. Huntington as part of the Arabella D. Huntington Art Memorial Collection. It is highly probable that Duveen added the two side plaques in the 1920s, a tactic that would have been entirely in keeping with his efforts to add value to pieces in stock before selling them. However, the possibility that Alfred (or even Almina) acquired the two plaques after 1884 and further embellished the secrétaire with them, cannot be entirely ruled out.

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