Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Recent Acquisition

Though most collectors look for what they have seen elsewhere, particularly if it is similar to something their friend owns, I am always more interested in the unusual.  This is the case with our new acquisition of a “transition” period commode (chest of drawers).

In French 18th century furniture we usually speak of the Louis XV style, i.e. with curved lines, or Louis XVI style, i.e. straight lines.  Though the Louis XVI style came into being in the mid 1750’s during the flourishing of the Louis XV style there was something in between and it was known as “transition” - literally a transition from the Louis XV to Louis XVI.  “Transition” has some curves, usually in the legs, and some straight lines along the sides. 


It was not all that popular nor did it last that long, about 1760-80.  During much of the 20th century it was very much out of fashion but in recent years it has become more popular again.

There are standard heights for commodes and they usually stand at about 33 inches (84 cm) but a variation is known as “hauteur d’appui” literally leaning height.  In the case of our commode, measuring 40 inches (102cm), there is about a 7 inch difference.

How do we know whom it is by?  The best clue is that it is signed on the top of the right rear stile: ‘A. L. Gilbert’ for André-Louis Gilbert (1746-1809).  Gilbert received his designation as “Master” in 1774 but then stopped making furniture in 1789 when the French Revolution began.  He participated in the storming of the Bastille, joined the Paris police department and became a lieutenant in the Revolutionary army… now there is a mid-life crisis for you!


The piece also bears the stamp ‘JME’ for jurande des menuisiers-ébénistes (Jury of carvers and cabinetmakers).  After 1743 all French furniture makers, unless, they worked for the court, were supposed to have their pieces passed by a jury that would stamp the piece with a “JME”.  The way this worked was that the jury would appear every now and then at the door of the furniture maker and stamp the furniture available and they expected to be paid. For some reason not everything was always available for the stamp.  I wonder whether pieces that were not being offered in the shop but rather as specific commissions were not available to the jury.  Additionally, restorers of the past often eliminated these stamps through careless sanding.  In the case of our commode the stamp is still present.

It has wonderful marquetry, which relates to work done in Germany and is slightly naïve in style.  It also adds to the identification that there are comparable pieces with pictorial marquetry panels by Gilbert in the Louvre, Waddesdon Manor and the Frick Collection.

Another unusual aspect is that Gilbert’s marquetry often does not conform to the construction of the piece.  In this specific case note the center top drawer.  The usual methodology would be to have the geometric frieze be exactly the depth of the drawer but in this case the drawer extends into the top of the picture marquetry with its trees and houses.

Why not come visit and see what observations you can make on what makes this piece different and unusual?