Collecting guide: 18th-century French cabinet-makers
Will Strafford, Senior International Specialist for European Furniture and Works of Art at Christie’s in New York, talks us through some of the key names of the period, from Boulle to Riesener, Carlin, Cressent and Vandercruse
With the rise of the guild and the master craftsman, 18th-century Paris became a hub for cabinet-making and
the production of luxury objets d’art. Style and fashions evolved throughout this period, with a constant thirst for new forms and ideas, which were often created by the celebrated tastemakers of the time — the marchands-merciers.
These purveyors of luxury goods commissioned some of the
most innovative pieces of the period, with imports from China
and Japan bringing a new Eastern influence as well as fame
to those who adapted them for daring new designs.
The guild system
‘Stamped furniture’ refers to pieces that have been stamped
by a specific maker working within the traditional guild
system. ‘Artisans working in all areas of the decorative
arts had very strict rules in terms of what they could and
couldn’t do,’ explains Will Strafford, Senior International
Specialist in European Furniture at
By dividing the process of making a piece of furniture into
its constituent parts, the guilds created jobs for as many
different craftsmen as possible. ‘If you were a cabinet-maker
you stuck to cabinet-making,’ says Strafford. ‘If you were
a bronze-caster you stuck to bronze-casting. Even for gilt
bronzes, the process was broken down into different craftsmen
who would be responsible for different parts, such as gilding
Ebénistes & the stamp of approval
Members of the cabinet-making guild were referred to as ébénistes, which derives from the word for ebony — originally the main type of wood used in the 17th century. The ébénistes were a
separate group to the carvers and joiners, who were referred
to as menuisiers, although they were both members of the same guild.
In 1751 a parliamentary rule was passed that required all cabinet-makers
and joiners to be granted a stamp by their respective guilds
in order to be able to practice their craft. The stamp with the maker’s name is often accompanied by the initials ‘JME’ which stands for ‘Jurande Menuisiers Ebénistes’, the cabinet-makers and joiners guild, further proof that he had been officially accepted into the guild. ‘This doesn’t
mean to say that you don’t see stamped pieces earlier than
this,’ explains Strafford, ‘but it only became a structured
legal requirement in the mid-18th century.’
French royal workshops produced all manner of luxury items
in the 18th century, with Louis XV overseeing royal manufacturers
of tapestries and carpets, and establishing a royal workshop
to make fine dishes at the Sèvres porcelain manufactory between 1753 and 1757.
In 1759, the Sèvres manufactory became his personal property.
The original tastemakers — the marchands-merciers
These privileged dealers played a key role throughout
the 18th century as propagators of taste. As well as selling
a wide range of luxury goods, they devised unexpected types of objects, unusual combinations
of materials, and unprecedented models and forms. ‘Their equivalent
today would be a combination of luxury retailer and tastemaker,’
The marchands-merciers negotiated between the
client — usually aristocratic or royal — and the craftsmen,
and their power lay in the monopolies they held over certain
luxury materials that were crucial to the production of these
goods, such as lacquerwares and porcelain from China and
Japan, and Sèvres porcelain, which was under the patronage
of the king.
‘Without the marchands-merciers French taste would
not have advanced as rapidly and luxuriously as it did in
the 18th century,’ says Strafford. ‘They came up with
the idea of taking lacquer screens and adapting them into
pieces of furniture, or taking a Chinese vase and adding
luxurious gilt bronze mounts to make a wonderful mélange of Eastern and Western crafts.’
The reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715)
André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732)
As Louis XIV’s favourite cabinet-maker
André-Charles Boulle was granted special privileges by
the Sun King, enabling him to establish workshops in the
Louvre and thereby avoid the strict regulation and control
imposed by the guilds.
As a result Boulle was able to combine the various disciplines
in order to oversee the whole process from start to finish,
producing a a succession of pieces characterised by their
‘Boulle’s pieces are some of the most holistically successful
artistic achievements of the craft,’ says Strafford. ‘There
is a wonderful harmony between the bronzes, the form of the
cabinet-making and the marquetry because he had complete
artistic control over every aspect of the production.’
Charles Cressent (1685-1768)
After Boulle, the next most famous cabinet-maker of the early part of the
18th century was Charles Cressent.
Hailing from a family of sculptors, Cressent became a master
sculptor in 1719, and worked as both ébéniste and
sculptor to the duc d’Orléans. He was particularly acclaimed
for the highly sculptural gilt bronze mounts on his furniture.
In order to supervise production and guarantee quality, Cressent
employed master casters and gilders in his workshop, which
broke the rules of the French guild system. He was prosecuted
for practising the two professions of cabinet-making and gilding
in the same workshop, and was forced to sell his stock to pay the resulting fines. The catalogues from these auctions
provide important information for identifying his works, because Cressent’s
furniture was always unsigned.
The reign of Louis XV (1715-1774)
Bernard II van Risenburgh (after 1696-circa 1766)
While Boulle and Cressent dominated the first half of the 18th
century, the Rococo period during the reign of Louis XV brought
new makers to the fore. One of these was known only by the
‘Nobody knew who BVRB was or what the letters stood for, and his identity
remained a mystery up until the 1950s,’ says Strafford. ‘It
was thought BVRB might have been the name of a client or
chateau, but in fact this stamp referred to a Dutch-born cabinet-maker
named Bernard van Risenburgh, who was perhaps the finest
craftsman in this field in the Louis XV period.’
During every phase of Van Risenburgh’s illustrious
career he executed small series of highly luxurious and
precious items of furniture, aimed at only the wealthiest
and most discerning clientele.
Having been received as a master by the guild, he appears
to have worked almost exclusively for the most illustrious
marchands-merciers, initially collaborating regularly
with Thomas-Joachim Hébert and Lazare Duvaux, who was a key figure in Madame de Pompadour’s collecting.
Furniture mounted with precious Japanese and Chinese lacquer was one of his main specialities, which he developed to full fruition in the early 1730s. Little is known about his workshop, explains Strafford, but it is assumed that he was able to retain a permanent bronzier because the chasing and the design in his work is so consistent and of a uniformly high quality.
The reign of Louis XVI (1774-1789)
Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806)
During the reign of Louis XVI the most famous name in cabinet-making
was Jean-Henri Riesener, who was the main ébéniste to the royal court, and a favourite of Marie-Antoinette.
Born in Germany, Riesener entered the atelier of Jean-François Oeben and became his successor after marrying Oeben’s widow
in 1767, and taking over the workshop of the ébéniste du roi at the Arsenal. He became maître in 1768.
His work is characterised by superb naturalistic marquetry and finely chased mounts. He delivered a famous series of commodes to the royal court in the 1770s, each with a distinctive panel to the front of trapezoidal shape, the perfect canvas to show off his mastery of pictorial marquetry.
Martin Carlin (circa 1730-1785), Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820) and the taste of Dominique Daguerre
Martin Carlin and Adam Weiseiler produced some of the most luxurious furniture of the Louis XVI period, often incorporating precious materials such as lacquer and Sèvres porcelain. They were part of a group of celebrated German ébénistes who had immigrated to Paris, including Riesener
and Jean-François Oeben, who was Carlin’s brother-in-law.
Carlin and Weisweiler worked almost exclusively for the marchands-merciers, initially for Simon Poirier (in the case of Carlin), and then his partner, Dominique Daguerre,
who took over the business and was the most important dealer
in Paris of the 1780s, as well as being a tastemaker and
international entrepreneur. ‘There are a number of styles
that you can directly relate to Daguerre’s taste and innovations,’ notes Strafford.
As well as the French Royal court, Daguerre’s illustrious array of client included the future George IV of England and the future Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, Paul and Maria Feodorovna.
Roger Vandercruse (1728-1799)
Another refined cabinet-maker in the Louis XVI period who worked
both for the marchands-merciers and independently
was Roger Vandercruse, also known as Lacroix, who stamped
his furniture with his initials RVLC.
From 1769, the Flemish-born cabinet-maker provided furniture
for the royal houses through his colleague, Gilles Joubert,
who was responsible for all orders from the court. Vandercruse was
a witness at Martin Carlin’s wedding, and the brother-in-law
of Jean-François Oeben and then Jean-Henri Riesener.
Vandercruse’s work is characterised by the use of attractive pale woods such as citronnier, or lemon wood, in combination with delicate geometric parquetry patterns.
An evolution in style — from baroque to neoclassical
‘At the beginning of the 18th century the influence of the baroque is seen in grand-scale, sculptural forms,’ says Strafford. ‘The rococo pieces of the Louis XV period, by contrast, tend to be more delicate and organic.’
Later, the introduction of the neoclassical style witnessed an emphasis
on straight lines inspired by antiquity, although there was
still an underlying naturalism. ‘You still see incredibly
lifelike depictions of flowers in gilt bronzes, but in a much
more rigorous scheme,’ the specialist explains.
Starting a collection
Get good advice
If you’re new to the category it’s always best to talk to a
specialist. ‘This is a very complex field,’ confirms Strafford,
‘so it’s important to get good advice. There are so many
different technical aspects of craftsmanship — if you’re
looking at a chest of drawers, for example, you’ve got to
have knowledge of interior cabinet-making to determine that
the piece is essentially unmodified. Then you’ve got to have
a good sense of veneers, gilt bronze mounts, and so on. The makers’ stamps tend to be found on the strongest structural members, such as the top of the uprights at each corner or the reverse of the uprights, in the case of commodes (chests-of-drawers), or in the case of smaller tables and bureaux, on the underside of the frame.’
Buy the best you can afford
As with any field, prospective collectors should try to learn
as much as they can about the piece they are interested in
and, most importantly, buy the best they can afford. The
key determinant of value, of course, is the quality of the
‘With this in mind, don't get too concerned about having to
buy stamped pieces, or pieces by a certain maker,’
advises our specialist. ‘Certain makers are more desirable than
others, but the best-quality piece by a lesser maker can often
be more valuable than a medium-quality piece by one of the
more important makers.’
Another important thing to remember is the part that provenance
can play in the value of a piece. ‘If you can prove that
something was made for an important member of the royal family, that will definitely add significant value,’ notes Strafford.
Why it’s a good time to invest
The market for 18th-century French furniture has declined quite significantly
in the past 10 to 15 years, which means it is a great
time to buy. Although there has been what Strafford describes
as a ‘sea change’ in taste, these remarkable pieces can work
in modern interiors. ‘People have definitely moved away from
creating a completely period interior, which was so popular
from the 1950s through to the 1980s, but that doesn’t take
away from the extraordinary craftsmanship and sense of history
that these pieces still possess.’