1721-63; MASTER 1761
can-Frangois Oeben. son of a Catholic postmaster. was born on 9 October 1721 at Heinsberg near Ліх-la-Chapelle and the Dutch frontier. Nothing is known of his youth but it is probable that he started his apprenticeship at the usual age of fourteen or fifteen, that is in about 1735-36. and would have finished in about 1740-42. It is likewise impossible to know if this apprenticeship took place in the Rhineland or in Paris. On the other hand, we know from his marriage contract in 1749 that he had already been established in Paris for a number of years, as he is described as a journeyman ebeniste living in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. It is probable that he had settled among the circle of Flemish ebcnistes which included the Criards. the Vanrisam – burghs, the Vandercruses and Dautriches. a circle which also included Latz. for whom he probably worked. Panels of very detailed floral marquetry characteristic of Oeben’s work are found on some pieces typical of Latz in their exaggerated rococo form and their gilt-bronze mounts. This is the case with a commode (135) and four encoignures now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, and also a secretaire in the Resi – denz. Munich (274]. Of course, it is possible that on Latz’s death Oeben bought unfinished furniture, with its bronze-gilt mounts, which he would then have veneered. The marriage contract includes an inventory of goods, furniture, clothes, linen and personal apparel’ in his possession to the value of 600 livres. Oeben married Frangoise-Margueritc Vandercruse. daughter of an ebeniste. sister of R. V. L. C., and sister-in-law of Carlin. He therefore became
(261 j Commode stamped J.-F. up after Oeben’s death in 1763.
Oeben, с. 1760-63, in cube (Sale Couturicr-Nicolay, Paris,
marquetry; a similar commode is IS November 1981, lot 99) described in the inventory drawn
a member of one of the principal families of Parisian ebenistes.
Between 1751 and 1754 Jean-Frangois Oeben worked as an independent artisan in Charles-Joscph Boulle’s workshop and rented a mezzanine at the Louvre. This is confirmed by a document in the hand of Marigny in 1759. On the death of Oharles-Joseph Boulle in 1754. Oeben could no longer remain at the Louvre. However, on 15 December 1754 he was granted the title of ebeniste du roi’ and obtained lodgings and a workshop at the Gobelins where he remained until 1761. Numerous advantages were connected with his establishment at the Gobelins; after six years working in the Royal Manufactories an ebeniste could become a master without paying the usual fees (536 livres for a foreigner). After ten years a foreign artisan could become a naturalized Frenchman and have the right to will his assets to his children.
With regard to the prestige and importance of Oeben’s workshop at the Gobelins, we have an interesting glimpse in a letter of recommendation of a Swedish ebeniste. Karl Peter Dahlstrom. which states that he ‘has worked as head of the workshop of the court ebeniste Jean-Frangois Oeben. famous at the English and French Courts as well as at the Imperial court in Vienna and the Tsar’s court in Russia’. Certain pieces of furniture by Oeben dating from the 1750s. now at the Residenz in Munich and which probably once belonged to a prince of Saarbrucken. serve to illustrate the extent of the renown which he already enjoyed beyond the frontiers of France (274].
From 1752 the name of Jean-Frangois Oeben appears in Lazare Duvaux’s day-book for some frames, proof that he was a craftsman worthy of working for the greatest dealer of the time and principal
supplier to Mme de Pompadour. From then on Oeben supplied furniture to her. The first important work that can be identified is a mechanical table of the same design as the one in the Louvre which is seen in the portrait of Mme de Pompadour with her daughter Alexandrine by Francois Guerin, painted shortly before (or shortly after) 1751. the date of Alexandrine’s death. Certain other important pieces by Oeben can be dated stylistically to this period: for example. the mechanical table in the Linsky Collection  which is embellished with gilt-bronze corner – mounts in the form of lowers, the armorial emblem of the Marquise de Pompadour.
In 1756 Oeben was given extensive accommodation as well as a workshop at the Arsenal, which was virtually a dependency of the Gobelins manufactory. The Arsenal was very conveniently placed for the shipping of furniture, being close to the port of Saint – Nicolas. The workshop at the Gobelins remained in operation with the assistance of his brother Simon Oeben, who also took over the accommodation. In the same year, on 14 June 1756. he made his first delivery to the Garde-Meuble Royal, consisting of a commode with doors for the Cabinet of the Dauphin at Versailles. Presumably furniture of that period still followed the lines of the rococo style; the uninterrupted curves of these pieces are strongly accentuated, particularly in the case of the tables. They are in a very
sober and mature rococo style, with few mounts, their appeal coming mainly from the perfection of their lines and the refinement of the marquetry. During the years between 1750 and 1760 this consisted mainly of floral marquetry – baskets of flowers, sprays of carnations – treated in a realistic manner and contrasted on a striped sycamore ground. These panels are delineated by an interplay of sinuous bands of amaranth bounded by double fillets in black and white. On Oeben’s later works this type of floral marquetry is replaced by geometric marquetry: cubes, interlaced circles, fan motifs, directly inspired, as has been noted by Sir Francis Watson, by Japanese lacquer boxes. A transitional phase is marked by the combination of a central bouquet of flowers flanked by parquetry panels in cubes, as can be seen on the Bensimon commode, on the table in the Louvre, or the one in the Widcner Collection.
While gaining renown for his ability in marquetry, Oeben was also specializing in mechanical furniture: in order to make the necessary metal fittings and mechanisms for them, he was given permission to build a forge in the courtyard of the Arsenal. At that time this type of furniture was a speciality of German craftsmen, such as Abraham and David Roentgen, who excelled in this work. Oeben. however, surpassed his compatriots in this field. He perfected a mechanical table which was both a dressing-table and a writing-table. The top slides backward at the same time as the drawer pulls forward, which allows the release of a reading stand and panels. Oeben also conceived an ingenious system of locking all the drawers of a piece
J ЕЛ N – FR Л N(;< ) IS О E В E N
/266/ (left) Portrait of the Marquis dc Vaudreuil 11724-1802) fry Roslin, с. 1765; the writing-table is decorated with marquetry of fish-scale pattern, typical of Oeben’s work. (National Gallery of Ireland, DublinI
f2671 (above) Night-table attributed to J.-F. Oeben, entered in the day-book of the Garde – Meuble Royal under the number 2065, corresponding to a delivery in J756. (Sotheby’s Monaco, 24 June 1984. lot .1125)
at the same time with a single turn of a key. The title of ebeniste mccanicien du roi’. granted in 1760. attests to his abilities in this sphere. In the same year Oeben supplied an invalid chair for the Due de Bourgogne. elder brother of the future Louis XVI. which could be wheeled, turned and regulated in height, with trays for reading and eating. For this he received a medal and an award.
Finally, in 1760. Oeben received the most important commission of his career, a secretaire a cylindre’ for the King (448]. Oeben was certainly the first in France to design this type of furniture: the other ebe – nistes who produced this type of desk, such as Teune, Roussel and Boudin, were not innovators and their desks date at the earliest from the years around 1765 (Teune, for example, became a master only in 1766). The clumsy description of such desks by Joubert and Dubois in the inventory made after Oeben’s death in 1763 further indicates that this type of desk was new to France. It is likely, moreover, that Oeben had already made an example before 1761, or the Garde – Meuble Royal would not have given him the order. The decoration was so rich and the mechanical fittings so complex that it took eight years to make, being completed by Riesener in 1769 and signed by him (in the marquetry). I’his desk, like all the other cylinder desks by Oeben. has cabriole legs and is still rococo in form. This would appear anachronistic for the time but can be explained by the fact that it was designed for the Cabinet of Louis XV. a room which already contained such rococo pieces as the medal-cabinet by Gaudreaus  and the encoignures by Joubert (205]. From 1760 Oeben did however follow the taste of the time for Neo-classicism: he produced furniture of massive form with straight lines, commodes or secretaires a abattant veneered with geometric marquetry. The gilt-bronze mounts were also in the new taste: friezes of interlaced circles, corner-mounts with rams’ heads, simple discs or rosettes at the corners of panels and ring handles.
The mention of 17 commodes a la grecque’ in the inventory of Mme de Pompadour s possessions drawn up on her death in 1764. described in her lodgings at
12711 Small cylinder desk attributed to J.-F. Oeben, c. 1760. An identical bureau and of the same dimensions, but with a tier between the legs, is
12731 Secretaire d abattant stamped J.-F. Oeben, c. 1755: the first stage of the Transitional style combines rococo mounts and shapes with geometric marquetry
of ‘interlaced hearts and lozenges’ imitating metal trellisworb. (Sotheby’s Ijondon, 22 November 1963. lot 1311
I274f Secretaire a abattant attributed to J.-F. Oeben. с. 1755; the fall-front is decorated with the same
marquetry panel with realistic flowers which ii found on the tops of mechanical tables IRcsidenzmuscum. Munich I
Versailles. Menars and the Chateau d’Auvilliers, and which Oeben had supplied since 1761, has long intrigued researchers. This mysterious term can l>e explained by reference to the inventory of the Marquis de Marigny. Mme de Pompadour’s brother and heir, who kept his sister’s furniture at Menars. These commodes were of various types, the most sumptuous of them being in Mme de Pompadour’s former bedroom: ‘A commode with 3 upper drawers. 2 in the middle and cupboards at the sides, in bois rose satine with gilt-bronze mounts and Italian marble top.’ Almost all the commodes at Menars were of this type, with three drawers in the frieze, but in mahogany instead of bois satine. Some, however, had no drawers in the frieze and two or three in the central section. They are thus described: ’Commode in mahogany with two large drawers and cupboards at the sides with gilt-copper rings and Italian marble top’, or ’Commode in figured mahogany with 3 central drawers and two cupboards at the sides.’ (Arch. Nat. Min. Cent. XCIX-657, 1 June 1781; inventory of the Chateau de Menars.)
It is thus clear that the term commode a la grecque’ denotes a type of commode of rectangular form with a central break-front with drawers, and doors on either side. A number of these commodes are recorded.
stamped by Jean-Fran^ois or sometimes by his brother Simon Oeben. which means that they were not made exclusively for Mme de Pompadour. Most are in mahogany, some in bois satine and a few in marquetry with geometric motifs which would seem to correspond to the more sumptuous types with which the Marquise furnished her apartment at Versailles. Mahogany was a recent introduction: in Lazare Duvaux’s day-book the first pieces in solid mahogany are recorded in 1752 and six mahogany commodes were supplied to Mme de Pompadour in 1753. It was also an expensive wood, and in the case of the pieces which she commissioned from Oeben, she provided the mahogany herself. In the inventory after Oeben’s death is an entry for ’710 livres weight of mahogany in 4 planks and one sheet of the same wood 9 pieds long..which is recorded as being ‘the remains of the mahogany bought by Oeben on the orders and to the account of the Marquise de Pompadour, and to whom it belonged.’ In Oeben’s workshop there were also two other commode carcases a la grecque ’in solid mahogany without tops. 30 pouces in height. 4 pieds in length. 17 pouces in depth, fitted with three drawers in the middle. 2 small doors at the side.’
While the commodes a la grecque’ still bear the imprint of the rococo style in the form of their cabriole
legs, the secretaires a abattant, which Oeben perfected over the same period. are resolutely Neo-classical in style and perfectly rectilinear. These secretaires were often made in pairs, one forming the secretaire a abat – tant. the other the chiffonnier or tambour-front: a good example may be seen in a gouache by Van Bla – rcnbcrge depicting the 19uc de Choiseul’s bedroom in Paris (279).
Despite his success and his prestigious clientele. Oeben’s financial situation remained precarious. After his death in January 1763 his widow was not able to avoid bankruptcy, the eventual fate of many ebenistes in the eighteenth century. The balance of credits stood at 56.840 livres, of which more than half (31.237 livres) represented amounts owed by clients and other debtors; the stock of furniture, completed or under construction, amounted to 13.321 livres. while Oeben’s personal effects were valued at 4,200 livres and the equipment of his workshop at 8,084 livres. The debts amounted to 55,385 livres. Oeben’s widow made over the amounts due to the business to her creditors, as well as the proceeds of the sale of the completed furniture. However, she kept her personal effects as well as the stock of furniture still incomplete and the tools in the workshop. The remaining debts, approximately 20.000 livres. were never honoured.
The inventory, drawn up after his death in 1763. reveals that the workshop contained eleven workbenches with tools and one bench without tools, which corresponds to roughly the dozen workers employed. This was a large number for the period (the great workshops, such as those of Weisweiler or Mol- itor. had seven or eight at the most) which gives the measure of the importance of Oeben’s workshop. The names of some of his colleagues are known: his brother Simon Oeben from 1754. followed by a Swede, Karl Peter Dahlstrom. already mentioned, from about 1754 to 1756, the Flemish craftsman Wynant Stylen. a great specialist in marquetry, and finally Riesener and Leleu who in 1765 would fall out over the management of the workshop.
According to Pierre Verlet. an average workshop with three or four work-benches produced about twenty or thirty pieces of each type of furniture a year. On this basis Oeben’s annual production can Ы estimated at about 60 to 80 pieces of each type of furniture (commodes, secretaires, and so on). This enormous number is substantiated by the number of
pieces described in the inventory after his death: more than 120. some finished, some incomplete, were found in the workshop, shop and Oeben’s apartment, which included more than 50 tables. 12 commodes. 14 encoignures, 2 secretaires a cylindre and 10 secretaires a abattant. These figures related, of course, only to his last year in business, but they give a good idea of Oeben’s total production. Tables were his great speciality and there were many different types: ‘writing – tables with compartments that pull forward’ or ‘dual – purpose tables’ ‘tables with stands’, ‘tables with slides’, ‘bedside-tables’, ‘heart-shaped dressing-tables’, ‘cabaret-tables’. ‘occasional trictrac-tables’, ‘dressing – tables’. etc. The remainder of the production was divided between commodes and secretaires a abattant. There is no mention of any secretaire en pente and only one book-case, described as being ‘in classical floral marquetry’, indicating that it was an old – fashioned piece. The marquetry is seldom described; the furniture is sometimes ‘veneered in a dice pattern’, that is. in cubes, or ‘encrusted with shaded flowers’ or ‘in mosaic of rose bleu on a satine ground’.
Oeben’s furniture was usually in tulipwood but it was sometimes associated with amaranth or more rarely with bois satine. Mahogany was used as a veneer on furniture with some parts in solid wood, for example, the drawer-fronts and the styles. The carcases are almost always in oak. very rarely in pine or beech. Hardly any of the pieces found in the workshop had marble tops, and the majority were not fitted with gilt-bronze mounts, indication that Ocben was unable to stock finished pieces but worked primarily to order. The only mounts described are ring handles on the commodes, balustrades around the tops of the secretaires a cylindre. sabots ‘cn chaussons’ and corner – mounts with rams’ heads. However. Oeben seems to have maintained the exclusive right to certain mounts, of which he had lent the models to his chaser Her – vieux. In addition to mounts intended for the bureau du Roi, Hervieux had stored many kinds of bronzes lielonging to Oeben and 53 plaster moulds.