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Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806)

Jean-Henri Riesener was the foremost cabinet-maker in France during the reign of Louis XVI (1774–1792). His richly decorated furniture is characterised by mahogany veneers, floral wood marquetry (inlaid decoration) and sculptural gilt-bronze mounts of superlative quality. Some of his pieces include hidden compartments unlocked by ingenious mechanisms. Several pieces attributed to him were bought for the Royal Collection by George IV (1762–1830), who was a great admirer of French works of art.

Born in Gladbeck, in Westphalia, Germany in 1734, Riesener emigrated to Paris as a young man and there joined the workshop of Jean-François Oeben. On Oeben's death, Riesener married his widow, took over the business, and secured his own reputation by completing the famous 'King's Desk' for Louis XV which he delivered to the Chateau of Versailles in 1769. In 1774 he was appointed official Cabinetmaker to the King (ébéniste ordinaire du garde meuble de la couronne), and from this time he regularly supplied furniture to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. One commode by Riesener in the Royal Collection (RCIN 21213) was originally made for the King's Bedchamber at Versailles. However, in 1784 Riesener was removed from his official post and replaced by a less talented and less expensive cabinet-maker, Guillaume Benneman. Riesener continued to supply exceptionally rich pieces for Queen Marie-Antoinette and her sister-in-law, the comtesse de Provence, but his decade in official royal service with access to large and significant commissions was over. The years after 1784 up to the French Revolution led Riesener to work with Paris dealers, including the pre-eminent marchand mercier, Dominique Daguerre.

The sale of royal and aristocratic property during the French Revolution made it newly possible for English collectors to acquire pieces by the best eighteenth-century French cabinet-makers. In 1825, George IV bought a jewel cabinet, commode, writing-table and pair of corner cupboards attributed to Riesener for Windsor Castle. The jewel cabinet (RCIN 31207) is among the greatest masterpieces of furniture in the Louis XVI style. It has plain mahogany veneers, reflecting the fashion of the later 1780s in France, and jewel-like gilt-bronze mounts on the doors. Riesener's pieces sometimes contained secret drawers with ingenious unlocking mechanisms, and a roll-top desk acquired by George IV at the same time (RCIN 2431) is fitted with a mechanism which locks all drawers and the shuttered cover with a single key, and alsoincludes a hidden central compartment.

Riesener survived the French Revolution, but his association with the monarchy proved damaging to his career and he died in relative obscurity in 1806.


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