When looking at the Toilette à Tansformations at the National Gallery of Art, it is hard to imagine that its maker Jean-François Leleu struggled to be acknowledged as one of the premiere ébénistes of eighteenth-century France. During the reign of the sun kings, the artisans and craftsmen of France were widely admired, and their high-quality products were much sought after throughout Europe. The guild system, which fostered competition among the members, was a major reason for why these French furniture makers maintained such a high degree of excellence. The French decorative arts from the eighteenth century continue to be viewed as a highpoint in the history of art. Some historians even argue that the furniture made during this period in France has yet to be surpassed in terms of quality and sophistication. Thus, it was difficult for ébénistes like Leleu to be recognized as one of the superb cabinetmakers during his own lifetime. Although Leleu was indeed considered a top-notch artisan, his legacy was and continues to be eclipsed by his mentor Jean-François Oeben as well as his contemporary Jean-Henri Riesener. In fact, current scholars still tend to push Leleu’s contribution to French furniture into the margins of history. A major reason for why Leleu is not as widely discussed as other ébénistes is because of the artistic shadow which Oeben’s work casted upon his apprentice’s career. Oeben’s influence on Leleu’s aesthetic is especially evident in the Toilette à Tansformations. By examining the Toilette à Tansformations in detail, the impact Oeben had on Leleu’s furniture designs can be better understood.
Jean-François Oeben was not a native of France, yet his furniture was considered the epitome of the French Rococo style. Born in the German-speaking border town of Heinsberg, Oeben was one of many foreign artisans who had moved to Paris for work. Oeben married the daughter of an ébéniste Francoise-Marguerite, which was a common way to gain entry into the French guild systems.[i] Although successful in gaining an apprenticeship through marriage, Oeben was nevertheless unable to work as an independent craftsman since he was not born in France. Thus, after completing his years as a journeyman, Oeben then worked in the atelier of Charles-Joseph Boulle at the Louvre. Through his work at the Louvre, Oeben gained a reputation for excellent craftsmanship. In fact, Oeben became so renowned that he succeeded in becoming an independent ébéniste through being awarded the honorary position of “ébéniste de roi” (or “royal cabinetmaker”) in 1755; consequently, Oeben spent the rest of his life working in the Gobelins workshop.[ii] During Oeben’s time at the Gobelins workshop, he acquired two important apprentices: Jean-François Leleu and Jean-Henri Riesener. It is under Oeben’s instruction that both Leleu and Riesener trained as ébénistes by learning the techniques that gave Oeben’s furniture its signature look.
As a court artisan, Oeben had economic privileges and a status superior to the members of the guild system, which allowed him to experiment with the form and structure of furniture.[iii] During the mid-eighteenth century in France, there was a trend for the specialization of interior spaces that also extended into the development of furniture for specific functions.[iv] For instance, Oeben helped create a new type of table which was known as a toilette à transformations intended for a woman’s boudoir that had a dual function as both a writing desk and a toilette. The Toilette à transformations made by Leleu demonstrates the typical characteristics for this kind of woman’s writing/dressing table such as being small in scale especially as compared to the man’s version of a writing desk.[v] Among the French elite, it was common for ladies to receive visitors while dressing and also to write correspondences in their boudoir; thus, the toilette à transformations provided an elegant aid in both of these daily, feminine activities. By way of reference, in the painting titled Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, a toilette à transformations made by Oeben can be seen. In the right corner of the painting is a partial view of a toilette à transformations which has been left open with writing materials still on the surface. Leleu continued producing this type of furniture as exemplified by the Toilette à transformations on view at the National Gallery of Art.
Oeben’s status as royal cabinetmaker made it possible for him to create mechanical furniture, which subsequently used by ébénistes including Leleu. Unlike ébénistes who had to adhere to strict guild restrictions, Oeben was allowed to experiment beyond cabinetmaking such as locks. Thus, an interesting feature of the Toilette à transformations made by Leleu is the combination of mechanical gadgetry and cabinetmaking, which had been pioneered by Oeben. Oeben was fascinated with integrating technology into his furniture, and Leleu continued to create novel pieces of furniture with the mechanics developed by his mentor. For instance, the National Gallery provides the following description of the mechanics of Leleu’s Toilette à transformations:
“When the key is inserted, springs move the top back halfway while a writing compartment glides forward, doubling the work area. Deep drawers on both sides are simultaneously unlocked and then can be pulled down manually…”
When the owner wishes to use the Toilette à transformations as a dressing table, the writing surfaces can be lifted “to reveal mirror on its back and compartments for cosmetics below.”[vi] Another factor, which contributed to Oeben’s ability to produce mechanical furniture, was the enthusiasm King Louis XV had for technology and science. (In fact, the king had his own laboratory in his apartments at Versailles, and even his royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour, owned two telescopes, possibly a microscope, and scientific journals.[vii]) Thus, without Oeben’s advances in the form and structure of mechanical tables as ébéniste de roi, it is unlikely that Leleu would have been able to create the Toilette à transformations as seen today.
An important aspect to consider when thinking about why Leleu so fully imbibed Oeben’s aesthetic practice is that Leleu had intended to inherit his master’s atelier, yet this never came to be. With Oeben’s death in 1763, a major factor determined which campangon, Leleu or Riesener, would become the next master ébéniste at Gobelins: Oeben’s widow, Francoise-Marguerite. Similar to Oeben’s who needed to marry in order to enter the guild system, Riesener (who was also an immigrant) recognized the importance of marriage for the sake of business. Thus, Riesener married Oeben’s widow and thus inherited the workshop at Gobelins. Some historians postulate that one of the reasons Leleu expected to inherit Oeben’s workshop rather than Riesener was that Leleu was the elder of the two by five years.[viii] Whatever Leleu’s rationale for his right to become the next head of Oeben’s atelier, his failure to do so caused him to leave the workshop. For the rest of his life, Leleu felt embittered toward Riesener and spent many years trying to sue him.[ix] Despite the death of his mentor and his departure from the Gobelins workshop, Leleu continued a method of cabinetmaking that was greatly influenced by Oeben’s sense of design.
For instance, Oeben’s influence on Leleu’s design is apparent in the Toilette à transformations not only in form and function as mentioned previously but also in its marquetry. Oeben was greatly inspired by the abstract decorative patterns found on objects imported from the Orient, which he transmitted into a new style of marquetry. It is likely that Oeben was able to directly observe Asian ornament through his access to Madame de Pompadour’s collection of Asian lacquer. For example, Madame de Pompadour is said to have owned the Van Dieman Box, which is now apart of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection.[x] The decorative panels and tray of the Van Dieman Box have both floral and diaper patterns. A more common pattern on Asian lacquer, which was imported into to France during the eighteenth century, was an interlacing pattern made up of hexagonal shapes.[xi] Oeben adapted these lattice-like patterns into his marquetry while sometimes adding a European stylized fleurons into the ornament. Marquetry is even evident in the previously mentioned painting Madame de Pompadour when looking closely at the side drawer of the depicted toilette à transformations evokes this type of patterned veneer. Oeben’s unique veneering style of adapting abstract Asian motifs became typical of the furniture that came out of his atelier. Thus, it is not surprising that Leleu continued to employ this lattice-like marquetry on his own furniture designs.[xii] In the case of the toilette à transformations, the lattice-like pattern can be seen on the marquetry of the two side drawers and also on the lower front drawer. Even Oeben’s trademark use of fleurons within an interlacing pattern is evident on the top frontal drawer of the toilette à transformations where European-stylized flowers, possibly yellow daffodils and red roses, can be seen within the negative space of the interlacing circles.
So what made the furniture by Leleu different from Oeben’s work? One aspect of the toilette à transformations that does indicate that it was created by Leleu and not Oeben is its transitional style. The overall appearance of the toilette à transformations suggests that the table lies somewhere stylistically between Rococo and Neoclassicism. The toilette à transformations contains the Rococo traits of cabriole legs and the use of a variety of woods (e.g. ebony, tulip-wood, mahogany, etc.) in order to create a floral veneer rather than classical motifs as is evident in the marquetry depicting a ribbon floral bouquet on the top of the table.[xiii] However, the form of the toilette à transformations does not contain asymmetrical nor is it curvilinear as would be typical of the Rococo style. In fact, the table’s rectilinear quality and symmetry of design indicates a transition towards early Neoclassicism. Unlike Oeben, whose career as a cabinetmaker was during the height of the Rococo style’s popularity, Leleu had to respond to changing French taste in furniture. It is this reinterpretation of Oeben’s aesthetic for a new style that makes Leleu’s toilette à transformations distinctive from his mentor’s previous work.
As demonstrated by the form, structure, and decoration of the Toilette à transformations, Leleu’s sense of design was greatly impacted by his years spent under Oeben’s tutelage. Leleu, like the toilette à transformations he created, was caught in a moment of cultural transition during which furniture makers were less concerned with innovation and were starting to focus on the adaptation of past models. In the instance of the toilette à transformations, Leleu utilized his personal past as Oeben’s apprentice to design a piece of furniture that maintained his mentor’s technical achievements while still acknowledging a shift in French taste. Although Leleu was not the most innovative ébéniste of eighteenth-century France, his work should nevertheless be furthered analyzed within the history of decorative arts. Rather than using the same criteria of innovation with which Oeben’s career is often scrutinized, perhaps Leleu’s legacy should be casted in a different light altogether, one that considers the context in which he created his work in, namely that of transition.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018
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[i] Silas Kopf, A marquetry odyssey: historical objects and personal work (New York: Hudson Hill Press, 2008), 104.
[ii] Ibid., 104.
[iii] Michael Sturmer, “An Economy of Delight: Court Artisans of the Eighteenth Century,” The Business History Review (1979), 503
[iv] Mimi Hellman, “Furniture, Socialbility, and the Work of Leisure,” Eighteenth-
Century France,” Eighteenth Century Studies (1999), 417
[v] This difference in the scale of a woman’s toilette à transformations and a man’s bureau provokes one to question whether these different types of French furniture reflect eighteenth-century views on gender roles.
[vi] National Gallery of Art, “The Collection.” Accessed November 10, 2010.
[vii] Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour: A Love Affair with Style (New York: Rosenber and Stiebel, Inc., 1990), 35.
[viii] Leora Auslander, Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996), 131.
[ix] National Gallery of Art, “The Collection.”
[x] Francis Watson, “A Note on French Marquetry and Oriental Lacquer,” The J. Paul
Getty Museum Journal (1923), 162. The Victoria and Albert Museum provides a different provenance for the Van Diemen Box, which does not include Madame de Pompadour. However, the lacquer box is still an appropriate example of Asian ornament imported into Europe.
[xiii] National Gallery of Art, “The Collection.”