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97 - Oeben's mechanical table (closed)

A wooden table made of oak and marquetry of fine and exotic polychrome woods.  Its motion plateau is decorated at the center with a flower basket that rests on a shell console in an entourage of vines and arabesques.  Each of its four corners is ornamented with an allegory of one of the four elements: an eagle for the air, a swan for the water, a salamander for the fire and a lion for the earth.   Its rounded belt part is worked in marquetry with flower garlands.  On each of its sides one may find a little hole, destined to insert the key and the crank handle, respectively, to activate the mechanism that opens the table. It opens automatically to show a central panel lacquered on gold on a black background representing an oriental landscape. Flanked by two drawers, this internal panel can be raised thanks to another mechanism that can be activated by pushing on a secret button, and turned into a leather covered surface which can be brought back down to serve as a writing desk.   The side drawers have been worked in marquetry with designs of floral bouquets; the upper lids of these drawers are as well ornamented with marquetry representing flowers.  The table rests on four sabots, equally worked with delicate marquetry, and recovered with golden bronzes representing ram heads and other very rich decoration consisting of stylized, curled foliage.

Sealed twice J.F. OEBEN.

Jean François Oeben (1721-1763), « King’s privileged cabinetmaker » in1754 and then «King’s cabinetmaker – mechanic», acquired his Mastership in 1761.

Period: Louis XV, c. 1754-1757.

Measures(closed): Hight. 72,5 Length. 95,5 Depth. 47,5 cm.

Measures(open): Hight. 72,5 Length. 121 Depth. 82,5 cm.

 Restorations for use deterioration.  The mechanisms work to perfection. 



Jean-François Oeben (Heinsberg, 1721 – Paris, 1763) was one of the most creative and recognized cabinetmakers of the French 18th century.  Stricken by a fatal sickness in his early40’s, Oeben was a star that faded at the summit of his career.  He was a master of the Louis XV style, and in only 15 years he completely remodeled the taste of the “Age of Enlightenment”, creating the most flabbergasting pieces of furniture ever imagined.  It was him who gave France and its King the fabulous cylindrical desk conserved today at Versailles; it was him who created those famous and wonderful “Greek fashion chests”, inventing for the Marquise of Pompadour the style known today as “Transition”; it was him, finally, who discovered neoclassicism, finding inspiration in the architecture of an ancient temple to produce a desk for the duke of Choiseul.

 Born and formed in Germany, Oeben arrived in Paris between 1742 and 1745.  He was later welcome by the Royal Administration: he was originally lodged in the Louvre galleries, then at the Manufacture des Gobelins, and finally at the Arsenal pavilion, which had recently been built.  High Nobility as well as the Royal Family hired him to produce wonderful objects (many of these aristocrats, at the moment of his death, were still his debtors).  The Dukes of Choiseul, Aumont and Soubise, King Louis XV, the Dauphine and, naturally, the Marquise of Pompadour, could all be counted among his preferred clients.  Oeben worked with nearly 14 non-established craftsmen and 18 collaborators towards the end of his life.  He cooperated with members of his family, such as his brother Simon, or his brothers in law Roger Van der Cruz and Martin Carlin.  His apprentice, Riesener, would later marry his widow and finish the King’s desk (signed by both artisans).  Riesener would take over the reins of his workshop, bringing to perfection the neoclassicist style “Louis XVI” imagined by his master and mentor.

 Functioning mechanics of a «table mécanique»

Oeben’s biographer, Rose-Marie Stratmann-Döhler, has only been able to identify two hundred and some pieces of furniture of his creation, both signed and unsigned.  They are kept, today, in the most important international collections.  37 mechanical tables, all different among them, serve as an example of the perfection of this artist’s refined work.  Unprecedented as it is, our “two purpose table” does not appear in the catalogue raisonné, even if it belongs to the most prestigious group of this kind of tables.  Invented when Oeben lived at the Manufacture des Gobelins, or maybe even conceived when he still lived at the Louvre, the tables mécaniques known as “two purpose tables” where particularly sought after by the ladies of the high society.  The Marquise of Pompadour posed with one of these tables for artist François Guérin. A comparative analysis of these 37 tables would help to better appreciate the exceptional character of the one presented by us.

 A“two purpose table” (table à deux fins, in French) combines a dressing table and a writing desk.  It conceals, in a large compartment, a pair of richly decorated drawers and a wonderful landscape that can be turned into a usable table, by activating a formidable mechanical system.  The mechanism of our table is one of the rare examples that still work to perfection at the beginning of the 21st century.  A crank handle allows, on one side of the table, to adjust the springs, which can be activated by just slightly turning the key on the other side. It is at this point that the inside desk slides to open and show the lacquer panel that can be turned around by activating another mechanism inorder to show a leather covered table that serves as a writing desk.  Only four other tables in the world are furnished by similar lacquer panels. They are conserved at the Louvre Museum, at the Museum of the Residence, in Munich, and at the Gulbenkian Museum of Lisbon.

 The inlaid patterns of floral bouquets.  The allegories of the four elements.

Prodigious marquetry inlayer, Oeben used, on an assembly of oak, all the exotic kind of woods known at his time: rose, violet, satin, amaranth, cedar, rosewood, sycamore, lemon tree, mahogany and ebony; but also local types such as ashtree, maple tree, hornbeam, box tree, yew, spruce, and lime tree, among others. 

 The floral bouquet compositions that he achieved are very similar to those produced by two other artists of his time that, just like him, lived at the Manufacture des Gobelins: Louis Tessier and Maurice Jacques.  Needless to say, the pretention was not to scientifically represent botanic elements, but to reproduce flowers for decorative purposes.  However, Oeben’s inventory after his death included numerous engravings representing flowers and various paintings on the same subject.  The flowers represented in our table were those in fashion in the decade of 1750: tulips, simple or full roses, carnations, daisies, peonies and hyacinths, among others.

 Ram head bronzes for the princes of Deux-Ponts.

Commonly, the “two purpose tables” are presented with simple bronze moldings.  These bronze figures have at the same time the purpose of protecting the marquetry and of integrating to the decoration.  Quite often, this kind of tables – as is the case of ours - rest on sabots in the form of curled foliage.  The most exceptional pieces of furniture present, however – and in quite a repetitive manner – heads of Chinamen.  Our table, along with the one conserved at the Residence Museum in Munich, is the only one that is decorated with bronze moldings in the fashion of ram heads.  These ram heads appear as well in other pieces of furniture, such as the one with which the Marquise of Pompadour poses for the portrait painted by François Hubert Drouais, or as is the case for the table held by the Wallace Collection in London. If we look for this type of bronze figures into the inventory drawn up after the artist’s death, we can learn that the idea was executed for Christian IV, duke of Deux-Ponts, or for his brother, the hereditary prince.  Both of them were close friends of the Marquise of Pompadour, as well as of King Louis XV, and spent many months of the year in Paris.  Among the furniture that they bought from Oeben between 1754 and 1757 and that escaped from the destruction of their Jägersburg palace in 1793, a table mécanique and a cabinet-writing desk are ornamented with similar figures.

For the bronzes, Oeben worked with the most capable and prestigious Parisian artisans.  Notably, he engaged the recognized smelter Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis for the bronzes, as well as chiselers Louis-Barthélémy Hervieux and Étienne Forestier.  The quality of a bronze can be able to triplicate the value of a table mécanique.  In the referred inventory, only three tables mécaniques are listed.  The first one is referred to “pour mémoire”, as it belonged to the Marquise of Pompadour; the second one, with little surrounding moldings and small golden bronze fillets, is valued in pounds; the last one, with four falls on chiseled bronze representing ram heads - similar to ours - is valued in 700 pounds.  This is one of the most important prices of the inventory.  Infact, this table comes after a big chest of drawers (1,500 ponds) and a pendulum box (1,000 pounds); but far before the tables à la Bourgogne (260 pounds), some writing desks (600 pounds), a flat desk(140 pounds), a cabinet-writing desk (140 pounds), the Greek fashioned cabinets (150 pounds) or a heart-shaped table de toilette (72 pounds).

Exceptional in its executional quality, formidable for the rareness of its bronzes, for the detail of its marquetry, the fineness of its lacquer, and the symbolism of its plateau representing the four elements, our table is among the ones ordered by Oeben’s most celebrated clients, starting with the Marquise of Pompadour and the princes of Deux-Ponts.  Unprecedented in the world of art, this is one of the very rare tables mécaniques that still work fantastically today, 260 years after its creation.

The mechanisms works to perfection:

97 - detail of the gliding plateau

Flower bouquets, marquetry, and allegories of the four elements:

97 - Plateau with the alegories of the four elements

Ram heads bronzes made for the Princes of Deux-Ponts:

97 - detail of the bronzes

Translated into English by Diego de Ybarra-Corcuera

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