BERNARD II VAN RISAMBURGH
"Without doubt one of the four or five great geniuses working in his field" (T. Dell, Furniture in the Frick Collection, 1992, p. 295), Bernard van Risamburgh's life, however, remains shrouded in some mystery. That he was held in high esteem by his contemporaries is illustrated by the fact that along with Boulle, Cressent, Oeben and Riesner, his name is occasionally mentioned in eighteenth-century sale catalogues indicating that he was one of the highly select group of craftsmen whose furniture had collector's value as distinct from mere utility; indeed it seems quite certain that he was the mysterious "Bernard" referred to from time to time in these catalogues (F.J.B. Watson, 'Furniture by Bernard II van Risamburgh in the Royal Collection', Burlington Magazine, August, 1962, p. 342).
His estampille BVRB was only identified in 1957; indeed in his seminal work Les Ébénistes du XVIIIe Siècle published in 1923, Comte François de Salverte lists the proprietor of this "estampille énigmatique" as "Burb." Salverte was, however, aware that it belonged to the maker of "beaux meubles en laque ou en marqueterie" (Salverte, op. cit., P. XV). Van Risamburgh's father, also a cabinet-maker, left Holland to establish himself in Paris in the late seventeenth century and seems to have specialized in furniture veneered in Boulle marquetry. Practically nothing is known of the life of his son, even the date of his maîtrise is not sure, but it is generally accepted to be before 1730. This is based upon the fact that the earliest surviving register of the Parisian maîtres-ébénistes begins in 1735 by which time he was already very well established. Bernard van Risamburgh died sometime before February 1767, leaving his business to his son, Bernard III.
BVRB COMMODES VENEERED IN JAPANESE LACQUER
As noted by Dell, op. cit. p. 294, the evidence of royal château marks and inventory marks on surviving pieces by BVRB, makes it clear that he was one of the principal suppliers of furniture to the French court, probably through the auspices of the marchands-merciers Hébert and Duvaux. One of his earliest royal commissions was in fact a commode veneered with Japanese lacquer, delivered by Hébert for Marie Lecszinska's use in 1737. This was also more than likely the first piece of Japanese lacquer veneered furniture to be made for the Crown. Madame de Pompadour was also an important patron. Whether one should credit Hébert or BVRB for the inspiration of veneering furniture in Japanese lacquer is not clear. What is certain is that the vogue for this furniture was established in the late 1730s and BVRB was indisputably the most distinguished champion of this art.
That these commodes are veneered in Japanese lacquer is significant inasmuch as it was much rarer than Chinese lacquer, it was far more expensive and difficult to obtain and, therefore, all the more precious. The majority of Japanese lacquer on French furniture is of seventeenth century origin, and like the distribution of Sèvres plaques to be mounted on furniture later in the eighteenth century, it is more than likely that its distribution was largely controlled by the marchands-merciers. This is corroborated by the fact that the inventory taken when BVRB handed over his business to his son, does not list any lacquer panels whatsoever, in the spite of the fact that it describes a variety of carcasses of commodes and corner cupboards ready to be veneered with lacquer panels. The same is also true of the inventory taken after Joseph Baumhauer's death, Baumhauer, along with BVRB, being one of the finest ébénistes employing this medium.
The present commode is one of a very select group of seven. One commode, stamped BVRB, is in the Collection of H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, illustrated F.J.B. Watson, ibid., fig. 22; another, stamped BVRB, which was delivered between 1748 and 1753 for Louis XV's daughter, Madame Infante in Parma (1727-1759), now in the Palazzo Quirinale, Rome, illustrated Alvar Gonzáles-Palacios, Il Patrimonio Artistico del Quirinale: Gli Arredi Francesi, 1996, pp. 312-15; a fourth, stamped BVRB, delivered by Hébert to the Dauphine Maria-Theresa (1727-1746) for her bedroom at Versailles, and later with the second Dauphine Marie-Joseph de Saxe (1731-1761), formerly with French & Co., offered Christie's New York, November 24, 1998, lot 25. The fifth, unstamped and veneered in Chinese lacquer, from the Rothschild collection, formerly exhibited in the Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, was sold Christie's London, July 8, 1999, lot 205, and the sixth and seventh were exhibited at the Orangerie des Tuileries in 1946.
The measurements of the present commode are identical to those of the first four examples cited above (photographs and measurements for the other cited examples are not available for comparison). Each of these examples is veneered in Japanese lacquer. Since the ormolu mounts used by BVRB do not appear on furniture made by his contemporaries, it is thought that they were exclusive models made for him alone. It is, therefore, instructive to compare the mounts on this group of commodes. The present lot has chutes and sabots identical to those on the examples in Buckingham Palace and the Palazzo Quirinale. The ormolu borders framing the drawers and the sides of the present lot differ from these two examples, they are slightly more elaborate and the handles are formed by the vines trailing down the front drawer rather than being formed within the upper drawer border as on the cited examples.
The ormolu borders on the front and sides of the present commode are identical to those on the Rothschild example with a minor exception in that the handles are formed at the corners of the borders framing the drawers. The Rothschild commode is the only commode in the group veneered in Chinese lacquer and it has different chutes and sabots. It is worth noting that the Rothschild commode is the only one in the group which bears the C Couronné poinçon. Neither one of the commodes, which are presumably very close in date, show evidence of the more developed ormolu cartouche centering the other BVRB commodes in this group. Presumably, this was in order to leave an uninterrupted view of the lacquer panels. As a consequence, the ormolu handles on the lower drawers are fixed to the corners whereas on those with a central cartouche they tend to be positioned closer to the center of the bottom drawer.
THE COLLECTION OF RODOLPHE KANN
In 1907 a consortium of dealers headed by Duveen Brothers purchased the collection of Rodolphe Kann en bloc from his heirs. Rodolphe, originally from Frankfurt, had made his fortune in South Africa and died in 1905. He was survived by his brother Maurice, a renowned collector in his own right, much of whose collection was purchased in 1910 by Duveen. Described in 1903 as premier amateur of France, Rodolphe Kann began collecting in 1880. The collection was most noted for its paintings with eleven Rembrandts and major works by Frans Hals, Bellini, Ghirlandaio, Bronzino, Tiepolo, Vermeer, Fragonard and Boucher. It also included ivories, tapestries, enamels, sculpture as well as important French furniture and decorative arts. Duveen, who had purchased the collection for $4.5 million, displayed it in Kann's house at 51 Avenue d'Iéna. The principal buyers were American, including Benjamin Altman, J. P. Morgan, P. Widener and Mrs. Collins P. Huntington (Arabella Huntington). Mrs. Huntington acquired five important Dutch paintings and a large collection of top-quality French decorative arts, including this BVRB commode, for a total of approximately $2.5 million.
THE HUNTINGTON COLLECTION
Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) established one of the finest collections of English and American manuscripts in the world. He also collected important French furniture, Sèvres porcelain, tapestries and British paintings for his mansion in San Marino, California. The nephew of Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900), who along with his partners created the Central Pacific Railroad in 1861, Henry Huntington held important posts in this company which was the foundation of his fortune. In 1919 Huntington established a trust bequeathing his collection to the public, leading to the creation of the cultural institute which bears his name and which is housed in his former residence, deeded to the US public in perpetuity.
Henry Huntington married Arabella Yarrington Worsham (c. 1850-1924), widow of his uncle Collis P. Huntington in 1913. Arabella was largely responsible for awakening his interest in the decorative arts and had long been a passionate collector and client of Joseph Duveen, travelling to Paris at least twenty-two times between 1882 and 1921. Arabella purchased a significant portion of the collection of Rodolphe Kann between 1907 and 1910 from Duveen Brothers, including works by Rembrandt and important French furniture and objects, totaling approximately $2.5 million. She worked closely with Duveen, possibly from as early as 1879, furnishing her various New York apartments, three French residences and the San Marino house.
Following Arabella's death in 1924, Henry Huntington decided to form the Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection. He attempted to purchase the decorative arts, including the Kann furniture, from her New York house at 2 East 57th street from her son Archer M. Huntington (1870-1955) who inherited the bulk of her estate. He refused, presenting part to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and to Yale University in 1926. In 1926, Henry asked Duveen to help him assemble a new collection as a memorial to Arabella destined for the Huntington Library. For detailed discussion of the role of Arabella Huntington, see S. Bennet and C. Sargentson, French Art of the Eighteenth Century at the Huntington, 2008, pp. 1-27.
NOTE REGARDING THE 1959 SALE
The November 1959 sale included a number of pieces of important French furniture which had been donated to an East Coast educational institute. Each of these pieces had been in the celebrated Rodolphe Kann collection which was acquired by Joseph Duveen and sold to Arabella Huntington. The collection included no fewer than five pieces by BVRB (whose identity had only been uncovered in 1959). Together with the present commode, there was a bureau plat which was acquired by the late Winston Guest; later in the Wildenstein collection, it was sold Sotheby's Monaco, June 26, 1979, lot 46 (collection of Akram Ojjeh); and a tric trac table probably originally fitted with Sèvres porcelain plaques, acquired by the late Norman K. Winston and sold after his death, Christie's New York, November 17, 1979, lot 488. There was a writing table of classic BVRB form as well as a slant front desk, each veneered in the bois de bout marquetry for which he is well known.
Oak, ebony, marble, bronze
Height 35 1/2 in.; width 5 ft. 4 1/2 in.; depth 27 in. 90.5 cm; 164 cm; 69 cm
Jules Mannheim, Catalogue of the Rodolphe Kann Collection, 1907, no. K219
Alexandre Pradère, Les Ebénistes Français de Louis XIV à la Révolution, 1989, p. 194
Thibaut Wolvesperges, Le Meuble Français en Laque au XVIIIe siècle, 1999, p. 260, pl. 130
Alvar González-Palacios, Il Patrimonio Artistico del Quirinale: Gli Arredi Francesi, 1996, p. 315
The Connoisseur Magazine, 1908, whilst in the collection of Arabella Huntington
Collection of Rodolphe Kahn (c. 1844-1905), 51 avenue d'Iéna, Paris
Purchased in 1907 en bloc by Duveen Brothers and sold to:
Mrs. Collis P. Huntington (Arabella Huntington, c. 1850-1924), already by 1908, and by descent to:
Archer M. Huntington (1870-1955) who donated it in 1926
An Eastern Educational Institute, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, November 13-14, 1959, lot 304
Private European Collection, Sotheby's New York, May 3, 1986, lot 108