Drop-front secretary (secrétaire à abattant or secrétaire en armoire)

Guillaume Benneman (active 1785, died 1811)

mounts modeled by Louis Simon Boizot (French, Paris 1743–1809 Paris)
and Martin, possibly Gilles-François Martin (ca. 1713–1795)
and Michaud
Probably cast by Étienne-Jean Forestier (died 1768, master 1764)
Pierre-Auguste Forestier
chased by Pierre Philippe Thomire (French, Paris 1751–1843 Paris)
and Bardin
and Tournay and others
gilded by Galle
Factory director:
under the direction of Jean Hauré (born 1739, active 1774–after 1796)
French, Paris
Oak veneered with tulipwood, kingwood, holly partly stained green, ebony, and mahogany; brèche d'Alep marble (not original); modern leather; gilt-bronze mounts
H. 63-1/2 x W. 32 x D. 15 in. (161.3 x 81.3 x 38.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1971
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Situated at the edge of a vast forest seventy-five kilometers northeast of Paris, Compiegne had long been a favorite hunting lodge of the French kings. During the reign of Louis XV the architect Ange Jacques Gabriel transformed the old complex. Louis XVI, who was passionate about hunting, later had the interiors of the palace redecorated and commissioned new furniture. For the king's study in the private apartments, Jean Hauré (active 1774–after 1796), a sculptor and entrepreneur des meubles de la couronne, directed the making of a drop-front secretary, a commode en console, and a writing table in 1786-87. The secretary, called a secrètaire en armoire because the section below the drop front is fitted as a cupboard, was given to the Museum by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman in 1971.

    Due to strict guild regulations that enforced high standards of workmanship and stimulated a great degree of specialization, many different artists were involved in the secretary's production. The German-born cabinetmaker Guillaume Benneman (d. 1811), whose stamp is on the back, was responsible for making the carcass and the marquetry. The gilt-bronze mounts were modeled by sculptors Louis Simon Boizot (1743–1809), Martin (possibly Gilles-François Martin [ca. 1713–1795]), and Michaud. They were then cast by one Forestier, probably either Étienne-Jean or his brother Pierre-Auguste. Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751–1843) and other bronze workers subsequently chased the mounts, burnishing certain areas and pouncing or graining others so that the light would reflect differently off the differently finished surfaces, giving the bronzes great vitality. As a last step, the mounts were gilded by an artisan named Galle. Jean-Pierre Lanfant (who became a master in 1785) supplied an Italian griotte marble top for the secretary, which has since been replaced. The marquetry of rosewood, kingwood, and partly green-stained holly was originally embellished with small rosettes of gilt brass. The order of March 4, 1786, for this unusually tall secretary specifically stated that it and the other two pieces were to match an existing commode made for Louis XV by Gilles Joubert in 1770. Rather than adopting the trelliswork pattern composed of straight lines on Joubert's piece, however, Benneman opted for a curvilinear latticework design on the new furniture. Joubert had positioned gilt-brass rosettes at the crossings of the trelliswork; Benneman placed them on the enclosed lozenges of the lattice. The rosettes have since been lost or removed and the holes filled with tiny ebony plugs. Although this secretary was made to match a nearly twenty-year-old commode, the mounts, especially the large caryatids, and the interior, veneered with mahogany, were expressions of the latest neoclassical taste.

    Following the French Revolution the secretary was used at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris by members of the Directory, who apparently were not disturbed by its royal provenance. In 1808 Emperor Napoleon I (1769–1821) presented it to his chancellor, Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès (1753–1824).

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Signature: Stamped vertically on upper part of back, to the left: G. BENEMAN

    Marking: Painted at top of back in center and larger, below: No. 13

  • Provenance

    Louis XVI, King of France , Château de Compiègne, France ; Directeurs of the Directoire (Directorate) ; Napoléon Bonaparte (until 1808) ; Archichancelier Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès (1808–24) ; Baron Henri de Rothschild , Paris ; Edith Chester Beatty , London ; J. Guedes de Souza , Lisbon ; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman (until 1971; to MMA)

  • See also