NEW YORK, NY -- The commode emerged as a new furniture form in 18th century France and gained popularity for its innovative form – a combination between a table and chest of drawers. Often divided into three parts with a central projecting section, commodes could also have drawers enclosed by doors, a furniture form known as a commode à vantaux. Commodes were also made in pairs and were associated with pairs of matching corner cupboards or encoignures, which were intended to stand in the corners flanking the commode. The form of the commode à encoignures consisted of a central set of drawers flanked by two cupboards or open shelves on the sides. This form was common in the later part of Louis XVI’s reign and often used by the ébéniste Joseph Stockel.
As cabinetmakers, ébénistes constructed furniture with veneers and marquetry, such as commodes and secretaires. Guillaume Benneman (maître 1785, d. after 1811) emigrated from Germany and worked as an ébéniste for the French royal family. After becoming the court ébéniste, he began to copy and alter existing furniture to unify the interiors of the royal residences. Four great commodes bearing his stamp made for Château de Fontainebleau and the Château de Compiègne in 1786 and 1787 were actually transformations of earlier commodes made by Joseph Stöckel (maître 1775, d. 1802). Stockel had remained fairly unknown, but commonly used heavy classical motifs such as feet in the form of large lion’s paws and fasces, or bundle of rods with connecting ax blades.
The four commodes made in 1786 and 1787 for Compiègne and Fontainebleau were possibly acquired in an unfinished state in 1786 by the Royal Furniture Repository from the merchant Philippe-Ambroise Sauvage and were likely constructed by Stöckel for Sauvage, who intended to sell them to the Count of Provence. Benneman altered the four commodes under the direction of the woodcarver, or sculpteur, Jean Hauré for Louis XVI’s Cabinet du Conseil at Fontainebleau, where the original commode remains today.
The September 27 Doyle at Home sale offers a replica of one of the Benneman and Stöckel commodes incorporating the original form and bronze mount imagery from 1786. The two doors of this commode à vantaux are mounted with a military trophy. The corners consist of fasces and gilt bronze ribbons resting on lions paw feet. In 1786, the first commode was raised with gilt bronze balls beneath the feet, which can be found on the copies.
The use of gilt bronze, or ormolu, mounts reached a high point in the 18th century. The purpose of the mounts was primarily functional, covering feet and corner mounts from being damaged. During the time of Louis XVI, the mounts added a sculptural element to decorate furniture. Marquetry and gilt bronze mounts also emphasized the architectural lines of the piece in Louis XVI furniture. The guilds prohibited cabinetmakers from making their own mounts and had to be supplied by the guild of fondeurs-doreurs. Mounts were Neoclassical in design and consisted of of classical figures, Greek frets, pendants and swags of elaborately sculptured flowers and fruits, caryatid figures and sphinxes.
After the French revolution, the ensuing decrease in Royal patronage corresponded with the rise of a new middle class. Furthermore, many important and royal pieces of furniture had been sold in France, and the aristocracy needed to replace their furniture that was lost during the revolution. The 19th century saw tremendous growth in population and a corresponding increase in buying power, which created a demand for furnishings. Far more people could afford to buy furniture and the Parisian cabinetmakers now working outside of the guild system could have all the necessary skilled craftsmen in one workshop.
The 19th century revived every French style possible. While many pieces were made in a pastiche of styles, some pieces were precise and finely executed copies of earlier furniture. The commode in the September 27 Doyle at Home sale is a standout copy of the Benneman and Stöckel commode.
Louis XVI Style Gilt-Bronze Mounted Mahogany, Kingwood and Rosewood Marble Top Commode à Vantaux
After a model by Guillaume Benneman and Joseph Stöckel, late 19th/early 20th century
Height 37 1/4 inches, width 6 feet 6 inches, depth 27 1/2 inches.
The original commode was made for Louis XVI's bedchamber at Château de Compiègne, a French Royal Palace north of Paris. It was later adapted by Benneman for Louis XVI's Cabinet du Conseil at Château de Fountainebleau. Today, it is in the collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.