Marie Antoinette’s cabinetmaker, or ébéniste in French, was Jean-Henri Riesener. He was born in Gladbeck, Westphalia, Germany, on 4 July 1734 and moved to Paris in 1754. In Paris, he became apprenticed to another cabinetmaker named Jean-François Oeben, Oeben was the man who worked extensively for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame Pompadour, and he was the maternal grandfather of the painter Eugène Delacroix. Riesener also later married Oeben’s widow after Oeben died in 1763.
In January of 1768, Riesener received the title of master ébéniste. The following year he began supplying furniture to the Crown, and, in July 1774, he formally became ébéniste ordinaire du roi, “the greatest Parisian ébéniste of the Louis XVI period.” The Chateau de Versailles describes Riesener’s extraordinary abilities in glowing terms:
“Riesener began his career at the service of the monarchy with the roll-top cylinder bureau for Louis XV, which was placed in his private cabinet. Commissioned in 1760 … the desk was exceptional in its innovativeness, the refinement of the marquetry, the quality of the bronzework and, above all, the ingenuity of its locking mechanism which allowed the whole desk to be locked with a single turn of a key, and opened by the simple press of a button! Completed in 1769, it was later modified during the Revolution by its creator, who was obliged to remove the royal symbols. The bureau was a hugely prestigious piece of work and firmly established Riesener’s reputation.”
Riesener was inundated with requests thereafter and became one of Marie Antoinette’s favorite cabinet-makers. The Queen loved his work and his pieces found their way into many of the residences of the Queen. For instance, there were two cupboards and a commode created for the Nobles’ Room at Versailles, a delicate, one-of-a-kind mother-of-pearl piece for the Queen’s boudoir at Fontainebleau, and “the upright secrétaire and commode veneered with black and gold Oriental lacquer made in 1784 for the queen’s apartments at Saint-Cloud.”
Riesener also made several pieces for the Queen’s Petit Trianon. Among the pieces for Petit Trianon, Riesener created a writing table with an apron and four drawers. It was created with veneer of amaranth and decorated with gilt-bronze mounts. (It is not the one shown above). However, the following YouTube video shows the pictured writing table on the right and how it functioned. The video is courtesy of the Waddesdon Manor.
Besides his work for the Queen, Riesener also created pieces for other private clients including the King’s brothers (the Count of Provence and the Count d’Artois), Louis XV’s daughters (the Mesdames), and the Duke of Penthrièvre (Princesse de Lamballe’s father-in-law). In addition, Riesener created pieces for César Gabriel de Choiseul, Duke of Choiseul-Praslin. (The Duke of Choiseul-Praslin was great-grandfather to Charles Laure Hugues Théobald, Duke of Choiseul-Praslin, who was accused in the early 1800s of murdering his wife. Click here to learn more about this sensational murder).
Perhaps, the most famous piece by Riesener is his “Bureau de roi” (the King’s desk). Oeben started this rich roll-top, intricately designed marquetry and ormolu secretary under Louis XV probably in 1750, but it was finished in 1769 by Riesener to adorn the Palace of Versailles. It was covered with intricate marquetry and had an oval reserve at the center and on its “public” side (the side away from where the king sat) is the marquetry head of silence with forefinger to lips to serve as a reminder to the public to use discretion or keep silent about the King’s business. After the French Revolution, the desk was transferred to the Louvre, but was returned to the Palace of Versailles during in the twentieth century.
To demonstrate the beauty and functionality of the King’s desk, I have included the following YouTube video below:
Like the King’s desk, the pieces Riesener created were highly decorative. He executed his pieces in a variety of woods to create a piece that had a rich and harmonious effect. However, later, in his career, Riesener used plain veneers rather than exotic woods and his style was simpler. Marquetry was another large part of his designs, and among his favorite subjects were “wreaths and bunches of flowers.” Moreover, Riesener’s creativity and craftsmanship resulted in a variety of innovative ideas.
“He (or perhaps Oeben) was the first to attempt to conceal the screws by which his mounts were attached by means of overhanging leaves and other decorative motifs. Later, he developed this idea further, casting the mounts with lugs at the back and attaching them by nuts and bolts in the interior of his furniture. The inner fittings of his secrétaires, etc., can generally be withdrawn only through the back of the piece, a quite unusual feature in French eighteenth century furniture. [In addition,] often his pieces have elaborate mechanical fittings.”
In 1794, Riesener survived financially by removing royal emblems and insignias from furniture he had created (royal cyphers and fleurs-de-lis were replaced with innocuous panels). Because Riesener also never believed the monarchy was finished, and because he had money at the time, he bought many of the pieces he made at ridiculously low prices. However, when he attempted to resell them later, he found no one was willing to buy them as tastes and times had changed. He died in obscurity on 6 January 1806 in Paris.
-  Watson, Francis J.B., The Wrightsman Collection. Vols. 1 and 2, Furniture, Gilt Bronze and Mounted Porcelain, Carpets, , p. 555.
-  “Jean-Henri Riesener,” on Chateau de Versailles
-  Watson, Francis J.B., p. 557.
-  Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Volume 3, 1884, p. 411.
-  Watson, Francis J.B., p. 557.