Around the middle of the 16th century the conception and ornamentation of French furniture evolves. The start of major building projects, such as the castle of Fontainebleau, gives artists a new impulse. Inventive and rich formulas are developed there, before spreading to all of Europe thanks to engravings and printed leaflets. Furthermore, Italian artists working on such construction sites bring French artists and patrons a renewed taste for the Antique.
Regarding the art of furnitures, the most complex scenes and figures are drawn from illustrated books, ornament and emblem compendiums and engraving compilations. Rather than copying those images the artisans feed their inspiration and decline the motifs in numerous variations.
The ornamental grammar marks a return to the Antique : palm leaf, acanthus, egg-and-dart, greek, scroll, fluted pilaster… It is in Primaticcio’s and Il Rosso’s stuccos made around 1540-1550 that we have to look for the origin of leather cut-outs, masks, chimaeras, harpies, sheathed figures, fruit and flower garlands that soon enrich every pieces of French furniture.
The structure of the pieces of furniture also evolve thanks to the re discovery of Antique architectures, rigorously used as a model.
This cabinet presents an imposing structure and a rich and original decor exemplifying the production of the late 16th century, infused with Italian, Antique and Fontainebleau influences.
It stands on a moulded base ornate with palm leaves. It opens with four door-leaves and two drawers in the belt. Six whimsical terms divide the facade.
The lower body is horizontally divided by three sheathed female terms. The two standing on the lateral posts are topped with fruits while the body is covered by acanthus leaves carved with precision, belted at the waist. The term standing on the central door-jamb is crowned with laurel leaves and is draped in the Antique fashion. A wincing mask hides the key hole.
The two door-leaves are centred by a beautiful mask carved in a strong relief. They wear stylised feathered headdress and are set on draperies. Straps, leather scrolls, acanthus leaves and a shell are spread around the masks. The recessed panels are secured in frames ornate with acanthus leaves.
The belt is flanked by two large mouldings enriched with variations of acanthus leaves. The drawers are carved with choux bourguignons and palm leaf motifs minutely executed. The consoles between each drawer bear tormented wincing masks, showing horns as if they were fauns or imps.
The upper body is framed by two male terms characterised by a strong and nervous musculature, their manhood hidden by drapes secured thanks to a winged lion head. The term on the left appears to be younger and is wincing while the one on the right has a beard. The central female term brings contrast with her youth and sensuality. As it is the case on the lower body, the key hole is hidden behind the mouth of a faun’s mask placed on the drapes barely covering the intimacy of the caryatid.
The panels of the upper body present an idealised architecture comprising pilasters and sinuous broken pediments. The pilasters are flanked by two satyrs with goat legs. In the centre appears an important lion mask.
The terms of the upper body support the cornice. The entablature carries palm leaves and roses alternating as well as an egg-and-dart frieze. The cornice is adorned with acanthus motifs.
On the sides, the carving is executed flat. A central rose is surrounded by scrolls, flowers and choux bourguignons.
We can admire the variety of the elements employed. The artist vary with great genius many different ornamental motifs : palm leaf, egg-and-dart, laurel leaf, roses, scrolls … But the artist went even further as each profile and each face is individualised and presents different features. You can take a look at the faces of the satyrs flanking the upper body’s panels. The talent of the artist is undeniable.
It makes no doubt the patron who commissioned this cabinet was an aesthete looking for the greatest quality.
The artist who authored this cabinet had a great mastery of composition both in the general design and in the individual panels. They probably drew inspiration from engravings and drawings made especially for the making of this piece of furniture or not. They seem to be familiar with the style of Jacques Androuet du Cerceau. Indeed, we can find in Du Cerceau’s engravings the same juxtapositions of leather cut-outs, masks and fruits. The terms and caryatids used on the facade could very well be inspired by his work as well. The cabinet-maker was also undoubtedly observant of Hugues Sambin, the most famous cabinet-maker and sculptor in the Burgundy of the time. Like Du Cerceau, Sambin left an important ensemble of models particularly useful for the design of cabinets. His publication De l’Oeuvre de la diversité des termes dont on use en architecture (1572) was an essential book for every artisan.
All the motifs testify of the artisan’s high knowledge of forms as well as the precision of their tools : super imposition of ornamental elements, foliages, architectural cut-outs, flat and high reliefs alternating, palm leaves inscribed in circular spaces, wincing faces. It is also a testimony of the artisan’s familiarity with Italian and Fontainebleau productions.
Because of the proficiency of the cabinet-maker in so many different models, this cabinet truly is a master-piece authored by the hand of an authentic master.
The generous carvings executed with great rigour and virtuosity evoke an origin close to Burgundy and Lyon workshops. This cabinet was made by a master of the region during the Second French Renaissance.
BOCCADOR Jacqueline, Le mobilier français du Moyen-Âge à la Renaissance, Édition d’art Morelle Mayot, 1996
BOS Agnès (dir.), Mobilier du Moyen âge et de la Renaissance, La collection du musée du Louvre, Louvre éditions, 2019
JACQUEMART JEAN-PIERRE, Hugues Sambin architecteur (1518-1601), Passerelle, 2019
THIRION Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance en France, Edition Faton, 1998