This walnut buffet is a superb study of the important sub-style of French furniture often called Transitional–indicating the transition from Rococo to Neoclassical. Transitional furniture is found in both the work of the ebenistes and the menuisiers, that is the elaborately inlaid and bronze mounted pieces created in Paris often under Royal patronage and the generally solid indigenous wood worked by a range of cabinetmakers both in Paris and throughout the countryside. This particular piece comes from the Valley of the Rhone in Provence and displays the superbly figured walnut so loved by the cabinetmakers of Provence. This buffet is one of the finest examples we have ever found and it is well worth our careful study, even though it recently sold so no sense looking at the website to buy it!
Highlights that we want to examine include the exceptional depth of the floral (rose) carving, the willingness of the cabinetmaker to go the extra mile in design and construction in every detail, the balance and repetition which set off panels of still robust rococo carving and molded panels.
Lets look at those details.
Between the two drawers is a small panel with a large rose in bloom with balanced buds and leaves–carved so that it stands out nearly one inch from the background! Note that on each drawer however the molding is not simple and balanced but curvaceous and exciting. In this detail we can also see the eccentricity of the door panels. Look back to the over-all photo and you can see how these details are part of this incredible juxtaposition of the naturalism of the flowers neatly balanced with the asymmetry of the paneling.
In this detail of the base the true extravagance of the piece stands out (pun intended!). The panel is deeply molded and boldly scrolling, set off by the highly detailed feet onto which the molded outer line extends and ends in a small flourish. Yet speaking within this rococo panel is a splendidly carved, amazingly deep neoclassical floral panel, rather balanced yet with a touch of naturalism–each bud and leaf does not reflect in perfect balance as it will ten years after this piece was created.
It is this detail shot of the side that much of the superb craftsmanship is displayed most clearly–and so is the transition to neoclassicism. Note how the corners are fluted–and not just fluted but double (top and bottom) stop fluted in an arc. Fluting involves the carver using his gouging tool to carefully make a perfectly straight cut out line from in this case top to bottom (done of course before assembly of the piece). Repeated three or more times, the cabinetmaker to stop flute must stop the gouging at exactly the right point and use a tool that only gouges small parallel lines–finally he cuts out the tip of the stop to give it smoothness and detail. On the side of this buffet we encounter double rectangular panels–elegantly and deeply molded but perfectly balanced. Both of these details are neoclassical in taste–placed above a deeply scalloped apron looking back to the rococo. Neoclassical bases of all case pieces are strictly squared off–scalloping and swaging are gone and will not reappear until the end of the 18th century and then only in a very carefully balanced manner.
In both this detail and the one of the apron we can see the incredible width of the stock–raw wood–used to create this piece. The uprights are made of about 3″ stock and the apron started out nearly that deep to allow for cutting away all the wood except that needed to carve those one inch deep roses!
It is also important to notice that most pieces of 18th century case furniture have a single fielded panel on each side–this has double panels–a huge amount of extra work for the cabinetmaker (meneusier ). He was deliberately creating a masterpiece for a client of great wealth.
Compare the interior of one of the drawers to the exterior photo above. One question about originality we always must note is hardware–on this piece pulls, locks and hinges–the only metal used. The pulls are good transitional examples with shields in the center and no holes for keys–look inside and there is scaring from where a lock was once placed–and disturbed oxidation around the pull attachments. Also the nuts and shafts are machine made, not hand made and hand threaded.
What we have is as honest a piece as most of us would hope to find–great interior and exterior surfaces, the latter cleaned but never violently stripped so that lots of color and contrast remains. Lots of good undisturbed dirt inside, on the back and on the base underneath as well!