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Fall-front desk

Nicolas Petit (French, 1732–1791)

c. 1780

Medium oak with various wood veneers and gilded bronze Measurements H: 56 1/2 x W: 43 3/4 x D: 20 in. (143.5 x 111.13 x 5.8 cm) Credit Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection Accession Number 70.7.12 Location Gallery 18, Bruce Galleries


In the eighteenth century French furniture achieved such quality and inventiveness that it was sought after throughout all of Europe. As the rich bourgeoisie in Paris began to influence popular taste, undermining the Versailles monarchy's earlier absolute authority in such matters, more informal living in more intimate surroundings gained preference, and new furniture forms were designed to suit the new style of living. The number of craftsmen involved in furniture production increased, and new specializations and exceptional professional skills evolved. This secrétaire à abattant (desk with a fall-front writing surface) is a form that was being made by 1740 but came into general use only in the Louis XVI period. A number of specialist craftsmen would have participated in its making: an ébéniste (a cabinetmaker with skill in veneering, who made the desk), a fondeur-ciseleur (who cast and chased the bronze mounts), and a ciseleur-doreur (who gilded the mounts). The name N. Petit stamped on the top of the desk identifies Nicholas Petit as the person responsible for its production. Petit was an ébéniste and the son of a menuisier (a joiner, or furniture-maker who worked in solid wood and did not apply veneers). From his fashionable Paris establishment in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Petit sold both his own furniture and other craftsmen's work to which he may have applied his stamp. In this second capacity, he joined the ranks of the marchand-merciers who were of great importance in eighteenth-century Paris. These merchants were in direct contact with clients for fine furniture and were therefore both aware of their clients' taste and also in a position to influence it. They frequently coordinated the work of the various specialists who contributed to the production of furniture and in essence were the precursors of modern interior designers. The era that produced the Museum of Art's desk was a prosperous one for French cabinetmakers, since Parisian society, as well as the court, was pursuing a sumptuous way of life that called for furnishings in the newest fashion. The completion in 1771 of renovations to Madame du Barry's Pavilion de Louveciennes had defined a new, classically inspired style. Designers working in the Neo-Classical mode looked to the architecture, useful objects, and ornament developed in ancient Greece and Rome that had recently been rediscovered in excavations of ancient sites, especially at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The furniture these designers produced—especially objects that, like this desk, would have stood against a wall—was typically rectangular in form and enriched with architectural details executed in marquetry or ormolu. The Museum of Art's desk is further ornamented with marquetry panels. On the sides are panels showing trophies of implements representing the arts and bouquets of flowers. Both front panels depict fantastic landscapes, and the upper panel includes three magnificent Renaissance buildings with sculptures of both Oriental and Western figures. Seemingly oblivious to the grandeur that surrounds them, bathers enjoy themselves in a pond placed rather improbably in front of these monuments, and men in boats pass quietly on the river behind. In the lower panel, the architectural monuments are in ruins, and travelers have stopped to drink from a fountain that still flows in one of them. Similar subjects were often depicted in paintings of this period. These romantic visions of simple pleasures may seem inappropriate to such an opulent object as this desk, yet the combination captures quite beautifully the contradictory aspirations of pre-Revolutionary France.