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Work "Athenian"

Department of Decorative Arts: 19th century

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"Athenian"

© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Thierry Ollivier

Decorative Arts
19th century

Author(s):
Barbier Muriel

This "Athenian" was made for the Consul Napoleon Bonaparte to adorn his chamber in the Palais des Tuileries. Inspired by the ancient Greek tripod, it was executed by the "tabletier" Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843), who had extended his activities to furniture and gold and silverwork after the abolition of the guilds in 1792. It reveals the pervasive taste of the early nineteenth century for antiquity, as well as the personal taste of Napoleon, who took it with him to Sainte-Hélène.

What is an "Athenian"?

The form of this "Athenian" is derived from the ancient Greek tripod, a small, three-legged stand used in antiquity to support a basin. Generally made of bronze, it could also be in copper, silver, stone, or gold. Often a commonplace household item serving as a brazier, it was also used for votive functions, offered in homage to the divinites. The tripod rapidly became a widespread motif in the classical period. An interest in antiquity during the middle of the eighteenth century gave a new lease of life to objects of this kind. In 1773, Jean-Henri Eberts invented a tripod that variously served as pedestal table, incense-burner, chafing dish, or flower stand, which he named an "Athenian" in reference to Joseph-Marie Vien's picture, The Virtuous Athenian, in which a Greek woman is to be seen making an offering on a tripod.

A repertoire at once aquatic and antique

The design of this "Athenian", the drawing for which was supplied by Charles Percier (1764-1838), is extremely elegant. The legs, made of yew, are finely curved and are surmounted by palm leaves where a swan, modelled in the round, nests in chased gilt bronze. The swans support on their necks and wings a hoop of bronze decorated with a frieze of Vitruvian scrollwork, on which the basin engraved with reeds and oak leaves rests. The tablette between the legs is connected to the feet of the stand by small dies decorated with bees and dolphins. Dolphins and swans belong to a repertoire at once aquatic and antique, thereby illustrating the function of this "Athenian" as a washstand.

A work characteristic of the early nineteenth century

The theme of the swan was fairly widespread during the Consulate and Empire periods. The architect and decorator Berthault chose the motif to decorate Madame Récamier's bed. In the early nineteenth century, the form of the tripod was more than ever in vogue, at a time when taste was steeped in classical culture. Architectural digests, such as that of Percier and Fontaine, include numerous models of furniture of this type. The tripod, however, no longer combines several uses, but, like that of Napoleon, serves as a washstand. The term "Athenian" was restricted at the time to luxurious models intended for sovereigns. Biennais made other small washstands and bureaus, and we know of two other "Athenians" made by him, now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the château de Fontainebleau.

Bibliography

Exposition Martin-Guillaume Biennais, l'orfèvre du Roi,Paris, Editions de la Ruénion des musées nationaux, 2003, pp. 21-22.
Exposition D'après l'antique,Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2000, pp. 346-347.

Technical description

  • Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843),after Charles Percier (1764-1838)

    "Athenian"

    Between 1800 and 1804

    Bedchamber of Napoleon I, Palais des Tuileries, Paris

    Paris, France

  • Yew, gilt bronze, vermeil

    H. 90 cm; D. 47 cm

  • OA 10424

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Biennais
    Room 70

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Additional information about the work

Inscription on the washbasin and ewer: "This piece of furniture, which served the Emperor Napoleon till his dying moments, fell to the lot of his sister Caroline."