Martin-Guillaume Biennais French, 1764-1843



Martin-Guillaume Biennais produced some of the finest Empire silver and gilt bronze. Unlike his chief rivals, Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot (1763-1850) and Henri Auguste (1759-1816) he was a dealer and brilliant manager rather than a craftsman. Biennais was from a peasant family, born in Lacochere (Orne), by 1789 he was established in Paris as a tabletiere: a maker and vendor of small objects such as games tables, cane handles and in particular necessaires de voyage (travelling cases), which were to become one of his specialities. Biennais only began producing and dealing in silver and jewellery after the dissolution of the Parisian guilds, 1797 which had previously inhibited such entrepreneurs. His business expanded rapidly and soon became the most important goldsmith and jewellery firm in Paris, with over 600 employees. Biennais attracted the notice of Napoleon, serving him as official goldsmith until the end of the Hundred Days, even though the Empire style (which distinguished Biennais's work) remained popular in France long after 1815.


Napoleon set aside 1,000 francs a year for silver, most of which he spent with Biennais and to a lesser extent, Odiot. But the Emperor's annual budget was seldom sufficient, for instance in 1809 he purchased six shaded candlesticks, flambeaux de bureau from Biennais at 7,000 francs a piece. Biennais also supplied all the liturgical plate for Napoleon's marriage to the Archduchesse Marie-Louise in 1810. A year later Biennais was commissioned to supply the Imperial household with silver to the value of 720,199 francs, in celebration of the birth of Napoleon II. Among the finest of Biennais's necessaires was one made for Napoleon, 1806 (Louvre, Paris). It contains 86 exquisitely wrought silver items, including toiletries, writing equipment and a table service all neatly fitted into a leather box, 14 cms. high. Biennais's necessaires were also extremely popular among officers serving the Napoleonic Campaigns.


Biennais was patronised by other members of the Imperial family, particularly Queen Hortense as well as numerous private clients. In addition he was much in demand abroad; in 1806 he made the crowns, orb, sceptre and sword for the coronation of the King of Bavaria. He supplied large dinner services to the Florentine Court as well as the Russian Imperial family. Biennais devised a unique type of service for such clients. Each piece was of a simple, elegant and neo-Grecian form, plainly decorated but adorned with an engraved or cast ornament which bore symbolic significance to its particular patron. Biennais rarely designed the pieces himself but employed a team of draughtsmen. For the more important pieces of Imperial plate he used designs by Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre-Fran9ois-Leonard Fontaine (1762-1853) (largely responsible for creating the Empire style). Percier and Fontaine also supplied designs for furniture produced at Biennais's workshop. These tended to be easily transportable pieces or small items such as games tables or cabinets. On Biennais's retirement, 1919 the furniture business was run by a former assistant, Birgkam. The silver and bronze business was sold to another assistant, Charles Cahier, later goldsmith to Charles X of France; however Biennais's flair, which combined elegance, neatness and simplicity was rarely surpassed.


Copyright by Richard Redding Antiques Ltd.