Madeleine Deschamps, "Empire", 1994, p. 166, illustrating a yew, gilt bronze and silver athénienne washstand mounted with swans and dolphins, made for Napoleon Bonaparte 1800-04 by Biennais and Joseph-Gabriel Genu after a design by Charles Percier now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
A very fine Empire gilt bronze mounted loupe d'amboine écritoire attributed to Martin-Guillaume Biennais, with a central vase on a square base flanked by a pair of swans with serpentine tails issuing two covered urns for the ink and pounce, surmounted by dolphins, the rectangular loupe d'amboine writing box with recessed pen-tray and gilt mounted side drawer, the front with central gilt mounted swans and flaming urn flanked either side by mounted crossed arrow wreaths, on gilt bun feet
Paris, date circa 1810
Height 22 cm, length 33 cm, depth 18 cm.
The quality and overall style of this elegant piece compare closely with the work of Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843), who supplied a number of equally exquisite small-scale furnishings to the Emperor Napoleon, foreign royalty and rich bourgeoisie. The design most probably originated from Charles Percier (1764-1838), who with Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853), provided designs for Biennais' more important productions. Swans, dolphins and similar gilt mounts feature among a set of 126 pen and ink drawings bound in a large album preserved in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Known as the 'Biennais Album' its hand-written title offers a good idea of its contents: 'Dessins originaux d'orfèvrerie et de meubles ornés de bronzes, provenant de l'atelier de Biennais, orfèvre de Napoleon Ier, et attribués à Percier'. An article on the subject by P. Arizzoli-Clémentel, in the 'Burlington Magazine', 1998, pp. 195-201, notes that among the sketches "are a dozen projects for monumental writing sets, of which no executed example survives, and which are very different in appearance from the simple, clean-lines ones Biennais supplied to the Garde-Meuble'. Whether in fact the present piece is one of those 'lost' examples depends upon further research, nevertheless we know from the above that Biennais' designs for such pieces ultimately derived from Percier.
Before Biennais enjoyed the position as fournisseur privilégie d'orfèvrerie to the Bonaparte family he specialised in the production of small furnishings (tableterie). He later combined his knowledge in both fields to produce an array of exquisitely gilt and silver mounted small scale items as well as complete sets of silver for the table, candelabra and ceremonial regalia. His ultimate success as Napoleon's favourite gold and silversmith owed much to the dissolution of the Paris guilds in 1797, which had previously inhibited such entrepreneurs from practising as silversmith, without first having served an eight year apprenticeship.
Biennais was born at Lacochère, Orne into a peasant family. Despite his origins he must have gathered a certain amount of capital since by 1789 he had set himself up at the sign of the 'Singe Violet' in rue Saint-Honoré as a tabletier, i.e. a maker and vendor of small objects such as table games, cane handles made of ivory, tortoiseshell ebony or rare woods. He also sold nécessaires de voyage which were soon to become one of his specialities. These wonderful travelling cases were equipped with every conceivable item necessary for a journey and were much favoured by officers serving in the Napoleonic Campaigns. Among the finest surviving examples was one made for the Emperor in 1806 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), which included 86 items, comprising a silver table service, including tea and coffee pots, to toiletries, writing utensils, compasses and candlesticks.
Unlike his chief rival Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, Biennais was dealer and manager rather than a craftsman and with 600 employees established the most important goldsmithing and jewellery businesses of the Empire period. His highly organised methods of production, verging on the industrial, never undermined his pursuit of perfection, which gained him a gold medal in the Paris Exposition de 1'Industrie in 1806 and 1819.
His chief patron, Napoleon set aside 100,000 francs per year for silver, most of which was purchased from Biennais and Odiot. The Emperor's annual budget however was seldom sufficient, for instance in 1809 he purchased six flambeaux de bureau each costing 7,000 francs, as well as other items from Biennais. The following year Biennais supplied all the liturgical plate and a tea service for Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise and then in 1811, to mark the birth of the King of Rome, he supplied the Imperial House with silver to the value of 720,199 francs. Biennais was also patronised by other members of the Imperial family, particularly by Queen Hortense. Foreign royalty also favoured him, for instance in 1806 he supplied the crowns, orb, sceptre and sword for the coronation of the king of Bavaria. Biennais also supplied large dinner services to the Florentine Court as well as the Russian Imperial family. Independent goldsmiths working to Biennais' specifications made the majority of the more important silver. They included Joseph-Gabriel Genu, Pierre-Benoit Lorillon as well as Charles Cahier, who purchased Biennais' silver business upon his retirement, 1919.