Reputed to have been part of a suite for the chamber à coucher belonging to Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, duc de Parme (1753-1824). Acquired in Paris during the 1960s by Molly de Balkany (1928-2015) and housed at her home at Villa Aigue Marine, Prangins, Switzerland and then sold along with the rest of her collection at Piguet, Geneva, 6th May 2017, lot 260.
A very important pair of Directoire gilt bronze mounted mahogany and veneered flame mahogany somnos attributed to Jacob Frérès, each with a square moulded grey Saint Anne marble top above a rectangular frieze drawer with central foliate ring handle, above a central door adorned with a pair of carved cornucopias each issuing gilt bronze fruits above a gilt bronze band that runs around the neck of each horn and across the top of the door, mounted with Vitruvian scroll bands further down each horn and a gilt bronze ribbon-tied escutcheon at the lower intersection of the two, the whole on a plain stepped rectangular base with foliate gilt bronze banding
Paris, date circa 1800
Height 88 cm, width 49 cm, depth 49 cm. each.
Designed in the ‘Antique’ manner, this magnificent pair of somnos or night tables, with their cornucopia decorations that symbolise plenty, can firmly be attributed to Jacob-Frérès. For over fifty years they were owned by Molly de Balkany, France’s first female property developer whose remarkable art collection included many pieces from the Directoire and Empire periods and specifically those by the Jacob family. These somnos formed part of a suite of matching bedroom furnishings which graced her home at Villa Aigue Marine, overlooking Lake Geneva and were also included in her recent deceased sale. According to family tradition, they were formerly owned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s principal legal advisor Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, duc de Parme, who Napoleon appointed as his second consul and later bestowed upon him the role of archchancellor of the Empire. Before elaborating upon their impressive provenance, it is useful to describe their attribution and design.
As noted these somnos were not made in isolation but as part of a suite of bedroom furnishings which were reputedly owned by Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès. Other pieces from that suite, likewise attributed to Jacob Frérès and subsequently owned by Molly de Balkany, include a gilt bronze mounted mahogany console with cornucopia-shaped supports as well as a large commode featuring across its front an identical pair of cornucopias issuing gilt bronze fruits and ribbon-tie mounts below. The latter piece compares closely to another commode made by Jacob Frérès that bears their stamp, which was almost certainly acquired in circa 1825 by Dorothée de Courlande, duchesse de Dino and princess of Sagan for Château de Rochecotte (sold more recently by Christie’s London, 10th July 2008, lot 11).
The partnership of Jacob Frères at rue de Meslée, Paris, which spanned the years 1796-1803, was short lived but shone with incomparable brilliance. This notable firm had been founded by Georges Jacob (1739-1814), the greatest menuisier of the Louis XVI period who set the tone for the art of furnishing up until the end of the Empire. Following his retirement in 1796, he handed over control of the business to his two sons Georges II (1768-1803) and François-Honoré-Georges Jacob (1770-1841) who, working under the name of Jacob Frères, received supervision and artistic direction from their father. Although the collaboration between the two brothers was curtailed by the death of George II (who was mainly responsible for the business’s administration), during their short partnership they produced works of exceptional quality, elegance and innovation. At the same time, they expanded their father’s repertoire so that in addition to seats they began producing a variety of other furnishings from commodes, consoles and beds to lavabos and tables de nuit or somnos. Among the latter category is a gilt bronze mounted mahogany somno attributed to Jacob Frérès which was made for Madame Récamier, circa 1799 and is now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris; another attributed example, made for Générale Moreau circa 1802, after a design by the architects and ornamentalistes Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853), can be found at Château de Fontainebleau while a further somno from circa 1800, again attributed to Jacob Frérès and used by Emperor Napoleon at the Palais des Tuileries is housed at the Grand Trianon, Versailles (respectively illustrated in Jean-Pierre Samoyault, “Mobilier Français Consulat et Empire”, 2009, pp. 136-7, pls. 230, 231 and 232).
As here, the new style ‘à l’antique’, perfect execution and the use of the best mahogany and marble were trademarks of Jacob Frérès’ work. Evident of their innovation and finesse, the brothers received many major commissions from the Emperor – so much so that later when exiled on St. Helena he recalled the considerable bills from Jacob Frères. In addition to Napoleon and his first wife Josephine, other of Jacob Frères’ more important clients included the Parisian elite as well as many leading foreign dignitaries. When showing their work at the Expositions des Produits de l’Industrie Française, the brothers received the highest honours, winning a gold medal in both 1801 and 1802. The following year they were commended in l’Moniteur (an official government magazine) after the Ministère de l’Intérieur had visited their workshops. Today one can admire the work of Jacob Frères in many public collections including the Musées des Arts Décoratifs, de Marmottan and Nissim de Camondo in Paris, the Chateaux de Fontainebleau, Rambouillet and Malmaison as well as the Wrightsman Collection in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Following the death of Georges II in 1803, his brother, who added the suffix Desmalter (named after one of his father’s properties in Burgundy), went back into business with his father and renamed the firm Jacob-Desmalter et Cie. The firm’s activities expanded enormously following Jacob-Desmalter’s appointment as ébéniste de l’Empereur and under whose control it continued to flourish.
Like their father, Jacob Frères looked back to Antiquity, both ancient Greece and Rome and on other occasions to ancient Egypt. A major influence in their art came from Percier and Fontaine who often created innovative designs for both Georges Jacob and his sons, even before they were published in their Recueil des Décorations Intérieures, first appearing as a series in 1801. A sheet of chair designs for Maison Jacob attributed to Percier and Fontaine, dating from circa 1795 includes two fauteuils that incorporate cornucopia-shaped arm supports (illustrated in Samoyault, op. cit, p. 27, pl. 25). In turn, those designs were realised by Georges Jacob in a set of three carved mahogany fauteuils commissioned by the tribunal de Cessation à Paris, circa 1795 (illustrated ibid, p. 27, pl. 27) as well as another fauteuil attributed to Georges Jacob of the same date in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (illustrated ibid, p. 27, pl. 28). Jacob-Desmalter also went on to incorporate cornucopias within his designs, notably in the creation of a carved giltwood bed supplied in 1809 for the chamber de l’Impératrice at Compiègne (now in the Musée National du Château de Compiègne and illustrated in Denise Ledoux-Lebard, “Le Mobilier Français du XIXe Siècle”, 1989, p. 311).
In keeping with their quality and innovative design, it was fitting that these somnos would have been destined for a man such as Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, who as Napoleon’s principal adviser on all legal matters from 1800 to 1814, was instrumental in formulating the Civil Code (or code Napoléon) of 1804 and was often consulted on other matters of state. Born in October 1753 at Montpellier in southern France into a family of magistrates, he became a lawyer aged eighteen. Elected to the Convention in 1792, he displayed remarkable ability and sound judgement, voting for Louis XVI’s death as a suspended sentence. After spending a lengthy period as President of the Legislative Committee, he joined the Committee of Public Safety becoming President, a position that had not previously existed. In 1795 Cambacérès was elected to the Council of Five Hundred and having been appointed minister of justice in July 1799, he discreetly assisted Bonaparte and Emmanuel-Joseph Siéyès to organize the coup d’état in November 1799, that overthrew the Directory. Cambacérès was subsequently appointed second consul.
As a Grand Dignitary of the Empire, he was also a senator, Councillor of State, a member of the Privy Council and of the Grand Council of the Lègion d’Honneur and during the Emperor’s frequent absences from the Senate, it was Cambacérès who replaced him as President. He also frequently intervened in the Bonaparte private family affairs such as reconciling Napoleon and his brother Lucien; calming the mutual jealousy between Napoleon’s sisters; serving as intermediary between Napoleon and his first wife Joséphine after their divorce and fulfilling the function of a state official at Napoleon’s second marriage to Marie-Louise.
An influential figure in establishing the consulate for Bonaparte, Cambacérès was himself appointed archchancellor of the Empire in 1804; this was predominantly a ceremonial position, but one that in theory made him the second highest-ranking official of the State. He was subsequently created Duke of Parma in 1808. Cambacérès was described by Hippolyte Taine as “somewhat intelligent” and possessing “uncommonly good sense and unflinching loyalty to the First Consul.”Excluded from public life at the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy (1814), at Napoleon’s request Cambacérès reluctantly returned to it during the Hundred Days, when he directed the Ministry of Justice and presided over the Chamber of Peers. Exiled at the second restoration, he lived in Belgium until 1818, when he was allowed to return to France, remaining there until his death in Paris in 1824.
Of handsome features, Cambacérès was renowned for his vanity, his extravagant clothing and obsession with decoration which often aroused ridicule though his parties and diner table were said to have been the best in Paris. Up until he was made archchancellor he lived at 5, Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie but then moved to a much grander residence in boulevard Saint-Germain that had been built in 1722 for Marshal de Roquelaure.
Like Cambacérès, Marie, better known as Molly, de Balkany was a powerful figure within French society. Of Hungarian origin, she was the daughter of Aladar Zelinger de Balkany, an engineer and great promoter of the Dada movement that transformed Bucharest during the 1930s. Like her, Molly’s brother Robert de Balkany also amassed a very impressive collection of art and likewise was a property developer though she was the first woman in France to make her name in this field. Over the years she began turning her attentions toward a more authentic life style, feeding her desire for adventure through expeditions to visit the Tuareg people of the Sahara. Fuelling her creativity as a novelist by travelling she went on to publish seven romantic novels. As an enthusiastic collector, she acquired items during her travels abroad and purchased the finest furniture from galleries and auction houses across Europe. As an informed collector, she united the best artistic creations in paintings, furniture, works of art, silverware and jewellery, dating from the sixteenth century onwards. Her collection was her pride and joy and much admired by visitors to her home Villa Aigue Marine, surrounded by elegant gardens that have been likened to those at the Villa Borghese in Rome.
With a keen eye for quality and style, her collection embraced a range of works from around the globe but above all reflected her preference toward the Directoire and Empire periods and in particular the work of the Jacob family which, in addition to these somnos and their matching commode and console table, included two other suites of furniture attributed to Jacob. Alongside them were many fine bronzes by and attributed to Napoleon’s favourite bronzier Pierre-Philippe Thomire as well as a magnificent gilt bronze clock attributed to Pierre-François or Lucien-François Feuchère, featuring the triumphant Caesar. Those rested happily beside a silver table centrepiece by Odiot of Paris, a solid gold ewer and basin by Garrard & Co of London and a silver tankard by Paul Storr as well as an array of paintings and decorative arts. Certainly her home like that of Cambacérès was a perfect setting for these somnos, whose importance is reflected in their provenance.