Combining the cabinetmaking excellence of Joseph-Emmanuel Zwiener with the inspirational designs and sculptural brilliance of Léon Messagé, this magnificent serre-bijoux was awarded the Medaille d'Or at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 and remains today one of the most important and sumptuous pieces of furniture to have been created during the late 19th century.
Born in Herdon, Germany in 1849, Joseph-Emmanuel Zwiener is recorded as having worked in Paris at 12, rue de la Roquette from 1880 to 1895. His successful atelier executed elegant pieces of furniture replicating articles from the Garde-Meuble National of France, most notably the celebrated bureau de Roi by Jean-Henri Riesener and Jean-François Oeben. Working mainly in a vigorous interpretation of the French Rococo style, Zwiener's furniture is, as here, often inset with the finest marquetry, vernis Martin panels and applied with flowing gilt-bronze mounts. In awarding Zwiener the gold medal for the present lot at the 1889 exhibition, the jurists noted 'dès ses débuts d'une Exposition universelle, [il] s'est mis au premier rang par la richesse, la hardiesse et le fini de ses meubles incrustis de bronzes et fort habilement marquetis.' This cabinet was one of the highlights of the furniture section at the Exposition Universelle and was discussed in detail in The Gazette des Beaux Arts:
Les mosaïques de bois qui habillent les flancs gondolas de ce beau meuble sont assemblées avec une impeccable régularité. Elles en suivent les contours boursouflés sans que nulle part on trouve la trace des difficultés nombreuses que présente un pareil travail. A l'intérieur il est rempli d'une foule de tiroirs à secrets, machines de la façon la plus curieuse, qui tous sont plaquées de bois rares, fonctionnent avec une précision mathématique et s'emboîtent si bien les uns dans les autres, qu'à moins d'être familiarisé avec leur mécanisme il est impossible de soupçonner leur prèsence. Enfin les bronzes modelés par un artiste de mérite, M. Messager, sont d'une facture tout à fait supérieure. Ils se composent de figures en ronde bosse, représentant de petits génies, de masques, d'attributs, de palmes, de rinceaux et de fleurs, le tout ciselé avec une grande franchise et une souplesse vraiment remarquable.
(Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1889, Vol. II, p.192)
In 1895, on receiving an important royal commission from Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, Zwiener returned to Berlin where he was known as Julius Zwiener. A group of furniture produced for the Kaiser was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 (see Sotheby's, New York, 29 June 1989, lots 270-5). Many of the pieces executed by Zwiener for the Prussian royal palaces were brought to Huis Doorn in Utrecht in 1918, where the Kaiser lived in exile until his death in 1941.
Exquisite ormolu mountings, or sculpture, were a characteristic of the finest late 19th century furniture, and Léon Messagé's prowess at their design and application was unrivalled. Adopting the asymmetry of rocaille popularised in the 1720s by Parisian designers such as J.-A. Meissonnier, Messagé excelled in creating lively, high-relief allegorical figures and groups linked by delicate organic frames of bronze doré. Honoured by the gold medal awarded to himself and Zwiener for the present cabinet at the Paris exhibition the previous year, in 1890 Messagé published his Cahier des Dessins et Croquis Style Louis XV, in which a total of thirty-six designs, ranging from furniture to table objects to silverware, were made available to the public. It is while providing sculptural designs for Zwiener's more exuberant furniture that Messagé appears to have come into contact for the first time with François Linke, with whose association he is best remembered. In most cases Messagé retained the rights to his own models, allowing him to adapt them for any purpose. Hence one sees identical Messagé mounts appearing on the furniture of various different ébénistes. The best illustration of this practice, and, furthermore, one which conclusively identifies the connection between Zwiener, Messagé and Linke, is a rare photograph of Messagé's studio showing the completed model for Linke's Grand Régulateur (see Christie's, New York, 25 October 2007, lot 407) together with a photo of the present cabinet visible on the wall to the side (see Payne, op. cit., p. 74). Each piece features a hammer-wielding putto, which although differing to fit its respective carcase, clearly derives from the same design.
RELATED FURNITURE BY ZWIENER
Designs and mounts similar or identical to those incorporated in this serre-bijoux may be found in varying combinations on other important pieces of furniture by Zwiener offered at auction in recent years: most commonly seen, the surmount figure, emblematic of Abundance, and hammer-wielding putto and helmeted girl appear on the spectacular cabinet-on-stand, sold Christie's, New York, 24 April 2001, lot 256 ($534,000); the same figures and, in addition, the central dolphin mount, may also be found on a monumental régulateur, sold Sotheby's, New York, 29 October 2010, lot 147 ($722,500); meanwhile, identical door mounts, featuring a frame centred by a river-god mask and flanked by winged cherubs, can be seen on an important side-cabinet, offered Sotheby's, London, 27 September 1991, lot 56. This latter may possibly be the 'buffet', described by the Art Journal commentary on Zwiener's stand at the 1889 exhibition as accompanying this serre-bijoux and being 'conceived in the same style, and particularly worthy of note' (The Art Journal, op. cit., p. XX).