The definitive Oeben…


Back when this weblog first started, Ronaldo Messina, a reader in Paris, sent me a copy of the book, “Jean-François Oeben” by Rosemarie Stratmann-Döhler. It’s a fantastic resource covering the life and work of Oeben (Thanks Ronaldo!). Dr. Stratmann-Döhler is a German historian, and this book is actually a modified version of her dissertation, some 30 years elapsed. Opening chapters set the stage by detailing Oeben’s contemporaries, and focusing on the details of his life, death, clients, and business. The balance of the book presents the furniture in a series of logical groups: large/small furniture, writing furniture, mechanical tables, etc. There are even sections on the marquetry and ormolu decorations with which he embellished pieces. In the conclusion, Dr. Stratmann-Döhler puts Oeben into the context of his time. 

As good as this book is, the problem for me is that it’s written in French, a language which I neither speak, nor read…

    In anticipation of an upcoming trip to visit four Oeben tables in Paris, Amsterdam, and London, I decided it was time to overcome this impediment, and get serious about my research (as if traveling to Europe to examine four more specimens at great personal expense isn’t serious enough!). Over a period of several weeks, I pasted paragraphs of the text into an on-line translation utility, then assembled the resulting output into a document. It’s a slow, tedious, and at times incoherent process, that resulted in a somewhat intelligible account. Even with these shortcomings, however, I’m happy to have this solution. 

    So, other than for an historical account of Oeben, and his operation why should we care? One appendix catalogues all of the furniture attributed to him, signed and not, and gives their locations as of 2002, the publication date. This goes a long way to answering the question I posed about the remaining tables.

    Incidentally, Dr. Stratmann-Döhler published another germane article, “Design and mechanisms on the furniture of Jean-François Oeben” in the journal Furniture History vol. 9, 1973. It provides an overview of the mechanisms employed across the different types of Oeben furniture. 

      Update: “Found” another one

      Previously, I listed a number of similar Oeben mechanical tables with their locations here. When I assembled this list, I was aware of other tables. Lacking direct references, however, I refrained from including them. Early  last week, I received confirmation of another table located in Germany. This one is at the Residence Museum in Munich. When you tap on that link, the first picture you’ll see is of the table (see image below). Look quickly because it’ll change! Other than that, I could find no further mention of it. 

      http://www.residenz-muenchen.de/englisch/museum/kurfurst.htm

      http://www.residenz-muenchen.de/englisch/museum/kurfurst.htm

      Due to licensing issues, I cannot include other images of it. However, there are several incorporated into this web posting. 

      Up close with The MET Oeben

      As mentioned previously, there are at least four tables Oeben made similar to this located in North America. In September of 2016, I was fortunate to be granted access to the one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

      Why view this table?

      Whenever more than one of something is made, comparisons are inevitable. With a date of 1763, the table at The MET, as it is known, is perhaps the last of the mechanical tables to be made. Completed by Oeben’s brother-in-law, Roger Vandercruse (Lacroix), it was destined for Mmde Pompadour’s personal use, although there’s question as to whether she ever did. She died the year following Oeben. Being the case, this is perhaps the most highly refined table in the series.

      Contrast this with the table that is the focus of this re-creation. Dated at 1750, it appears to be one of the first, and might possibly be the prototype for the form. It features a full-length lower drawer accessed from the proper-left side beneath the movable “main box”, a part not found on any other table in the series, that I’m aware. Also, the legs on the 1763 table are pierced, and lined with ormolu, a mark of high refinement.

      More important to the interests of this re-creation are the differences in the mechanisms. Unfortunately, just as with the Getty table, it was not possible to directly examine the mechanisms, and since, as I understand, The MET has never dismantled the table for conservation treatment, they possess no photos or x-rays. Visual inspection shows that both tables feature key holes in the side aprons to wind the mainspring barrels, the power source which makes the tables operate. However, tables made after the 1750 specimen, also feature an X-like mechanism connecting the rear of the main box to the interior of the carcass. Its function, I assume, is to assist in smoothly propelling the main box, applying even pressure to prevent it from becoming stuck. Another discovery, the 1763 table lacks stop rods! 

      To arrest the motion of the table in operation (and keep the table from flying apart), metal rods extend up through the side aprons, and into the table top. Metal plates reinforce the wooden grooves in which they “travel”. This is the situation on the 1750 Getty table. Evidence shows these rods existed on The MET table, but are now absent, suggesting the table has been modified.

      In conclusion…

       “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.”

      ―Lee Segall

      I thought that by examining other tables in the series, I might gain insight into Oeben’s design decisions. Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect. Differences in their original construction, combined with subsequent modifications, serve only to confuse matters. While we certainly expect differences in appearance, one anticipates their operational modes to remain nearly identical. Further study is warranted.

      Similar tables by Oeben

      According to J. Paul Getty’s diaries, the are 15 mechanical tables similar to this one in existence. I know of nine. Four in North America: 

      In Europe, I’ve read about five more:

      This leaves six more for me to locate. Please contact me if you know of any others as I would very much like to add them here (not to mention potentially see them for myself)!

      What is interesting about these is that they were made in an approximately thirteen year span, from 1750 until Oeben’s death in 1763. Each slightly different from its sisters. The table that is the focus of this re-creation is, as near as I have seen, the only one with a full-length drawer beneath the moveable portions. Also, from what I can discern from the dates attributed by each museum, it is also one of the earliest made. It appears that the later tables’ mechanisms were integrated into a cartridge rather than having to install individual components: guides, drives, etc. My guess is that as his career progressed and more of these tables were produced, he attempted to increase efficiency during the construction process. 

      Who was Oeben?

      Often when looking at an object that captures our attention, we become transfixed. I know with me, such is the case with this table. Until now, I have been so wrapped up in figuring out its complexities that only recently can I appreciate the person who brought this creation to life…

      Jean-François Oeben (1721 to 1763), a German born French ébéniste, lived during the reign of Louis XV. As is typical for immigrants even today, he changed his name to blend into the community. Little is known about his training before he moved to Paris. To help establish himself within the trade, he married François-Marguerite Vandercruse, daughter of an ébéniste, and sister of Roger Vandercruse (R.V.L.C), another ébéniste.  

      The guild system in which Oeben operated at the time was very strict, much worse than any modern trade union. Oeben worked as an independent artist in the workshop of Charles-Joseph Boulle, grandson of André Charles Boulle (for whom the marquetry technique is named) until Boulle’s death in 1754. During this early portion of his career, he sold pieces through dealers. Many makers were taken advantage of in this situation, since the dealer could dictate terms. Oeben, however worked with one of the most respected which helped raise his stature. Since Oeben was not a guild master, he was forced to vacate Boulle’s shop upon his death. Assisted by Madame de Pompadour, a devoted client, and her brother Marquis de Marigny, Director General of the King’s Buildings, Oeben was granted the title “ébéniste du roi” later that year, and moved his home and workshop to Gobelins where he could continue to work. 

      Oeben ran a considerable operation employing, at the time of his death, approximately 12 men – a lot! For perspective, other successful workshops at the time employed only 7 or 8.

      For the past few years, I have referred to this as Oeben’s table. While it is true that he is responsible for its design, he did not solely execute it. There was a team of craftsman supporting him including cabinetmakers, casters, bronziers, chasers, gilders, sculptors, and marqueteers. To satisfy demand, he even subcontracted completed pieces (just as we do today)!

      Oeben is considered by many to be a master of marquetry, and “made” many pieces of mechanically complex furniture. During this lifetime, he sold pieces both directly to clients, and through dealers. He served a wealthy client base much as artisan furniture makers do today. In 1760 he received the commission of a lifetime: to build a highly complex mechanical cylinder desk for the king. This is interesting in light of the fact that a year later, he was admitted into the guild (a cart before horse situation?).

      Sadly, just when things were going well for Oeben, he died in 1763. The workshop was declared bankrupt. The cylinder desk was eventually completed by Riesener in 1769, and several of the other pieces by other craftsmen in the shop; Leleu, R.V.L.C, etc. 

      Oeben faced many of the same problems as woodworkers today: where do you get quality wood, for example (Aside: Thomas Chippendale operated an import export business for this purpose). The business was run on razor-thin margins. Artists still serve the styles and trends in fashion, just as they did in Oeben’s time, or any other time. People are driven by the same fundamental forces whether the year is 1750, 1950, or 2016. It appears that not much has changed. 

      References: