WritingTable / Oeben
Writing and Toilette Table
Jean-François Oeben
French, Paris, about 1754
Oak veneered with various stained woods; gilt-bronze mounts
H: 2 ft. 4 in.; W: 2 ft. 7 1/2 in.; D: 1 ft. 4 7/8 in.
Questions for Teaching

• What materials can you identify that were used in the making of this table?

• What designs and patterns do you see when you look at the table from this view?

• What do the designs make you think of? Where do you think the artist got his inspiration for these designs?

• Now look at the detail of the tabletop. How would you describe the designs that you find there?

• The Rococo style is characterized by the repeated use of curves and an abundance of ornamentation. In what ways does this table fit this description?

• Have you ever left construction paper out by a window and noticed that the color fades quickly? Color fades when exposed to light. Compare the modern reproduction tabletop to the side view of the table. How have the colors of the woods changed over time? Discuss how differently the table would have looked when it was first made.

• This table is shown with the top slid back and the drawer pulled open. It actually had two functions: it was used as a writing desk and as a toilet table, or dressing table. What kind of furniture do you have in your home that serves two purposes?

• If you were going to design a table today that had two functions, what would they be?

• This table could not have been made without the import of exotic woods and dyes from South America and Africa. How do you think the imported woods and dyes affected the cost of this table? What can we tell about trade to France at this time just by examining the materials used in this table?

Background Information

This small Rococo-style table displays two of the characteristics for which the artist Oeben is well known: fine marquetry and moveable fittings. The top of the table slides back. A drawer that occupies the whole of the body of the piece can be pulled out and has a sliding top, released by the push of a button. The interior is divided into compartments and lined with pale blue silk. The compartments may once have held writing materials and various pots for powder, rouge, and beauty patches. This table probably would have been placed in a bedroom where it would serve for both dressing and writing.

The sliding top of the drawer is covered with trellis marquetry surrounding a shaped panel of leather, tooled and gilded with lilies around its edge; the leather is stained to resemble burr wood. It is thought that the trellis pattern on the front and sides of the table may have been inspired by the patterns on imported Japanese lacquer boxes, which were highly fashionable in the 1700s. The sides of the drawer are also veneered with marquetry: a rare refinement.

See how this table would have been built: The Making of Furniture

While we do not know exactly when this table was made, a very similar table appears in a painting by François Guérin of Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764). As she is shown with her daughter Alexandrine, who died in 1754, the portrait, and therefore the table, must have been made in that same year or before. Madame de Pompadour was a patron of Oeben's, and the table in the painting could be the Getty Museum's or a very similar one in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Compare the coloration of the original table with the modern reproduction of the top of the table. Exposure to light has changed the appearance of the wood on this table, causing it to discolor and fade. The original table was made using 15 types of exotic woods of different colors, lending a more naturalistic look to the basket of flowers. To achieve the range of colors in a table like this, woods would have been imported from as far away as Africa and South America. Some of the woods used in this piece are holly, amaranth, tulipwood, and ebony. Regional woods from France were also used, and some were dyed to achieve a greater range of colors.

About the Artist
Despite the disadvantages of foreign birth, Jean-François Oeben pursued an important career as a royal cabinetmaker in France. The son of a Catholic postmaster, Oeben was born in Germany but immigrated to Paris in the 1740s. He was given the prestigious title of ébébeniste du roi (Cabinetmaker to the King) and obtained lodgings and a workshop at the Gobelins Manufactory. There were many advantages for craftsmen who were granted a place at the Gobelins: after six years there, an ébéniste could become a master without paying the usual fees. Furthermore, after 10 years, a foreigner such as Oeben became a naturalized Frenchman and had the right to will his assets to his children.

In 1756 the King gave Oeben extensive accommodations and a workshop at the Arsenal (a former cannon works that later became a metal foundry on the right bank of the Seine River in Paris), with permission to build a forge to cast his own metal fittings. Oeben soon specialized in small, elaborately fitted, multi-purpose pieces of furniture with mechanical parts. He is also credited with having reintroduced naturalistic floral marquetry, which had fallen out of fashion. He produced furniture for the most fashionable members of the aristocracy and was patronized by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress.