Joséphine’s Correspondance Cache

Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843)
Paper-holder belonging to the Empress Josephine
c. 1805-1810
Root wood, ebony, gilt bronze
Signed on the clasp “BIENNAIS orfèvre de LL. MM. Impériales et Royales”
H. 58 ; W. 52.5 ; D. 45.5 cm
Inv. 50, acquired 1991

Master fine cabinet-maker before the Revolution, Biennais developed this activity under the Consulat and the Empire, producing a number of gaming tables, bed tables, nécessaires and desks. There are known to be several letter/paper-holders of this type in existence, in the form of an Antique shield, intended to hold correspondence. Two were listed in the Empress Josephine’s boudoir on the first floor of the Château de Malmaison at the time of his death in 1814: “Item 501 ….two paper boxes also in mahogany and root wood decorated with gilt copper ornamentation…. Ci 520” (post mortem inventory). Josephine’s children each received one as an inheritance: the most simple, in mahogany, passed to Queen Hortense for her Arenenberg Palace in Switzerland, then to her son Napoleon III and finally to Empress Eugenie who donated it to the Museum of Malmaison in 1906 where it regained its place in the boudoir. The second, in root wood elegantly picked out in a net of ebony, features on its two faces, and also on its four feet, a sumptuous ornamentation in gilt bronze with high-quality carving. It was sent to the Palace of Leuchtenberg at Munich, the residence of Prince Eugene. On 26 March 1818, the steward to the prince, Soulange-Bodin, wrote from Paris: “I am honoured to inform your Royal Highness that I have recently had sent to Munich five chests containing various objets d’art from Malmaison, including… a moneybox, or correspondence chest, sumptuously decorated with bronze ornamentation, which was used by the Empress”. On Eugene’s death in 1824, the piece of furniture passed to his son, Maximilien Duke of Leuchtenberg (1817-1852) husband to the daughter of Czar Nicolas I, Maria Nicolaievna (1819-1876). This lady made a gift of it to her youngest sons’ governor and the letter/paper holder remained in the hands of his family until it was acquired in 1991 by the Fondation Napoleon. An identical model was delivered for use by the Empress Marie-Louise on 16 August 1810 at the exorbitant price of 4800 F.

Photographs © Fondation Napoléon

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