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The Object Of The Month : Insignia of Knight of the Order of the Elephant, belonging to Napoleon I
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Presse et publications : Helmina von Chézy, Leben und Kunst in Paris seit Napoleon I
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This Month's objet d'art - Napoleon I's Athénienne


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Napoleon I's Athénienne



BIENNAIS Martin-Guillaume (1764-1843)


yew, gilt bronze, silver

H. 90.5 cm; Diam. 47.8 cm

Where held:
Paris, Louvre

Credits :
© RMN-Arnaudet


"In the emperor's bedroom there was a magnificent silver lavabo resting upon a stand - each of its legs was carved in the shape of a swan's neck - together with a ewer of the same metal, made by the goldsmith Biennais; my desire to take it was countered by the fear that I was committing a reprehensible act. The emperor's delight in the piece was clear from his frequent use of it, I knew how much he would miss it; after shaving he loved to plunge his face into a great deal of water […] with the idea that he would like it, I had it carried to my carriage, and I covered it with my coat so as not to excite the curiosity of passers-by either in Paris or on the road". Such was the description in the Memoirs of Napoleon's faithful valet, Marchand, of the way the latter made sure that, at the end of June 1815, this sumptuous Athénienne (washstand) accompanied the emperor to Saint Helena. That it had been in constant use by the emperor is shown by the fact that it appears in inventories of objects in the Emperor's bedroom both for the Tuileries palace in 1809 and also for the Elysée palace in 1815.
Washstands of this period were known as Athéniennes. This typically Neoclassical piece first appeared in 1773, directly inspired by the antique three-footed stand called tripod which appeared in a painting by Joseph-Marie Vien. In this work, called La Vertueuse Athénienne (The virtuous Athenian woman) a priestess is burning incense on a 'tripod'. It appears that the design for Napoleon's Athénienne was done by Charles Percier and the piece was executed by Martin-Guillaume Biennais, helped by Marie-Joseph-Gabriel Genu for the silver ewer and lavabo. Marquetry master, cabinet maker and goldsmith, Biennais was the official supplier for the imperial court. Fortune smiled upon him in 1798, when he had the excellent idea to let the young general Bonaparte make some of his first purchases from him on credit. Later, from his shop under the famous sign «Au Singe Violet» (At the sign of the purple monkey) he was to provide the First Consul (and later Emperor) all his travel nécessaires, most of the goldwork which adorned the imperial table, and in 1804 it was Biennais again who was commissioned to make the insignia for the coronation ceremony, namely, the laurel-wreath crown, the sceptre, the hand of justice, the globe crucifer and the grand necklace of the Légion d'honneur, all worn or carried by Napoleon. This Athénienne is an excellent example of the refinement of Biennais's work. The elegance of the lightly arched feet, highlighted with a wealth of decoration in gilt bronze including imperial symbols and references to antiquity, mostly water related - swans, dolphins, chimaeras, bees and eagles.
Extraordinary objects from Napoleon's everyday life, two pieces from the ensemble - the ewer and the lavabo - bear the following memorial inscription: "This piece of furniture, which was used by the emperor Napoleon until his last days, was inherited by his sister Caroline. 
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)

December 2003


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