Charles Percier. Washstand. Mounts by Martin-Guillaume Biennais, 1800-14. Legs, base and shelf of yew wood; gilt bronze mounts; iron plate beneath shelf. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of James Alexander Scrymser, 1918, 26.256.1.

From the Exhibition:

Charles Percier: Architecture and Design in an Age of Revolutions

Executed by the goldsmith Martin-Guillaume Biennais and attributed to the design of Charles Percier, this antique-inspired washstand testifies to the changes in taste that took place in the Paris luxury market after the French Revolution. With the abolition of the guild system that had formerly regulated the production of French luxury and with the flight of royal and noble patrons, young architect-designers such as Percier were tasked with creating a modern style of furniture and interior decoration. During the Directory period, such designs catered to an ambitious new social elite comprising military generals, bankers, financial speculators, and women of the minor nobility. These wealthy clients would ultimately be eclipsed during the Empire period by Percier’s most influential patron, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The washstand, also known as an athénienne, is in the form of a tripod stand, with the legs, shelf, and base made of yew wood. The upper portion is accented by three large gilded bronze mounts in the shape of swans, set against two gilded bronze rings that would originally have contained a washbasin (now missing). Three dolphin mounts and a frieze of winged sphinxes and Greek palmettes offset the shelf in the middle of the tripod. An iron plate beneath the shelf would have originally supported a hanging bell-shaped gilt-bronze ornament. The three octagonal-shaped legs terminate in footed mounts that rest upon a wooden triangular base, which is rendered mobile by the castors below.

Although the model is based on ancient perfume burners or braziers, the restrained contours of the washstand exemplify the modern decoration aesthetic found in the Recueil de décorations intérieures (1801–12), the most famous publication of Percier and his partner Pierre François Léonard Fontaine. They wrote that the aim of this book was to contribute “to the dissemination and upholding of the principles of taste that we have derived from ancient art, and that we believe are linked, albeit by a less apparent chain, to those general laws of truth, simplicity, and beauty.” Despite the influence of antique designs, the models for furniture in the Recueil, such as an athénienne similar to this example featured on plate 19, were modern inventions executed by such talented artisans as the goldsmith Biennais and the furniture firm Jacob frères, both of whom are named in the book. And much like Percier and Fontaine, both rose to prominence during the Revolution, after the end of the guild system in 1791 enabled the production of a wider range of furnishings in different materials.

Of course, Percier did not invent the athénienne, which is in fact a remnant of the ancien régime. Marketed in 1773 by the engraver J. F. Eberts, the athénienne was described as a type of furniture that had been adapted from antique precedents for a variety of modern uses. It could function as a sculpture pedestal, a candelabrum, a perfume burner, or even a brazier for keeping soup warm. Unlike this piece executed by Biennais, earlier versions were typically executed in gilded wood, thus relying primarily on the talents of woodcarvers and gilders rather than the skills of a goldsmith.

Despite the washstand’s quotidian usage, such a piece of furniture would not have been used by just anyone. Two other examples exist, at the Louvre and the château de Fontainebleau. The Louvre model, which includes a silver basin and ewer, was designed for Napoleon I. This suggests that the Metropolitan Museum’s piece was probably made for an exceptional client, possibly a member of the Napoleonic court eager to practice the hygienic habits of the emperor with equal éclat.