The headboards with acanthus scroll pediments above a star and roundel frieze, the front uprights terminating in Egyptian heads surmounted by tazze, the acanthus and lotus-leaf carved rear upright pilasters supporting a moudled domed tester with star and roundel decoration on the frieze and anthemia and oak-leaf wreath decoration on the internal spandrels.
This masterpiece of French Empire menuiserie is comparable to the great beds supplied to Imperial palaces of the Tuileries, Fontainebleau, Trianon, Compiègne and Malmaison, many of which still survive in their original settings. This elegantly designed and skillfully executed bed belonged to the famous and indeed notorious French minister, diplomat, lapsed cleric, socialite and general power-broker Charles-Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord, Prince de Bénévent, at his country seat the Château de Valençay in the Loire, where it stood in his bedroom in the corner tower on the second floor until it was sold after the death of his great-nephew Louis de Talleyrand, duc de Valençay et Sagan, in 1898 (annotated catalogue of the 1899 sale in the possession of M. André Beau, eminent Talleyrand scholar and biographer. We are grateful to M. Guillaume Dillée for providing this information).
Although the Empire style’s heavier silhouettes and plain veneers marked a break with the previous century’s furniture design, the Napoleonic household resolutely maintained the Ancien Régime tradition of the state bed, developed in an era when the bedchamber was as important a room as the principal salon, functioning not only as a space for sleeping but also for receiving morning visitors and displaying wealth and status. The Prince de Talleyrand, who remained an Ancien Régime Grand seigneur his entire life, was famous for spending at least two hours every morning at his toilette, even in the most pressing circumstances. He regularly received colleagues and visiting statesmen in his bedroom for early meetings, much in the same manner as the levée du Roi of previous centuries, and consequently required an interior setting appropriate for his rank.
This form of bed, with straight vertical head- and footboards and two uprights to the rear supporting the architectural tester, was referred to in contemporary documents as a lit à chaire de prêcher (literally a ‘pulpit bed’). A carved gilt and ebonised wood bed conceived in a similar vein, the design of which is attributed to Percier and Fontaine and the execution to Jacob Frères, was supplied to Napoleon when First Consul at the Tuileries Palace and later transferred to Fontainebleau (still in situ). The decoration consists of comparable carved stars and rosettes on the frieze of the bed and canopy and Egyptian busts on the front uprights (illustrated in Jean-Pierre Samoyault, Mobiler Français Consulat et Empire, Paris 2009, p.72, fig.133). In the absence of surviving bills, it is difficult to attribute Talleyrand’s bed to one particular cabinetmaker, but as one of Napoleon’s closest confidantes for more than ten years, it is highly likely he would have utilized the services of the Emperor’s chief supplier Jacob-Desmalter or one of the other leading Parisian firms who were then re-furnishing the former royal palaces for Bonaparte and his family at significant expense, including Marcion, Lemarchand, Brion, and Rode.
Talleyrand has long held legendary status in the annals of history, described by Madame de Staël as ‘le plus impénétrable et le plus indéfinissable des hommes,’ the French political figure the subject of the most biographies after Napoleon and Loius XIV (Emmanuel de Waresquiel, Talleyrand, le prince immobile, Paris 2003, p.16). He was born in Paris to distinguished but relatively destitute aristocratic parents at the court of Louis XV, but although the eldest son, he was deprived of the family inheritance on account of his congenital club foot and sent into the clergy. Through the offices of his uncle, the Archbishop of Reims, he rose quickly through ecclesiastical ranks and was appointed Bishop of Autun in 1788. During the French Revolution he first represented the Estate of the Clergy and then served as president of the National Assembly, embracing the idea of a liberal constitutional monarchy, but with the radicalization of the revolutionary movement was forced to flee into exile, first in England and then in America, only returning to France in 1796 and then becoming Foreign Affairs Minister for the Directory government the following year.
He was instrumental in orchestrating Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1799 and served as the Emperor’s foreign secretary until 1807, becoming disillusioned with Bonaparte’s megalomaniac desire for conquest, and when the Corsican’s military fortunes finally turned it was Talleyrand who negotiated with the European powers for the return of the Bourbon monarchy to France (twice), after which he served in the Restoration government and as ambassador to London under Louis-Philippe. Talleyrand’s consummate skill in navigating every change in the political wind earned him in equal measure the admiration and animadversion of his contemporaries, who referred to him alternatively as the ‘sphinx’, the diable boîteux (limping demon), and most famously by Napoelon as ‘merde dans un bas de soie’.
Talleyrand was also celebrated for his social prowess and was a leading public figure in all seven of the régimes he served; his musical soirées and dinners catered by the great chef Antoine Carême earned him a European-wide reputation in what Stendhal called ‘l’art du succès à Paris’. Whilst minister of foreign affairs under the Directory and Napoleon, he resided at the ministry’s headquarters in the Hôtel Gallifet between the Rues de Varenne, Grenellle and du Bac (whose famous neoclassical colonnade, serendipitously, now overlooks the courtyard where Pelham’s Paris gallery is located), where he held the famous ball of 3 January 1798 when the young general Bonaparte was presented to Paris society for the first time. In 1808 Talleyrand acquired the Hôtel de Monaco further down the road (now the Hôtel Matignon, seat of French Prime Minister), which financial difficulties forced him to sell in 1811 and relocate to the Hôtel Saint-Florentin on the Right Bank behind Place de la Concorde, which he possessed until his death (now the U.S. Consulate). It was the by-then defrocked Talleyrand’s marriage to his mistress Catherine Grand in 1802, combined with the need for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to be able to entertain on a grand scale in the country, that Napoleon encouraged and probably financed Talleyrand’s 1803 purchase of the sixteenth-century park and Château de Valençay in the Berry for 1.6 million francs.
Talleyrand immediately set about refurbishing the château with the aid of the neoclassical architect Jean-Augustin Renard (1744-1807), who had worked for the Prince on his Paris properties, and an inventory drawn up in 1815 revealed that the principal salons and appartements de maître were furnished in the most up-to-date Empire style, Talleyrand being, as Napoleon described him, a man always with ‘l’avenir dans l’esprit’ (Archives départementales d'Indre et Loire, 66 J 714. The domestics’ quarters, interestingly, were all fitted out with older Louis XVI and Louis XV furniture). He had little time to profit from his new acquisition, however, as Napoleon’s spectacular military campaigns forced Talleyrand to accompany the Emperor abroad for most of the period 1805-07, and from 1808-13 the castle served as the ‘gilded cage’ for the deposed Spanish King Ferdinand VII and his brother Prince Carlos, who were effectively imprisoned there after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and imposition of his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. It was only during the Restoration that Talleyrand could fully enjoy his estate, where he frequently sojourned with his niece by marriage, the German-born Dorothée, Duchesse de Dino, who following Talleyrand’s official separation from his wife effectively became the real chatelaine of Valençay, where the Prince continued to entertain on a grand scale until his death in 1838 and where he was interred in the chapel.
The estate passed to the Duchesse de Dino’s eldest son Napoléon-Louis de Talleyrand-Périgord (1811-1898), who in 1829 had been granted the title Duc de Valençay by Charles X, and also held the title Duc de Sagan referring to the Silesian estates of his mother. A year after his death an important part of the collections of Valençay were sold at auction in Paris, including much of the furniture and paintings by Gérard of Napoléon, Louis XVIII and Charles X, as well as the celebrated portrait of Talleyrand by Prud’hon (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York) and works by Mignard, Nattier and Kauffmann. The sale lasted four days, from 29th May to 1st June 1 1899, and the bed appeared as lot 341:
GRAND LIT, du premier Empire avec baldaquin, en bois scuplté et doré, flanqué de chaque côté, sur le devant, de cariatides de sphynx, et tendu de soie verte rayée avec lambrequin en damas de soie verte garni de franges
The lot sold for 580 francs (with 5% buyer’s premium), purchased by a Monsieur Pagenel. The auction itself was a major social event, and the chronicle of the sale in the Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot of 3-5 June 1899 reads like a passage from Proust, with much of the beau monde of Paris in attendance, among them M. et Mme. Doucet, the Comtesse de Pourtalès, the Prince and Princesse de Murat, the Princesse de Poix, the Comte de Castellane, Messieurs Goldschmidt, Seligman, and Wildenstein. Moreover, the Gazette fulfilled its duty as the art market newspaper of record by apologizing for any omissions:
Notre devoir eût été de n’oublier personne, surtout parmi les représentants du commerce, dans notre nomenclature des assistants, mais dans la foule il est impossible de voir tout le monde et malheureusement, il en est beaucoup dont les noms nous sont familiers, mais que nous n’avons pas la bonne fortune de connaître de vue. Nous prions donc ceux qui ne seraient pas cités de recevoir toutes nos excuses.