French. Early Nineteenth Century.


Height: 35 1/2” (90 cm); Width: 74” (188 cm); Depth: 23 1/2” (60 cm);


A large retail counter of pine and composition, the replaced top of striated limestone. A frieze around the top of three sides, decorated with foliage and buds with a central sunflower. The front is separated into three areas by four pilasters of an unusual classical order, with two further pilasters framing the end panels, the back with central kneehole flanked by two banks of four drawers. The central panel is the largest and contains two seated female figures of composition, the two flanking panels both with large volute krater vases containing floral arrangements. Painted decoration includes geometrical patterning on central and end panels. The reverse side painted green with two banks of drawers on either side of a central kneehole. One drawer rebuilt. Tests indicate one previous paint layer, the existing one probably completed close to the time of manufacture.

A Private Collection, Paris
By repute, a shop in the Carrefour de la Croix Rouge, Paris

The tumult of the French Revolution saw much of Paris’ highly reputed luxury goods trade seriously damaged. However, on being crowned Emperor in December 1804, Napoleon set about reversing this process, in the same year introducing the wide-reaching legal reforms known as the Code Napoléon. In 1807 a specific Code de Commerce was issued to regulate the conduct of business and trade in France. This new legal framework, along with the improved economic climate of the period, helped the city regain its position as the leading center for the retail of luxury goods in the world. Development was furthered by the Emperor’s reconstruction of large areas of Paris, which included several commercial districts, adding new and improved lighting, paving, and space for traffic.

Napoleon himself is recorded as saying he wanted his capital’s retail sector to become “quelque chose de fabuleaux, de colossal, d’inconnu jusqu’à nos jours” (“something fabulous, colossal, unknown until our time”).1 The present piece, a comptoir, or retail counter, is a remarkable survival from this period, when many of the conventions in the modern retail environment we would recognize today were first developed. That this period was a golden age in the history of the Paris boutique is reflected in publications such as Collection des maisons de commerce de Paris les mieux décorées, a series of prints published over a 22-year period from 1806 to 1828, many of which show the inventiveness and skill that went into creating retail spaces at this time, including the extensive use of fine decorative painting with bronze and gilt fittings, with designs often derived from antiquity. Interestingly, the façade of the textile merchant Gay Frères was closely related to the present piece, in being decorated with pilasters and capitals, and with seated female figures dressed in classical robes, bearing symbolic attributes of Roman deities (figure 1).

Full research report available on request.

Full research report available on request.