While France leaves Ancien Regime to turn in a 19th century full of promises, habits regarding hygiene change slowly. Water takes a new place at the center of daily custom. Vases, basins and Athenian enhance water making it a symbol of freshness, purity and simplicity essential to the most refined people.

Simple use in a sophisticated furniture

We know the meticulous care that Napoleon took to his personal hygiene. In life as in war he promoted efficiency without losing sight of the importance of etiquette: if his ability to live as a soldier made him popular with his troops, his attachment to objects of power made him an experienced politician. This Athenian, a luxury basin for ablutions, admirably fulfilled these two requirements of efficiency and representation. He found it so much to his liking that from the Tuileries at the time of French Consulate to St. Helena, the imperial Athenian will follow the Emperor to the peaks at his fall. On drawings by Charles Percier (1764 – 1838), the tabletmaker Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764 – 1843) put all his talent at the service of this luxury furniture made of bronze, silver and yew. Elegant gilt bronze swans display majestic wings to support a silver basin carved with reed patterns.

Athenian of Napoleon Bonaparte
About 90 cm height, this typical furniture of french 19th century exalts neoclassical taste whose references to Roman antiquity seduce by simplicity of forms and refinement of materials.

The silver ewer used to pour the water for Napoleon’s ablutions rests on the tablet decorated with dolphin at its angles. While fine bees – emblems of the Emperor – in gilded bronze adorn the Athenian, dolphins, reeds and swans evoke the aquatic world, the freshness of the lakes and rivers, poetic metaphor of the use intended to this piece of furniture.

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Such a sweet theft

In his Mémoires, Louis-Joseph-Narcisse Marchand (1791-1873), first manservant of Napoleon tells how, at the end of the Cent-Jours (June 1815), he stole the Athenian at the Palace of the Elysée – furniture that would have been inevitably confiscated – before the deposed Emperor was exiled to St. Helena. Marchand testifies “The Emperor had praised this piece of furniture for his use, I knew what privation it would be for him, he liked after his beard, to put his face in a lot of water […] in the thought of being pleasant to him, I had it brought to my carriage, and I covered it with my cloak so as not to arouse the attention of the passers-by of Paris and on the road.”

There is no doubt that Napoleon praised the attentiveness and delicacy of his faithful manservant! The harshness of island life was certainly softened by the use of this magnificent tripod basin, a practice which, as we know, Bonaparte systematically accompanied with Cologne, which he was so fond of and use to say, at least, in a gargantuan way.
The Athenian today preserved in the Louvre Museum was one of the rare goods for which Napoleon was fond of. He testifies it in his will where “the inventory of [his] effects that Marchand will keep to give to [his] son” states that he bequeaths to the King of Rome (1811 – 1832), his son “[his] sink, his water pot and his foot.”