September 2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of the French King Louis XIV. This month we’ll be exploring the artistic legacy of Louis with a series of blogs and films.
This week Helen Jacobsen, Head Curator with responsibility for French 18th Century Decorative Arts, looks back over the life of an extraordinary artist, André-Charles Boulle.
The furniture of André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) was so highly regarded that it was collected by art connoisseurs even during his life-time. Its popularity has continued ever since, such that we now use his name to describe any piece of furniture which is made using this characteristic ebony-mounted turtleshell and brass marquetry veneer: we call it ‘boulle marquetry’. His pieces were finished off with the addition of sculptural mounts made from gilt-bronze, which highlighted the corners, feet, keyholes, handles and even provided central features like the amazing satyr’s mask on each end of this table
It was particularly these mounts, often with classical imagery, that added grandeur to Boulle’s furniture and turned utility objects into works of art.
Boulle’s talents were clearly in evidence early on. He was the son of an immigrant cabinet-maker from the Duchy of Guelders (nowadays incorporated into the Netherlands and Germany) who settled in Paris in the 1630s. Boulle studied not only painting and drawing, but also sculpture and gilding, and of course cabinet-making in his father’s workshop. By the age of 29 he had been commissioned to make a floor for the dais area of the Queen’s bedroom at Versailles and came to the attention of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s first minister, who procured for him a royal ‘brevet’ (warrant) granting him privileged lodgings in the Louvre alongside other artists, sculptors, clock-makers and silversmiths who worked for the king. His reputation at this stage was firmly built on his ability to make stunning ‘paintings in wood’, or wood marquetry floors, tables and cabinets such as the one dating from c. 1670 in the Wallace Collection
It was from the early eighteenth century, however, that his perfection of the technique of metal marquetry established his reputation in this medium and his subsequent fame throughout the centuries. The grandeur of the black and gold effect of his furniture appealed to aristocrats, financiers and ministers of state – particularly to those wealthy financiers building houses in the newly-established areas around the rue du Faubourg St-Honoré and what is now the Place Vendôme in Paris. Boulle established new designs of furniture, well suited to these places of display and opulence, such as the desk or bureau plat, or the newly-evolving chest-of-drawers
Of particular magnificence were his armoires, or wardrobes not used for hanging clothes are they are now, but for storing valuable objects such as prints and drawings on shelves .
One of Boulle’s most important clients from the 1680s was Louis XIV’s son, the Grand Dauphin, for whom Boulle not only produced pieces of furniture such as pedestals, consoles and even chairs, but also a complete marquetry interior that dazzled those who saw it. In the Grand Dauphin’s apartments at Versailles, the walls and ceiling of the cabinet des miroirs sparkled with 74 mirrors framed with precious Boulle marquetry highlighted with gilt-bronze ornaments, and reflected the fabulous collection of bronzes and silver-gilt-mounted hardstone objects displayed by the Grand Dauphin in the room. He was a passionate collector of works of art, including these two bronzes which were among the most valuable in the French royal collection and which were displayed on specially-commissioned pedestals made by Boulle (these are now at the Abbey of Chaalis).
It is interesting that despite the royal warrant of 1672, the number of pieces of furniture actually supplied to Versailles by the Boulle workshop for the king’s use was very few – only a handful are recorded in the archives. However, two of these, a pair of chest-of-drawers delivered for Louis XIV’s bedroom in the Trianon (a smaller palace in the grounds of Versailles), have become perhaps the most famous pieces of furniture Boulle ever made; he produced later editions of the same model for other clients and in the nineteenth century cabinet-makers also made copies, including a pair for the 4th Marquess of Hertford, one of the founders of the Wallace Collection. Lord Hertford was one more in a long line of art connoisseurs who considered boulle furniture appropriate for displaying in their houses alongside fine paintings, porcelain and precious objects, even if it was not made by the master himself.
By Dr Helen Jacobsen, Head Curator
Discover more about Boulle at the Wallace Collection in this film:
Want to know more about Louis XIV? Check back next week for the following post in the series, exploring the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun.