In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Explore the theme of Technique in this week's blog as we take a closer look at two pieces in the Collection. One by French cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener and another by Louis-Léopold Boilly, the recently restored painting The Dead Mouse.

The Marquetry of Jean-Henri Riesener

Marquetry has often been likened to ‘painting in wood’ because of its ability to reproduce pictorial designs in spectacular detail and colour. It is a complicated technique which would have been carried out by an experienced craftsperson in eighteenth-century France. Jean-Henri Riesener, cabinetmaker to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, is particularly renowned for making furniture decorated with magnificent panels of marquetry decoration, such as the fall-front desk he delivered to Marie-Antoinette’s cabinet intérieur at Versailles in 1780. A digital model of a panel of marquetry from the side of this desk allows us to better understand the way in which it was made.

The upper part of the panel model shows how the colours of the marquetry might have looked when the desk was first delivered to Marie-Antoinette, while the lower part of the panel shows the marquetry as it appears today. A combination of dyed and naturally coloured veneers (thin sections of wood) were used to create the marquetry composition, which over time faded to shades of brown and black. Various techniques were applied to enhance the coloured veneers, such as sand shading, which involved placing veneers in hot sand to darken, creating realistic shadows in pictorial marquetry (Fig. 1.), and engraving, which involved using sharp tools to engrave fine details onto their surface (Fig. 2.). Despite research and examination, it is difficult to reproduce the exact appearance and colour that Riesener gave his marquetry, as it has been exposed to centuries of light, use and repair. However, some areas of colour on the underside of veneers (Fig. 3.) or behind gilt-bronze mounts (Fig. 4.) give us clues as to how the marquetry might have appeared, and it is this information which has helped inform the selection of colours for the model.

As the model begins its animation, you will see how the marquetry is made of many individual pieces of veneer, all of which would have been made using tools such as saws and knives. For example, if you look at the yellow flowers and their trellis compartment at the top of the panel, you will see that 27 pieces of veneer make up the flower heads and seven pieces make up the stems and leaves (note the darkened areas of sand shading), while one large hexagonal piece, framed by six pieces of stringing (two black and four white), make up the ground. All these veneers, once arranged in a jigsaw-like fashion, would have been attached to the oak carcase of the desk using a form of glue. Why not try exploring the rest of the model, and see how many pieces of veneer you can count?

Analysis of Louis-Léopold Boilly's The Dead Mouse

French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845) was one of the most versatile and commercially-minded artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What has recent conservation treatment of The Dead Mouse revealed about his draughtsmanship and technique?

The intimately-sized painting depicts a mother embracing her little boy, comforting his distress at the sight of a dead mouse, teasingly dangled through an open window by perhaps an older sibling. A cat hunches nearby, its wide-open eyes transfixed on the unfortunate animal. The painting might be read as an allegory of innocence in peril – a subject popular in Dutch genre scenes, which were extremely fashionable in late eighteenth-century France.

Boilly regularly took inspiration from the work of earlier artists as well as contemporary sources. He was able to change artistic direction at a moment’s notice: from tongue-in-cheek depictions of bourgeois love affairs to vignettes of Parisian city life. He even forged new genres: trompe l’oeil still lifes designed to deceive the eye and small-scale, highly-finished portraits made for the commercial art market.

Conservation of the Boilly canvas has made it possible to more fully appreciate his artistic practice. An infrared reflectogram of The Dead Mouse shows extensive underdrawing: ruled lines delineate architectural elements such as the window and lightly-sketched lines outline parts of the figures, such as the young boy’s back. Signs that the artist used a broader, liquid medium to augment his underdrawing are also apparent in the figures, where it adds a sense of contour and modelling.

These underdrawings and the subsequent order of operations reveal fascinating insight into Boilly’s process. The cat is painted directly onto the background, suggesting that it was not part of the original narrative. This seemingly late addition implies that the dangling mouse – the pretext for the whole scene – was also conceived further into the painting’s execution. Perhaps Boilly envisaged the original source of fright to be the older child, who leans abruptly into the window. He may have decided mid-course that this scenario was not sufficiently convincing and chosen to add the mouse and cat.

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