FRENCH EBENISTES UNDER THE LOUIS KINGS OF FRANCE
by John J Hvozda
Andre Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732 / worked 1672 - 1732), was born in Paris, France, in 1642, to a family originally from the Netherlands. His father was himself a menuisier de ebene. Andre Charles lived and worked in the Rue de Reims, as did his parents, became a master before 1666, but in 1672 was granted the royal privilege of lodgings in the galleries du Lourve. That same year he also received a warrant signed by the Queen, giving him the added title of bronzier as well as ebeniste, and maintained both of these titles throughout his life. Maintaining 2 titles simultaneously infringed on the rules of the guilds in the early 18th century, yet his position at the Lourve, due to royal favor shielded him from prosecution. Boulle originally trained as a cabinetmaker, architect, bronze worker, and engraver, and he published a series of engravings that helped promote his work throughout Europe.
His workshop establishment kept expanding, with the acquisition of more and more space being granted to him through 1685. In 1677, he married, and consequently had 7 children, among them 4 of which became the future ebenistes Philippe(1678-1744), Pierre-Benoit(1680-1741), Andre Charles II (1685-1745) and Charles Joseph(1688 - 1754). His reputation steadily grew, although in actuality he supplied very little furniture to King Louis XIV, who seemed to prefer the work of Cucci, Golle, and particularly Gaudron. In fact, Boulle marquetry, a brass veneer set in tortoiseshell, was invented by Pierre Golle(fl
1644-84), but was named after its most noted practitioner, Andre Charles Boulle. The only recorded delivery of a piece by Boulle to the Garde-Meuble Royal took place in 1681. This first commission was an organ-case for Versailles. At the same time, Boulle created what was to be his masterpiece and make him famous among his contemporaries, the marquetry floors and wainscoting in the Dauphins(Kings) apartments at Versailles.
Boulle worked with fine inlay of brass, pewter, tortoiseshell, exotic woods, etc. He used the contrasting colours of these materials to great advantage and resulting beauty, sometimes using the contours and play of light upon them as considerations in his designs, which were at times intricately scrolled in seemingly endless intertwining patterns of marquetry(floral inlay). In fact, the characteristic feature of his pieces are the panels adorned with elaborate designs of arabesques and figures, which he made by superimposing 2 pieces of equal thickness, one of tortoiseshell and one of metal, on which the decorative motif had been engraved. The veneer was produced by tightly fastening together a sheet of brass and one of tortoiseshell, placing on top a sheet of paper marked with a pattern, then cutting with a fretsaw around the pattern and through the sheets of material below. The cut-out pieces of brass then fitted perfectly into the spaces left in the tortoiseshell.
Much of Boulles furniture was made in pairs, the piece with brass-in-tortoiseshell marquetry being known as premier partie, and the other piece veneered with the negative of the cut-out tortoiseshell-in-brass being known as contre partie. Sometimes a mixture of both types was used in the same piece. The marquetry pattern was usually one of scrolled foliage within geometric
borders or of fanciful scenes inspired by the work of the designer and decorator Jean Berain(1640-1711). Brass patterns were usually engraved with, for example, tendrils or shading to produce a three-dimensional effect, and the tortoiseshell was often coloured, usually red or blue, by placing painted paper beneath it on the carcass of the furniture. Ebony veneers were often used for striking contrast with the tortoiseshell and metal inlay. In addition to these materials, bone ivory or mother-of-pearl were at times used to complete the inlay. The pieces were then decorated with mounts in gilt bronze, executed by Boulle himself, by Caffieri, or other bronze founders.
Boulle never signed his pieces, so the only way of identifying a Boulle piece is by small details of style, and despite the fact that many pieces are attributed to him, only a few can be said to be definitely his. Although his works often sold for vast sums, he was often in debt, largely because he indulged his passion of collecting works of art, especially renaissance paintings. In 1715, the year of King Louis XIVs death, Boulle, at the age of 73, gave over his business and all his assets to his four sons. During the summer of 1720, a fire broke out one night in the courtyard of the Louvre where his workshop was, destroying furniture and part of the collections amassed by Boulle. Andre Charles, in 1725 in declining health, was granted a pension by the King which he drew until the end of 1731, dying in March of 1732.
Information taken from:
"FRENCH FURNITURE MAKERS written by Alexandre Pradere. Published by J. Paul Getty Museum, 1989
"THE LOUIS STYLES" Orbis publishing, 1972."FURNITURE" edited by Lydia Darbyshire. Published by Chartwell Books,1996.