P. Fuhring, “Designs for and after Boulle furniture”, in The Burlington Magazine, June 1992, pp. 350-62;
P. Hughes, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture, vol. II, London, 1996;
A. Pradère, Les ebenistes Français de Louis XIV à la révolution, Paris, 1989;
J-R. Ronfort (ed.), André Charles Boulle : Un nouveau style pour l’Europe, exh. cat., Paris, 2009;
J-P. Samoyault, André Charles Boulle et sa famille, Paris, 1979.
Coffers by André-Charles Boulle
Sometimes termed coffre de toilette, the first and most frequent type is of a conventional, rectangular shape with slightly domed lid and rests upon an elaborate stand. It features classic Bacchic masks to the front, and espagnolette or satyr mask as central lock plates. Examples include one pair formerly in the Saxon Royal Collection and now at Schloss Moritzburg, Dresden; a single piece from the collection of the Earls of Cathcart, sold these Rooms, 20 June 1975, lot 38; a matched pair sold Christie’s New York, 21 May 1996, lot 329, and finally a pair sold Christie’s Paris, 5 November 2014, lot 53.
The second type of coffer is thought to have been first conceived for the Grand Dauphin. One pair is in the collection of the Dukes of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace, another in the J. Paul Getty Museum (inv. no. 82.DA.109). Both feature gilt-bronze straps much like seen on the present coffer, whilst one pair in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (inv. no. K-2009-255-1) displays elaborately scrolled gilt-bronze acanthus angles instead of marquetry volutes.
The construction principle of this second type is identical to that of the present coffer, with a lid that opens in two sections, the upper section revealing a shallow compartment above a larger well. The delivery of the pair now in the Rijksmuseum to Henri-Jules de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (1643-1709), in 1688,1 together with stylistic similarities to other pieces (see below) further substantiates a likely dating for the offered lot to around 1685-95.
Only four other examples of the present model are known: the first is in the Qizilbash Collection (fig. 1); a second, formerly in the Safra Collection, was sold Sotheby’s New York, Property from the Collection of Lily & Edmond J. Safra, 3 November 2005, lot 150 ($800,000; reproduced in fig. 2), a third one is currently in the open market and a fourth, veneered in red tortoiseshell, in a private collection. These are to all effects identical, with the exception of première- and contre-partie panels, which are combined differently on each. This supports the view that such coffers were not, as a rule, meant as a pair. Rather, this seems to have been an ingenious invention of the marchand-merciers of the second half of the 18th century.
Coffers are mentioned in various inventories of Boulle's stock. The Déclaration somptuaire of April 7, 1700 lists "deux petits coffres avec leurs pieds", whilst the 1715 Acte de délaissement, in which Boulle made over his property to his four sons, lists "douze pieds de coffres ayant des guesnes ou de cabinets en bois blanc de sapin 600 L." Finally, the inventory drawn up following Boulle's death in 1732 mentions "une boeste contenant les modèles des ornemens de coffres de nuit et de toilette pesant ensemble quarante-quatre livres", although it does not specify whether these are normal coffers or en tombeau.
A design for a coffer on stand, a “Coffre de toilette monté sur son pied”, appears in Mariette’s engravings published in Nouveaux Deisseins de Meubles et Ouvrages de Bronze et Marqueterie Inventés et Gravés par André-Charles Boulle (Paris, 1707). The closest design to the present coffer, however, is found in the design for a bureau (fig. 3) by Jean Bérain the Elder (1637-1711). This appears to have been delivered to the Régent Philippe, duc d’Orléans at the Chateau de Meudon and is depicted in an anonymous painting now at Versailles. Note the pair of straps on the front and the lion’s heads, but also the overall design of volute rinceaux marquetry, and the female mask.
This design, posthumously published (Paris, 1711) is the most likely antecedent for this group, and seems to have also inspired a small group of commodes, also en tombeau, attributed to Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt.2 Unprecedented in France, the sarcophagus shape, rooted in Roman antiquity and Renaissance, appears to have been especially popular in the 1680s. In fact, a particularly close solution for the tapered strap appears on the monument to Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) executed in 1685, the statue from a design by Le Brun, in the Église de St Eustache, Paris, and it is easy to conjecture an involvement of Bérain, if not of Boulle himself, for the monument to a man who had effectively shaped not only the two artists’ careers, but also the very Louis XIV style as we know it.
A great art collector particularly fond of the late Renaissance period, Boulle was imbued in classical culture. As argued by Ransard, his work appears singularly devoid of baroque references: it is classical much as contemporary French architecture was classical. References to the antique therefore abound in his works. In this context, it is easy to see the appeal that Bérain’s designs, embedded in the Italian Renaissance grotesques. The marquetry design is also indebted to engravings by Bérain, particularly in solutions such as the fine, naturalistic laurel wreaths on the interiors, and relates to some of Boulle’s most accomplished pieces.
The interior of the main lid, veneered in exquisitely engraved contre-partie, displays a cartouche motif that is nearly identical to that on the interior of the doors of the Cabinet au Perroquet from 1680-85 at the Chateau de Versailles (inv. no. 4653).
The rare banding of stylized volutes above which the fitted tray would have stood appears to be a further idiosyncratic element and proof of Boulle’s ability to personalize his creations. Intriguingly, this is also used to frame the marquetry panel on the door of the Versailles cabinet. Moreover, the design of the première-partie bottom of the coffer is reminiscent of the motifs employed on the interior of the doors of the armoires “de l’histoire d’Apollon” such as the pair in the Wallace Collection (F61 and F62; cf. Hughes, 1996, pp. 816-30).
Finally, it should be noted how the female masks with plaited hair, whilst a recurrent motif in Boulle's extraordinarily rich repertoire of gilt-bronze, only seem to occur in this precise shape on the four écritoires en coffre en tombeau.
Pewter marquetry was first introduced in France around the mid-17th century as a substitute for silver, Jacques Tallon being one of the first ébénistes to master this technique. Tortoiseshell veneer also became fashionable at around the same time, and is found on a number of tables delivered to the Cardinal Mazarin. These new materials required great technical knowledge to be fixed on to the carcase. Pewter was sourced from the mines of Cornwall, brass from Stolberg, in Germany. Pewter was “whitened” with mercury to give it the fine aspect of silver. According to Ronfort (2009, p. 67), the key to Boulle’s early success at the Royal Court lies precisely in his ability to construct innovative marquetry patterns resulting in an admirable chromatic equilibrium and in his genius as a doreur and ciseleur at a time when gilt-bronze was barely used on furniture pieces.
André Charles Boulle (1642-1732)
Born in Paris in 1642, Boulle trained under his father and, from 1664, was attached to the collège de Reims, Paris, as a painter and marqueteur. At the age of thirty he was appointed ébéniste du Roi and subsequently supplied furniture and decorative objects for Versailles and other royal palaces as well as carrying out commissions for various clients including members of the French Court and foreign Royalty. He became the most celebrated furniture-maker of the Louis XIV period, supplying many pieces decorated with brass and tortoiseshell marquetry, a technique which has subsequently borne his name. He remained in overall charge of his workshop in the Louvre until his death in 1732, though he passed on the day to day running of it to his sons.
In his Livre Journal for 1748-58, the marchand-mercier Lazare Duvaux registers selling many pieces of furniture inlaid with tortoiseshell and brass which he lists specifically as being made by Boulle. His clients for these pieces included Mme de Pompadour, who bought from him a commode of the same model as those made for the Trianon to give to her brother, the Marquis de Marigny. Other clients for Boulle furniture were the Marquis de Voyer and Lalive de Jully. In 1742, Piganiol de Force published his Description de Paris, in which he enthuses over the cabinet of M. de Julienne with its furniture by the famous Boulle. Dezailler Dargenville in his Voyages de Paris (1745) talks of the collection of Blondel de Gagny where tables, commodes and other fine works were to be found again by the famous Boulle.
On a final note, it is worth remembering the historical 1767 sale of the Jean de Jullienne collection comprised of an ensemble of exceptional Boulle furniture, including “Un petit coffre de toilette en tombeau de marqueterie de Boule, garni de bronze” (lot 1646), which could well be one of the four known coffres.
1 In August 1788, the Comptes de la Maison de Condé register a payment “Au Sieur Boulle ébéniste de la somme de 1260 L[ivres] pour deux coffres de toilettes de marqueterie qu’il a faits pour le service de SAS. Mademoiselle de Bourbon à l’occasion de son mariage avec Monseigneur le prince de Conti.”
2 For a discussion on the commode attributed to Oppenordt in the Wallace Collection (inv. no. F405) see Hughes, 1996, pp. 636-38.
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