'Le plus habile ébéniste de Paris'
T he Zilkha Collection is distinguished by the presence of three masterpieces by André-Charles Boulle (lots 89, 172, 188), arguably the most celebrated cabinetmaker in history and one of the greatest artists in any medium France has ever produced. Boulle’s lifetime parallels that of the monarch he served and whose protection he received, King Louis XIV (1638-1715), and his name remains indelibly associated with the unqualified grandeur of the court of the Sun King. Just as Louis XIV is regarded as the archetypal absolute monarch whose palace of Versailles established a model for all royal palaces to emulate for generations, so did Boulle come to epitomise the superiority of French design and craftsmanship in the fine and applied arts, that attained a level of prestige and magnificence that has never been surpassed. The inimitable French creative spirit has always been permeated by a sense of the recherche du beau in all aspects of everyday life, including the objects and settings that surround us. Even the French term for cabinetmaker, ébéniste, signifying a worker in ebony (ébène), deriving from the 17th-century fashion for luxurious cabinets veneered in ebony and other exotic tropical woods, underlines this ethos by regarding furniture as something that served as much an aesthetic as a functional purpose. Boulle would expand the parameters of furniture design beyond anything created before him, and set a high benchmark for the 18th century to follow.
CABINETMAKER TO THE ROI SOLEIL
Boulle was the son of an immigrant Dutch cabinetmaker from Guelders, Johann Bolt, who married a Frenchwoman and changed his name to Jean Boulle. From an early age his son was destined to enter the family business, but to describe him merely as an apprentice woodworker would be a misnomer, as he was a child prodigy and received training in drawing, painting, sculpture, chasing and gilding. Sometime before 1666 he was received master of the Parisian cabinetmaker’s guild, an unusually young age for such an achievement and one his father had never realised. He shared his father’s workshop in the Rue de Reims in the Montagne Sainte Geneviève district in the Left Bank and succeeded in rejuvenating its standing among an elite clientele of Parisian financiers and politicians. Such was its notoriety that the great sculptor Bernini, when summoned to Paris by the King in 1666 to present plans for re-constructing the Louvre, reputedly sought Boulle’s company and shared with him some of his techniques for architectural drawing.
In 1762 Boulle experienced the breakthrough that would solidify his career and reputation. Upon the death of the royal cabinetmaker Jean Macé, he was offered a space in the Galleries du Louvre, the four stories below the Grande Galerie stretching along the banks of the Seine between the Pavillon de Flore and the Cour Carré. Completed during the reign of Henri IV in 1609, the Grande Galerie au bord de l’Eau was intended to provide official royal patronage to artists in all disciplines by providing them with accommodation for life and a small stipend. Residents included painters, sculptors, engravers clockmakers, goldsmiths, manufacturers of scientific instruments, and architects. Boulle’s name was put forward by the King’s first minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who praised his work as an Ebéniste, Faiseur de Marqueterie, Doreur et Ciseleur and described him as the ‘most skillful’ in Paris. Boulle was offered lodging number 15, where he was in close proximity to the goldsmiths Claude Ballin and Nicolas Delaunay and the sculptor François Girardon. As a resident of the Louvre, he officially became an ébéniste du roi and as such was exempt from guild regulations, notably the restriction on producing his own bronzes. In 1677, after the King had definitively abandoned the project of re-configuring the Louvre as a royal residence and decided to make Versailles the principal seat of the court, Colbert accorded Boulle 560 square metres of further space in a building adjacent to the palace, where he could establish his workshop, wood store and eventually his own foundry, and the newly married cabinetmaker gave up his premises in the Left Bank and made the Grande Galerie his primary residence. With a full team of journeymen, chasers, gilders and marquetry cutters, Boulle’s atelier in the Louvre was the largest cabinetmaker’s workshop Paris had ever seen. It was an unmissable attraction for distinguished visitors to Paris, like the Swedish architect Tessin the Younger, who commented in 1687 that in the Boulle workshop nothing was for sale, as everything needed to be ordered in advance.
Boulle was not the inventor of the techniques he practised – floral marquetry, copper and pewter inlay, and above all the technique that bears his name, brass marquetry inlaid on a tortoiseshell ground – but he refined them to an unprecedented level of ornamental richness and complexity, and executed them with such technical perfection, that they effectively became his trademark. Where he indisputably was an innovator was in the creation of new forms and categories of furniture. He is famously credited as the inventor of the bureau plat, developed through several commissions for desks provided for important clients like the Duchesse de Bourgogne at Versailles or the Duc de Bourbon at Chantilly. Equally renowned is the pair of sarcophagus form ‘bureaux’ sent to the King’s chamber at the Grand Trianon; these are what is generally regarded as the first recorded example of the commode and are possibly Boulle’s most celebrated work. Boulle can also be seen as the father of the noble French school of bronzes dorés, which would become such an important category of French decorative arts in the 18th century. A significant proportion of his workshop activity was devoted to the production of gilt bronze objects including chandeliers, wall lights, chenets, clock cases, candelabra and of course furniture mounts, which were treated as sculptural works in their own right, not mere ornamental accessories for case furniture.
After the death of Louis XIV on 1 September 1715, the 72-year-old Boulle decided it was time to retire and hand over the running of the workshop to his sons, Jean-Philippe (1678-1744), Pierre-Benoît (c.1683-1741), André-Charles II (1685–1749) and Charles-Joseph (1688–1754). An inventory of the workshop accompanying the deed of transfer reveals a further extraordinary facet of Boulle’s activities, that of art collector. His friend the print dealer Jean Mariette recalled that Boulle never missed an auction, and the document lists no fewer than 283 paintings and a considerably greater number of prints and drawings in the atelier. No doubt some of these served as inspiration for Boulle’s designs for marquetry and bronzes, and the sheer quantity explains why despite the continuous high demand for Boulle’s production, he seemed to be frequently in debt. Theoretically retirement would have freed up more time for Boulle to enjoy and enrich his art collection, but unsurprisingly perhaps, it appears that for the final decade of his life he continued his involvement in the business, which showed no signs of slowing down despite the passage of time and gradual evolution of taste. Even a catastrophic fire in 1720 that destroyed the primary workshop and most of its stock did not dim Boulle’s activities, and in the 1720s the new showroom, now limited to the original lodging in the Louvre Galleries, continued to receive visits from important clients, including the Princes of Bavaria who in 1725 admired the many ‘ouvrages de Marqueterie, & en bronze, d’une grande magnificence’.
A LEGACY SANS INTERRUPTION
During the 1720s Boulle’s designs for furniture and objects were immortalised for posterity in a series of engravings published by Mariette, the Nouveaux Deisseins de meubles et ouvrages de bronze et de marqueterie, and even after the master’s death in 1732 interest in his work remained high. Boulle’s sons continued trading well into the 1730s and 40s, and a small group of their contemporaries produced work in Boulle marquetry, among them BVRB I and Jean-Pierre Latz. The middle of the 18th century would see the re-appearance on the market of works acquired directly from Boulle or his workshop following the death of their owners, such as the Vicomte de Fontspertuis, the Comte de Pontchartrain or Le Bas de Montargis, and the picture dealer Gersaint wrote to Count Tessin in Stockholm, ‘Les ouvrages de Boulle sont ordinairement recherchés ici’. Throughout the 18th century Boulle was the only cabinetmaker consistently cited by name in auction catalogues, his oeuvre esteemed as highly as Old Master pictures, Renaissance bronzes and Chinese porcelain. Describing a visit to Blondel de Gagny’s hôtel in his 1749 Voyage Pittoresque de Paris, Dezallier d'Argenville writes, ‘La peinture ne fait pas le seul ornement du Cabinet de M de Gagny; on y voit avec plaisir plusieurs pendules, cabinets, tables & autres beaux ouvrages du fameux Boule’. Furniture by Boulle saw keen competition from buyers in numerous single-owner auctions including those of Julienne (1766), the Baron de Thiers (1770), Blondel de Gagny (1776) and Randon de Boisset (1777). Parallel to the resale market, a tentative Boulle revival emerged in the Paris furniture trade, with ébénistes such as Joseph, Montigny, and Levasseur incorporating marquetry panels removed from older works by Boulle into newly manufactured case furniture, or creating entirely new pieces in the Boulle style.
Even the upheavals of the Revolution did nothing to dampen Boulle enthusiasm. Whilst the cash-strapped Jacobin government blithely organised auctions of masterpieces by BVRB, Carlin, Riesener and Weisweiler supplied to Versailles, Fontainebleau, St Cloud and other royal chateaux, important works by Boulle confiscated from the abandoned properties of émigrés or estates of the condamnés were retained by the Commission des Arts and remained in state ownership. Under Napoleon many were placed in the Tuileries, St Cloud or Fontainebleau and were complemented by several new purchases of Boulle pieces from marchands de curiosités, co-existing with works by Jacob-Desmalter and other Empire artists despite the stylistic disparity. With the return of the Bourbons the status quo was maintained, and during the July Monarchy, with its interest in historicism, an effort was made to evoke the splendour of the Grand Siècle in the 17th-century Galerie d’Apollon at St Cloud, where the existing Boulle meubles d’appui along with additional Boulle or Boulle-style pieces, some of them altered in height to create uniformity, were placed along the entire length of the gallery and crowned with vases or sculpture, in what must have been one of the most beautiful interiors in mid-19th century Ile-de-France, tragically destroyed during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, though the Boulle cabinets had been transferred to the Louvre beforehand.
Across the Channel, the taste for Boulle took longer to become established, and apart from a handful of exceptions his work was not something English patrons sought to acquire in the 18th century. This would change dramatically after the Revolution and Empire periods, when a veritable tidal wave of English art lovers or their agents descended on Paris in search of Ancien Régime works, including pieces by Boulle or Louis XVI works in the Boulle style. Unsurprisingly the Prince of Wales was among them, and after acceding to the throne in 1820 he purchased several examples for Windsor Castle including two large armoires, and interestingly his younger brother Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, also had a group of nearly forty pieces of ‘old and new’ Boulle sold after his death in 1827. French dealers capitalised on this growing interest by portraying the work of Boulle as essential to the interior of any respectable gentleman’s picture gallery; the 1818 auction catalogue of the picture dealer’s wife Madame Lerouge says of Boulle that ‘le genre de ses meubles magnifiques est de toute nécessité pour l’ornement et la richesse des cabinets de tableaux’. This association with connoisseurship in the manner of the great pre-Revolutionary French grands seigneurs proved an extremely effective selling tool, and major Boulle pieces were purchased for (and subsequently re-sold from) newly-formed collections such as those of George Watson Taylor, William Wellesley-Pole at Wanstead House, and the Duke of Buckingham at Stowe. More established aristocratic patrons sought to enhance existing holdings of Boulle with new acquisitions, such as the Dukes of Buccleuch at Boughton House, the Dukes of Cavendish at Chatsworth, where the Boulle furniture is displayed in the State Music Room, and above all the Marquesses of Hertford, who assembled one of the finest groups of Boulle furniture outside of France that today forms the heart of the Wallace Collection. It has been estimated that at the end of the 19th century England was the world’s greatest repository of Boulle furniture. Integrating such pieces into interiors with important pictures, sculpture and porcelain created a precedent that future generations of collectors worldwide would strive to recreate to the present day, and it re-affirms that the work of André-Charles Boulle, the tangible incarnation of the long-vanished splendour of Louis XIV’s court, will always possess a timeless and universal appeal.