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by Wendell Garrett
|Marquetry is decorative work in which amazing puzzle-like patterns are formed by intricately cut and shaped wood chips -- or veneers -- that are glued in place to ornament the surfaces of furniture and personal objects. Marquetry reached a high point in 15th-century Italy, where it was described as "painting in wood," and its popularity at Versailles in the 18th century was as a conspicuous symbol of luxury.
The art of marquetry flourished and reached levels of exceptional virtuosity in the Gilded Age in America following the Civil War and lasted, mostly as a hobby, for almost 90 years.
The Museum of American Folk Art in New York is currently exhibiting a Statue of Liberty Cabinet made by a German immigrant about 1886-1890 in the vicinity of St. Louis, Mo. This elaborate cabinet combines marquetry, carved and painted wood, and applied jigsaw cutouts so intricate that they might be called wood filigree.
Its eclectic style is consistent with American Renaissance furniture made between the 1870s and the end of the century, so the dressing table has been dated soon after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. The furniture piece combines the American eagle and the Statue of Liberty with stars, mandolins, birds and musicians in a paean to patriotism, all under the watchful eyes of six cutout women wearing classical costumes.
Until the 19th century, woodworkers generally cut their veneers by hand. When steam-powered mills replaced most of the earlier lumber sawmills in America by 1830, it was then possible to cut 15 to 20 sheets of veneer to the inch of timber, making veneers cheap and popular. One method of making multiple copies of the same pattern required hardwood sticks of contrasting colors, glue and a fretsaw. This technique, called "piece by piece," produced quantities of small repeat patterns for borders.
The desired woods were cut into sticks of geometrical shapes by marqueters. The stack of shaped sticks was bundled and glued together under pressure, then sawed across the grain into veneers, each identical in the desired pattern.
Although repeated identical patterns appear regularly in 19th-century American marquetry, many patterns were executed one at a time. Using a graphite pencil and drawing to scale, the marqueter sketched on cardboard the overall design, indicating the size and shape of each component piece of wood. These cardboard templates guided the sawing of his veneers into the correct shapes and sizes.
The surface, or bed, of the core wood to which the cut and fitted veneers were to be glued was carefully leveled and "toothed over," or abraded, to get a clean surface. Some marqueters were satisfied with the natural sheen of the woods, whereas others turned to the oldest finishes known -- wax, oil and shellac -- to enhance them.
Although the restraint and precision of inlay and marquetry lent sophistication to Federal-style furniture after the Revolution, during the later decades of the Gilded Age, which began in 1865, the use of wood ornamentation was truly unleashed. As early as 1820, wealthy Americans began to design and decorate their homes in the romantic and eclectic interpretations of Victorian historical styles. The Greek revival was followed by the Gothic revival, which was based on sundry medieval designs.
Sustained by the new wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, architects and designers found inspiration in a wide range of motifs -- from Egyptian to Persian, to Renaissance and Rococo. Carpenters and cabinetmakers quickly learned the vocabulary, and applied ornament was in use more than ever before in America. Marquetry veneer patterning was all but required on the most expensive furniture of the day.
"Male quilting" -- a phrase applied to the making of marquetry -- is an apt expression on the most basic level. Quilts and marquetry use bits and pieces of material, sometimes discarded from other undertakings and sometimes purchased or saved for a special project. Both folk forms fill flat surfaces with repeated patterns or use simplified pictures and symbols as designs. The making of quilts and marquetry is similar in that they both depend on a patient, additive progression from detail to detail, until plain cloth or naked wood is embellished with multiple designs that are also made of cloth or wood.
The checkerboard is one of the most common patterns in American furniture marquetry. While the design can be found in ancient Greek pavements and Pompeian mosaics, and in the decorative arts of other civilizations, it was present in the 19th century in the pure form of the game board.
A permutation of the simple checkerboard designs -- in which mind does triumph over matter -- is the "tumbling blocks" motif. The basic unit looks like a cube seen in perspective. It is composed of three rhomboids, which are squares with opposite sides shortened, of three colors or shades -- light, medium and dark. The rhomboids are locked into a hexagonal pattern. When the three shades are correctly related, the darkest appears to be in shadow and the lightest in direct light. Hence, the flatness of the surface seems to disappear and instead to display a cube in space. By presenting a number of diagonal rows of these three-dimensional cubes next to one another, the stunning illusions of uniformly tumbling blocks is created.
Many 19th-century marqueters fall into the artist-farmer-carpenter category, blending a rural vernacular style with sophisticated urban decorative motifs. Many farm communities had multi-skilled individuals possessed of excellent woodworking skills -- this is clearly evidenced in the furniture they made.
An esoteric category of furniture marquetry is that made by prisoners. Convicts became woodworkers as a result of the 18th-century prison reform movement. A large variety of shops and factories existed in prisons across America after the Civil War, many of them contracted by private manufacturers on the outside. These furniture-making shops, in addition to tailoring at Sing-Sing and blacksmithing, weaving, upholstering, printing and sign painting at Elmira, prospered well into the 20th century. Convicts had the time and energy to devote to the tedious rigor of marquetry, and their marquetry skills enriched almost every domestic item made of wood -- from beds, boxes, chairs and clocks to secretaries, tables and even violin cases.
The hours of labor necessary to ornament an object with marquetry were worth far more than anyone was willing to pay, and as a result, the gift of a piece of marquetry is priceless, representing a great investment of time and emotion.
Since the Second World War, marquetry-makers seem to have abandoned objects and turned to projects that revive the Renaissance interest in painting with wood -- that is, making pictures. Emphasis is placed on using the right colors and textures to create verisimilitude. On the other hand, today's professional cabinetmakers and furniture designers creatively use marquetry for inlays in original pieces of furniture that are often meant for wealthy clients and collectors.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.