Louis XIV furniture has a monumentality in keeping with the majesty of the 17th-century Baroque. Veneering with precious woods, tortoiseshell, brass, pewter, ivory and horn replaced the ebony veneers of Louis XIII's time, and marquetry of various colored woods was executed with marked virtuosity.
There is a magisterial cabinet on stand on exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Made in Paris about 1680 and attributed to the ébéniste André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), the cabinet is veneered with a decorative scheme that refers to Louis XIV's military victories. The central door is decorated with a panel of marquetry showing the cockerel of France standing triumphant over the lion of Spain and the eagle of the Holy Roman Empire. The cabinet was probably made in recognition of the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678, when France was triumphant over these countries. The cabinet is seemingly supported by the figures of Hercules and the Amazon Hippolyta, and the military theme is continued in the bronze mounts of military trophies flanking a portrait medallion of Louis XIV.
Boulle was the first great French ébéniste and the most celebrated of Louis XIV furniture-makers and designers. Born in Paris, he began studying the craft under his father, a furniture-maker probably of Netherlandish origin. By 1666 Boulle had been admitted to the guild of cabinetmakers and seems also to have begun to work in bronze.
In 1672 Colbert, who described Boulle to the King as the most skillful cabinetmaker in Paris, arranged for him to have rooms in the Louvre. He was appointed ébéniste et marqueteur du roi and worked extensively for the royal palaces, especially Versailles. In 1685 he was employing 15 assistants in his workshops.
Boulle's furniture is distinguished by the nobility and monumentality of its architectural forms, by its unprecedentedly elaborate marquetry, by the outstanding quality of its gilt-bronze mounts and by the sense of symmetry and rhythm produced by the use of "first-part" and "counter-part" marquetry on matching pairs of armoires and commodes.
Boulle marquetry was prepared by gluing together sheets of brass and tortoiseshell, which were then cut according to the design required by a kind of fretwork technique. When cut, the layers were combined to produce either a shell ground inlaid with brass (known as "first-part") or a brass ground inlaid with shell (known as "counter-part"). Pairs of wardrobes or commodes might thus be decorated, the one with first-part, the other with counter-part marquetry. Those parts of the piece of furniture not decorated with Boulle marquetry were generally veneered in ebony.
A large part of his activity was devoted to making cases for clocks with the pendulum mechanism recently introduced from England. He also made cases for barometers. Gilt-bronze wall-lights, candelabra, chandeliers and fire-dogs were among his other products. Stylistically Boulle's work reveals a gradual change from the bold richness of the Louis XIV style to the lighter Régence.
The quality of the superb bronze mounts that characterized furniture by this great ébéniste during the reign of Louis XIV declined in the works by his sons. Their production was often mediocre and gaudy, in particular the large, busy clocks that were imitated by other cabinetmakers. Boulle's followers and imitators sought more gaudy effects by adding inlays of pewter, mother of pearl and horn, stained a bright color.
Boulle marquetry remained fashionable throughout the 18th century and was even widely manufactured during the 19th century in France and England. While this elaborate furniture reflected the taste of royal society, there is no doubt that a more modest type of furniture was used by the less privileged classes. Provincial workshops employed local woods, and they probably followed the style of Louis XIII right up to the 18th century.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American
decorative arts at Sotheby's.