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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Furnishings during the Reign of Louis XIV (1654–1715)

In 1663, two years after assuming absolute power, Louis XIV appointed a supervisor for the royal furniture. In the letter of appointment, the king wrote, “There is nothing that indicates more clearly the magnificence of great princes than their superb palaces and their precious furniture.” With the intention of glorifying the monarchy, Louis XIV embarked on grand building programs that entailed the design and manufacture of splendid sets of furniture. Emulating the lavish tastes of his mentor, Cardinal Mazarin, he acquired or commissioned a dazzling series of seventy-six wood cabinets; some were decorated with lacquer, but many displayed combinations of precious materials such as lapis lazuli, agate, marble, silver, and ivory. (Three of these cabinets are known to have survived: one, somewhat altered, in a Paris museum and a pair in an English private collection.) The king also favored carved and gilded wood furniture and commissioned a broad range of objects in solid silver that included tall candlestands, massive tables, benches and stools, chandeliers, and mirror frames.

Among the foremost cabinetmakers of this period were Pierre Gole, named cabinetmaker to Louis XIV in 1651, and Domenico Cucci (ca. 1635–1704/5), who was employed at the Gobelins manufactory under the direction of Charles Le Brun. André Charles Boulle (1642–1732), appointed royal cabinetmaker in 1672, specialized at this time in furniture set with wood-marquetry panels of high quality; he was later to work in the metal-marquetry technique (brass or pewter inlaid on tortoiseshell) for which he is best known. Contrast in the treatment of colors and surfaces as well as bold and sometimes exaggerated movement, features of the Baroque style, are characteristic of the furniture produced in these craftmen’s workshops.

The practice of veneering with tortoiseshell, believed to date to the first century B.C. in Rome, underwent a tremendous revival in Europe during the seventeenth century, when the shell of the tropical seagoing turtle was applied to wood surfaces of furniture, where it often served as a ground for inlaid decorative patterns of other showy and sometimes exotic materials. The popularity of tortoiseshell veneer during this period is well illustrated by several pieces in the Museum’s collection. A tabletop designed by Pierre Gole (1986.38.1) features a combination of tortoiseshell, wood, ebony, and ivory. Reddish-tinted tortoiseshell forms the ground for the brass decoration on a compact desk made for Louis XIV by the relatively unknown Dutch-born cabinetmaker Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (1639–1715) (1986.365.3). Oppenordt became a French citizen in 1679 and was named cabinetmaker to Louis XIV in 1684. The engraver and designer Jean Berain is thought to have collaborated with Oppenordt on the design for the brass ornament on this desk; some of the ornament prints published by Berain contain motifs that match the shapes of these inlays.

Berain supplied the designs for a clock case and pedestal (58.53) featuring exquisite inlay and elaborate gilt-bronze mounts believed to be products of Boulle’s workshop. Boulle benefitted from the king’s lifelong patronage and support, and he remains by far the best-known furniture maker of the Louis XIV period. The combination of tortoiseshell and metal inlay exemplified in the Museum’s clock and pedestal was not invented by Boulle, although furniture in this technique is often referred to as boulle work. The technique seems to have been imported from Italy and was established in France by the mid-1650s.

Working in a large community of painters, sculptors, and artisans housed in workshops under the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, Boulle’s lodgings and workshop were near those of Berain and the clockmaker Jacques Thuret (1669–1738). The three craftsmen were linked by friendship and by blood: Boulle is reputed to have been a relative of Thuret, who was, in turn, Berain’s son-in-law. It seems quite natural therefore that the three should have collaborated on the creation of the Museum’s clock: Thuret (or possibly his father) produced the movement, Boulle the case and pedestal, following Berain’s designs for the shapes of the pedestal and many of the gilt-bronze mounts.

Boulle was distinguished from his fellow artisans by a passion for collecting prints and drawings. Inventories of his possessions (particularly one itemizing the losses he suffered in a disastrous studio fire of 1720) record large numbers of such works by the best-known artists of his own and earlier eras. Boulle must have referred to his collection for the design of the ornament on furniture he manufactured, especially for the forms of its gilt-bronze mounts. He is known to have borrowed elements of seventeenth-century sculpture by Michelangelo and the Fleming François Duquesnoy for this purpose, and also to have acquired models for clock figures from contemporary French sculptors.

Boulle’s preoccupation with sculpture is reflected in the gilt-bronze ornament on the doors of an armoire attributed to him in the Museum’s collection (59.108): the scrolling acanthus leaves on the doors beautifully echo the two-dimensional marquetry of tortoiseshell and brass. Deriving from classical prototypes, the hairy-paw mount evolving into acanthus leaves was often used on Boulle’s furniture and was probably a stock item in his workshop. On the front and sides of the armoire, thin sheets of ebony were used for the veneered borders of the brass and tortoiseshell panels. Sixteenth-century Florentine cabinetmakers veneered large cabinets with this exotic wood, and the practice spread to France in the early seventeenth century. French cabinetmakers who then specialized in applying veneers came to be called ébénistes (ébène is the French word for “ebony”).

The rising cost of Louis XIV’s unsuccessful military campaigns, which forced the king to order the destruction of his silver furniture in 1689, caused a drastic retrenchment in his expenditures for the arts. Every aspect of furniture production was affected: restrictions were imposed on the gilding of wall paneling and furniture, and the Gobelins manufactory was closed between 1694 and 1699.

In 1699, a decorative scheme of wall painting was proposed for the apartment of the duchesse de Bourgogne, Louis XIV’s granddaughter-in-law. In a written comment on the proposal, the king urged his architect and newly appointed artistic administrator, Jules Hardouin Mansart, to avoid solemnity and to ensure that these decorations were graceful, airy, and infused with a sense of youthful high spirits. The king’s comments helped to generate a reaction against the pompous aspects of the Louis XIV style and to introduce a lighter approach to the decorative arts. Formality still prevailed, but the shapes and outlines of furniture had began their stiffness (compare 1986.38.1 and 1982.60.82). Oversize cabinets with their imposing décor fell from favor, while commodes came into vogue for storing clothing, replacing antiquated chests or coffers. Growing interest in comfort and a resultant erosion of formality struck at the heart of the Louis XIV style. The transition to a new style, the Regency, was already under way in the last years of the king’s reign, 1710 to 1715.

Although Boulle provided quite a few pieces of furniture for the royal household, only two items intended specifically for Louis XIV have been identified: a pair of commodes made between 1708 and 1709 for the king’s bedroom at the Grand Trianon and now exhibited at the Château de Versailles. Boulle’s workshop retained templates for their marquetry decoration and models for their gilt-bronze mounts. (These models are recorded as still among Boulle’s possessions in his inventory of 1732.) His craftsmen were therefore able to repeat the original commission whenever needed. It seems likely that the first workshop replicas were turned out before 1715, since another of Boulle’s inventories drawn up in that year, on the occasion of a transfer of property to his four sons (also cabinetmakers), contains the entry: “three commodes in an unfinished state similar to the king’s commode at the Trianon.”

The workmanship of a Boulle commode illustrated here (1982.60.82) is of high quality, exemplified in the casting and chasing of the gilt-bronze winged-sphinx corner mounts. It would appear to belong among the early workshop replicas dating from 1710 to 1715. At that time, the commode was still a relatively new type of furniture that was first produced about 1700 as a combination of a chest and a desk with drawers. Boulle’s original commodes and their copies have been criticized on aesthetic grounds for their awkward treatment of forms, which is particularly obvious in their supporting structures of squat spiral-shaped feet that abut on the inner sides of grandly curving legs. The four low feet might have been added by a practical cabinetmaker. Without them, the ornamental but insubstantial legs could not have supported the weight of the commode, its marble top, and the bronze mounts. In spite of this awkwardness, Boulle’s model was duplicated many times over a period of almost 200 years.