Marquetry is the art of creating intricate pictures and elaborate designs on furniture by skillfully cutting and fitting together thin pieces of domestic and exotic woods, horn, ivory, metal, shell, and other precious materials. While this highly specialized art has roots in ancient times, it was brought to a high level of refinement in the 17th and 18th centuries in France.
The J. Paul Getty Museum owns several fine examples of marquetry, including works by André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732). In 1672, Boulle rose from master cabinetmaker to ébéniste du roi, royal cabinetmaker and sculptor to King Louis XIV, known as the “Sun King.” That same year, the king granted him the royal privilege of lodging in the Palais du Louvre. This position allowed Boulle to produce furniture as well as works in gilt bronze, such as chandeliers, wall lights, and mounts for furniture. Although strict guild rules usually prevented craftsmen from practicing two professions simultaneously, Boulle's favored position allowed him protected status and exempted him from these statutes. Boulle’s specialty was wood pictorial marquetry, and he was so skilled he became known as a “painter in wood.”
The furniture by André-Charles Boulle was never signed by its creator. As a result, many of the Boulle-marquetry pieces in the J. Paul Getty Museum's collection are noted as “attributed to André-Charles Boulle.”
Two coffers on stands
Along with creating elaborate motifs in wood, Boulle was ingenious in his use of specialized materials and metals. His technique of intricate tortoiseshell and brass designs, called “Boulle work,” was highly prized.
Boulle work took two different forms: premiere partie—pattern in metals with the background in tortoiseshell; and contre partie—pattern in tortoiseshell with the background in metal. The Getty Museum’s finest examples of premiere partie and contre partie can be found in a pair of coffers on stands shown above.
By examining the details, one can see première partie marquetry in the coffer on the left, shown above, defined by the background of brown tortoiseshell with inlaid brass (gold-colored metal) and pewter (silver-colored metal) designs. The coffer on the right exhibits the contre partie method. In this case, the background is brass, and the pattern is in tortoiseshell.
The interiors of this pair of coffers are lined with tortoiseshell and brass or pewter, and have secret compartments in the base that were intended to hold jewels or small precious items.
When lowered on their hinges, the wide gilt-bronze straps on the coffer fronts and sides reveal three small drawers, shown at the left.
Each coffer also has a lid that opens in two sections, as shown below. The upper lid reveals a shallow compartment, while the main lid lifts to reveal the interior of the coffer.
It is possible that one of these coffers was owned by the Grand Dauphin, the oldest son of Louis XIV, since an 1689 inventory of his collection lists an item of similar form and decoration. In addition, the coffers are decorated with the dauphin’s emblem, dolphins, seen in the detail of the gilded keyhole escutcheon shown below.
A monumental cabinet
One of a pair, the cabinet shown below stands over seven-feet tall and is dated to just before the Two Coffers on Stands. The details of this cabinet reveal why Boulle was called a “painter in wood.”
The decoration on this monumental cabinet refers to the French king Louis XIV's military victories. Decorating the central door, a panel of marquetry shows the cockerel of France standing triumphant over both the eagle of the Holy Roman Empire and the lion of Spain and the Spanish Netherlands.
In the Dutch Wars of 1672–1678, France fought simultaneously against the Dutch, Spanish, and Imperial armies, defeating them all. This cabinet celebrates these victories. Two large figures from Greek mythology, Hercules and Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons), representing strength, appear to support the cabinet at the base.
The fleurs de lis on the top two drawers indicate that the cabinet was made for Louis XIV. As this cabinet does not appear in inventories of his possessions, it may have served as a royal gift. The Sun King's portrait appears twice on this work, including a bronze profile medallion (left) cast from a medal, placed above the central door.
The central panel of the cabinet opens to reveal columns veneered in tortoiseshell and surrounded by mirrors, creating this charming architectural space in miniature, shown below.
Additional works attributed to Boulle
André-Charles Boulle not only brought refinement and richness to large pieces of furniture, but he also made several other splendid pieces in the Getty’s collection. Because of his mastery in a variety of trades, he was christened by his contemporaries as "the most skillful artisan in Paris."
A few of the other fine pieces in the collection include a long-case clock in the première partie style (above) and a pair of gueridons or torchères (below), which would have supported candelabra.