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Boulle style and technique

boulle 1

André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), a unique cabinetmaker, was the initiator of a famous technique: the association of bronze, brass and marquetry for the sake of art and craftsmanship. His talent also gave birth to a specific style in luxury applied arts during 4 centuries from Louis XIV to Napoleon III.
André-Charles Boulle was born in Paris and was the son of carpenter Johann Bolt, from the German-Dutch duchy, who settled in Paris just before his son's birth, where he opened a carpentry workshop and took the French pseudonym Jean Boulle. From his youngest age, taught by his father, André-Charles learnt drawing, painting and carpentry skills and showed a evident premature talent.
At age 23, in 1666, André-Charles Boulle discovers new potential in this art. He discovers for example the possibilities of using bronze for making furniture and thus becomes an indisputable master of marquetry. Within just a few years, André-Charles becomes popular in Paris and at age 30, is noticed by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, first minister of the King, who introduces him to the king, calling him the "the most dexterous cabinetmaker of Paris". Louis XIV hence names him the Royal Cabinetmaker and provides him with accommodation in the Louvres, then the royal residence. Boulle is thenceforth honored with the highest royal distinction and also has a certain freedom in providing to various stores.
Henceforth, Boulle makes a very extensive amount of furniture and decorative artifacts for the King's new home, the Château de Versailles.
Boulle opens two workshops, where his whole family works, namely his sister, the first famous woman cabinetmaker.
It was during these specific years that Boulle's personal style matured and became known as the "Boulle style". This title became an official title in the History of World Art. This technique, furniture decoration, had already been used before Boulle however, namely by Italian masters in the XVIe C and Dutch masters in the XVIIth C. Nobody however attained such talent and perfection in the art of cabinetmaking as André-Charles Boulle.
Boulle's style is characterized not only by the artistic subtlety in decoration, but also by the array of materials used, mainly materials brought back from South America and India, such as silver, bronze, brass, ivory, horn, mother of pearl and tortoise shell. Their usage showed off their natural beauty and the decorative possibilities of these noble materials.

Boulle's talent was very much appreciated in Versailles and his work much demanded after. Not only did the Court order works from him, but also the French and European nobility (of which, the king of Spain and noblemen from Bavaria and Cologne in Germany). There were over 40 people working in his workshops to meet this demand. Despite this success, Boulle had financial problems and even had to turn to the King to help him at times. The reason for the financial lack was that the making of each object was long, pricey and required rare materials. The master became therefore indebted, and had to wait several months before receiving the money from the sales. What's more, Boulle was a fervent art collector. His collection consisted namely of 40 drawings by Raphael, several sculptures by Michel Ange, paintings by Rubens, Synders and Van Dyck.
In short, despite Boulle's unprecedented success, the financial status of his workshops was precarious. The cherry on the cake was when a fire broke out in his workshop in 1720, destroying the entire workshop with the valuable working materials, tools, his painting collection and a large amount of pieces of furniture, made by himself. Following this disaster, his four sons took over the workshop and creation process along with other disciples. They sustained his style, the "Boulle style" which was at the forefront of fashion amongst the French aristocracy during 200 years.
But what exactly characterizes the Boulle style and technique?
Most importantly, it's the inclusion of tortoise shell in a complex decor. It should be noted that the shell was not embedded directly into the wooden base; the decorative coverings in tortoise shell and brass were morelike superimposed and fixed upon the wooden base. This technique made it possible to create surprisingly thin and complex ornaments and images, much more refined than with the embedding technique.
For the wooden furniture, Boulle used various rare species of wood: ebony, pear, rosewood, sandalwood, elm, cherry, mahogany. In addition to wood, he used metals, ivory, horn and mother-of-pearl. He was also the first cabinetmaker in Europe to integrate exotic materials such as tortoiseshell into the furniture's decorations. The turtles were not common turtles with grey shells, similar to fossils, but turtles of the oldest species from the Caribbean: the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), a scaly turtle, now an extremely rare endangered species.
The particularity of the shell of this turtle was that it was divided into separate translucent plates and its pattern was of decorative patches. These plates were softened in hot water or over a fire, became plastic and could hence be worked into any shape, before being cooled again regaining their original hardness.
We have objects on our website which show how plastic tortoiseshell really is. These two boxes (lot 3127), show in a close-up photo how the shell has taken the shape given by the wooden base of the box. The tortoiseshell, this ancient and now rare material, is very beautiful and "in its purest form", without decorations or superimpositions. However, in Boulle's time, the aesthetics were different and decoration meant Royal splendor and luxury, something that needed to surround the "Sun King", Louis XIV.
What exactly is the essence of the technique developed by Boulle?
The technique of the Boulle marquetry consists of carefully tracing and then cutting with a saw 2 superposed plates, which are in general a scale plate (tortoiseshell) and a copper / brass plate. This simultaneous cutting makes it possible to obtain 2 perfectly identical patterns, which once inverted, allow for two separate decors. The first part: a "positive" pattern with a scale base and brass ornamentation, the counterpart: a "negative" pattern with a brass base and scale ornamentation. Each pattern is then placed either on to 2 identical pieces of furniture to create a "pair" Un double ou un symétrique, or on to the same piece of furniture by being placed on the inside and the outside of it.

The Boulle marquetry is not embedded directly in the furniture frame but assembled upside down on a paper support before being glued (with bone glue) to the furniture frame. Once the decor is glued, the paper is removed in order to polish the furniture.
The half-transparency of the tortoiseshell sheets made it possible to paint over them with any colour: red, blue, yellow... This made the natural patchy pattern of the sheets of shell particularly shiny. These characteristics of exotic materials were revealed by Boulle, providing incredibly spectacular and decorative luxury products, where were combined expressiveness of the furniture's shape and elegance of decoration. Indeed, the subtlety of the engraved design, the complexity of the ornament itself, and the brilliance of colour, based on a dazzling combination of golden shades of metal (bronze, brass or copper) and the red-black colour of the turtle shell (the shell could be painted in other colours, but the most spectacular and popular was red) were inimitable and quite remarkable.

The furniture created by André-Charles Boulle decorates today the most famous French castles: Versailles, Chantilly, Cheverny, Vaux-Le-Vicomte, etc.
His masterpieces are on show in the biggest museums in the world: the Louvre (Paris), the Wallace collection (London), the Getty Museum (Los Angeles) and the Royal collection (London and Windsor). The famous Higher education school for applied arts of Paris, the Ecole Boulle, "Ecole Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs et Appliqués de Paris" is named after him, Charles-André Boulle. (The photo shows objects made according to the Boulle technique: unit 3949 (see here) and 3950 (see here), as well as in the style of Boulle Boulevard: unit 2052 (see here).

For further information on Boulle, read here: Marqueterie Boulle

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