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Bowled over by Boulle: the first exhibition on one of the world's greatest cabinetmakers is a triumph.

Strangely enough, this exhibition in Frankfurt on Andre-Charles Boulle is a first. It is long overdue, especially as Boulle may indeed be 'the most celebrated cabinetmaker of all time', as President Sarkozy claims in his foreword to the catalogue.

The exhibition is work in progress for its curators--Jean Neree Ronfort and Jean-Dominique Augarde--who are engaged on a keenly anticipated catalogue raisonnee of Boulle's large oeuvre. There is furniture never previously seen outside the Hermitage, and from both private and rarely seen collections. So the exhibition offers recherche delights, as well as an unprecedented opportunity to study Boulle's working and finished drawings, the engravings after them, and designs by his son, Jean-Philippe, and their contemporaries. Both the catalogue and the exhibition set Boulle in both a courtly and an international context. Relevam tapestries, paintings, bronzes and porcelain create a historical ambiance. Indeed, the tasteful and well-lit mise-en-scene (Fig. 2) creates Versailles within Richard Meier's 1985 neo-modernist museum building, which is currently scaffolded for major structural repairs. This transformation is the triumphant product of collaboration between the director of the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Ulrich Schneider, the exhibition curators, and the designer, Juan Pablo Molyneux, responsible for the grey-blue damask based on a Boulle design that serves as the perfect foil to the exhibits.


The effect is sumptuous, as astonished visitors wend their way through a crescendo of sheer magnificence, which leaves one lost in admiration for Boulle's invention and his atelier's perfect execution. Even so, there are obvious lacunae, notably the pair of 'Grand Trianon' sarcophagus-shaped commodes made in 1708 for Versailles, now on show there in the exhibition 'Louis XIV: L'Homme et Le Roi'. This model is Boulle's 'trademark', represented in England by a contemporary (and equally good) version at Petworth House, Sussex (National Trust).


The catalogue is beautifully produced, easy to use, and the furniture is elegantly and clearly photographed. It will be an essential reference work, with essays on various aspects of Boulle's 90-year life, his atelier, materials and methods of production as well as accounts of British, Bavarian and Russian patronage and collecting. M. Augarde's essay on the Boulle revival leaves one wishing that there had been more room to display these often equally superb pieces, produced from the 18th century by the likes of Levasseur, Joseph and Montigny. But that is a topic large enough for another exhibition.

On show here are examples of most types of furniture that are adumbrated in Andre-Charles Boulle's design drawings and recorded in his engravings. He did not invent the distinctive style of tortoiseshell and metal marquetry to which he gave his name, but became the most famous exponent of a technique that was already evident in the royal workshops. As one of Louis XIV's court cabinetmakers--appointed ebeniste, ciseleur, doreur et sculpteur du roi in 1672--Boulle was free from Guild restrictions. In the royal workshops he was able to produce all the different elements of his furniture, from the carcase to the ebenisterie and--above all--the sculptural and finely chased gilt bronze mounts (Figs 1 and 3), which were the most expensive components of fine furniture. These mounts serve to narrow the distinction between furniture and sculpture, and indeed--as the exhibition shows by the inclusion of 'furnishing' bronzes--Boulle thoroughly understood how to set off sculpture with exquisite brackets and plinths.

Much of the finest original or derivative Boulle furniture is in English collections, due to the craze for the style in the early 19th century and the artistic diaspora of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, such are the riches there, the list of collectors in the catalogue might also have included such names as the 3rd Duke of Dorset and the 1st Earl Whitworth (at Knole, Kent), and Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh (at Uppark, Sussex), friend and adviser of the future George IV, a Boulle fanatic.

Boulle was an inveterate collector, enthusiastically over-spending on paintings, drawings, engravings, bronzes and so on. He was an accomplished draughtsman, basing his style on that of Charles Le Brun, the Sun King's artistic impresario, who in turn looked to the great Italian tradition. Boulle's aspiration in the field of wood marquetry was to create 'paintings'. This was also the aim of the Italian pietre dure craftsmen in the French royal workshops led by the Rome trained Domenico Cucci (1635-1704/5), one of whose royal cabinets is temporarily back home at Versailles in 'Louis XIV, L'Homme et Le Roi'. Like Boulle's scenes in wood marquetry, the pietre dure birds, flowers and landscapes set into the Cucci cabinet--one of a sole surviving pair of the grand cabinets commissioned by Louis XIV (Alnwick Castle, Duke of Northumberland)--attain a perfection that surpasses Florentine and Roman equivalents. The Northumberland cabinets also allow a rare documented royal comparison to Boulle's achievement as an ebeniste, bronzier and designer. Indeed, the stylistic similarities between Boulle's marquetry and Gobelins pietre dure must be due to the teamwork encouraged by the royal workshops.


Boulle undertook comparatively few furniture commissions for the king himself, but was enthusiastically patronised by royalties and aristocrats. His production is extensive: his large studio was in full flood for 42 years. He undertook complete schemes of decor, including the vastly expensive flooring, panelling and furniture of the Grand Dauphin's apartments at Versailles in 1683-84. The exhibition raises interesting question marks. None of his furniture was stamped, so attributions have to be based on documentary evidence or on connoisseurship. Also, alterations and bedizenments may have been commissioned by subsequent owners, such as the addition of grander mounts. M. Ronfort has set out a convincing chronology for Boulle's oeuvre, but there are inevitable disagreements, such as his dating of a pair of splendid medal cabinets in the form of commodes--now split between The Hermitage (Fig. 1) and the J. Paul Getty Museum--to around 1723 rather than the new Getty catalogue's c. 1710-15.

Few cabinetmakers have achieved such a satisfying synthesis of furniture, 'painting' in wood, and sculpture. Expect to be Boulleverse by this unforgettable exhibition.

Christopher Rower is Furniture Curator of the National Trust.
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Title Annotation:EXHIBITIONS; Andre-Charles Boulle
Author:Rowell, Christopher
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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