Collecting Marquetry Masterpieces: The Finer Things in Wood

Marquetry: Cabinet d'époque Baroque attribué à André-Charles Boulle. Cabinet d'époque Baroque attribué à André-Charles Boulle. Sold for €35,000 via Artcurial (December 2021).

Adorning some of the most beautiful pieces of furniture in the world, marquetry of masterly intricacy has graced the residence of monarchs and heads of state for centuries. From Tutankhamun’s tomb to the Palace of Versailles of King Louis XIV, marquetry’s appeal to European royalty, aristocrats, and princely merchants has endured thanks to its dazzling magnificence.

Thanks to the precision and the deft skill required to intricately apply veneers to furniture, marquetry is the perfect expression of sumptuous magnificence. During the late 17th and early 18th century France was at the zenith of marquetry, and the craft received royal patronage, with André-Charles Boulle’s pioneering designs adorning the royal workshops of Louis XIV.

Commode with marquetry of engraved brass and tortoiseshell, gilt-bronze mounts by André Charles Boulle.

Commode with marquetry of engraved brass and tortoiseshell, gilt-bronze mounts by André Charles Boulle. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by the ancient craft of intarsia (mosaics of precious material inlayed into wood), the art of applying veneers to form decorative designs on case furniture, decorative objects, or panels has been appreciated for more than three thousand years, when the Egyptians decorated Tutankhamun’s tomb with an inlay of precious stones, glazed tiles, gold and ivory. An art of royal importance fit for kings, marquetry has a history of innovation typical of a demanding royal audience.

First mastered by the Ancient Egyptians, marquetry’s magnificence spread across the ancient world, as Venice and Byzantium established themselves as major production centres. Furniture inlaid with wood, metal, glass and stone has been recovered from first century sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it was when the Florentines first cut thin sheets of wood with bocfils (small saw) to cover furniture during the Renaissance that the craft really advanced.

Wood marquetry techniques were further developed in the early 16th century by Flemish luxury cabinetmakers, and by the mid-17th century, furniture adorned by early masters of French marquetry, Pierre Gole and his son-in-law André-Charles Boulle, was decorating Versailles and the other royal residences of Louis XIV. Floral marquetry came into favor in Parisian furniture in the 1750s and was employed by Bernard II van RisamburghJean-Pierre Latz, and Simon-François Oeben, with the Bureau du Roi among the most famous pieces of the era. Revived as a vehicle for Neoclassicism in London during the 1760s, Thomas Chippendale was at the forefront of London-made marquetry furniture of the day.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that marquetry gained a contemporary gloss, when Georges Vriz developed a technique of layering two veneers on top of each other and sanding through the surface layer to achieve fiber transparency. In turn, this saw a resurgence of marquetry by professionals and marquetry students of the École Boulle.

Key Marquetry Techniques

Loosely defined as pictures delicately cut from thin veneers of wood, bone, shell, or metal, marquetry is typically applied to fine pieces of furniture to produce two contrasting panels of identical design. Think marquetry and the first image that comes to mind might be the style developed in France by the great masters like Boulle. The technique he perfected involved producing two sheets of intricate inlay in contrasting tones that were cut from a single sandwich of materials.

It’s far from the only method though, and a desire to innovate has ensured a breadth of approaches. Painting in wood imitates the painting styles of the era and conserved the exotic veneers, while the revolutionary piece by piece approach is perhaps the most precise and advanced marquetry technique, which requires each element to be cut individually. And as a modern craft, marquetry most commonly uses knife-cut veneers, which are produced using fret or scroll saw techniques.

The evolution of marquetry has gone to great lengths to impress and even produced sand shading, which has a three-dimensional appearance after the veneer is partially submerged in hot sand for a few seconds. The finer details make marquetry, which differs from the more ancient craft of inlay, in which one material is cut to house sections of another. Whatever the technique, the masters of the craft have assured its place at the pinnacle of sumptuous magnificence thanks to a devotion to innovation.

Neoclassical Era Psyché by Giuseppe Maggiolini.

Neoclassical Era Psyché by Giuseppe Maggiolini. Sold for €9,500 via Artcurial (December 2022).

Artistic Devotion

Arguably the most famous cabinet maker in history, renowned for his elaborately inlaid furniture throughout 18th and 19th-century Europe, André Charles Boulle’s flamboyant, architectural, and classical approach was admired by the Sun King. Venerated for his inventive techniques, he was recommended to Louis XIV of France.

Utilizing the finest inlay materials, Boulle incorporated tortoiseshell, brass, pewter and animal horn, as well as contrasting woods into his marquetry. Such was his influence that the inlay of tortoiseshell, brass and pewter into ebony has become known as Boulle work, and he is even credited with inventing the bureau plat, while the École Boulle college of fine arts and crafts in Paris still bears his name.

While Boulle was invariably described as Baroque, his style evolved to encompass classic traditions of the late Renaissance. His contemporary Giuseppe Maggiolini similarly evolved with the times. A preeminent cabinet-maker in Milan in the late 18th century, his early work was late baroque in style, but he earned his place in history with his neoclassical veneers with richly detailed marquetry vignettes and complicated borders.

From commodes and chests, to writing-desks and tables, Maggiolini’s characteristic furniture was inlaid with a variety of European and exotic woods and featured scenic marquetry compositions by Giuseppe Levati and Andrea Appiani. His reputation was confirmed when he collaborated on designs for the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in 1771.

Portrait of David Roentgen.

Portrait of David Roentgen. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly Neoclassical in style, David Roentgen embraced late Rococo style in 18th century Germany as a renowned master of marquetry known for the secret drawers and mechanical fittings of his furniture. It was amid financial difficulties that Roentgen produced his defining innovation. In 1780, he arranged intricate patterns of wood inlay to create the impression of pietra dura, an inlay of highly polished colored stones which, together with his proficiency in constructing furniture with amusing mechanical features, caught the attention of Marie Antoinette, who appointed Roentgen ébéniste-mechanicien (master mechanic cabinetmaker), elevating his work through her patronage and recognition of his extraordinary skill.

Noted for creating furniture featuring a spring trigger or hidden catch to reveal a secret compartment, his skill as an inlayer of high distinction survives thanks his bold and vigorous marquetry scenes from classical mythology, which were popular in the 18th century.

Collector’s Perspective

Combining boldly inventive techniques and extraordinary designs with unmatched opulence and extravagance, marquetry’s ‘paintings in wood’ have astounded for centuries. Establishing an item’s provenance though can be as important as the piece in question. Take this pair of Louis XVI ebony, pewter, brass and tortoiseshell marquetry cabinets. Traced to back to the collection of Baron van Hoorn van Vlooswyck and the item’s sale in Paris in 1809, it remained in the possession of the Duchess of Roxburghe for many years before forming part of the Rothschild collection, proving its history is as rich in pedigree as the cabinet.

Sold at the Masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection at Christie’s, an item’s detailed history can be a rewarding presence at a globally respected auction house. And this level of reassurance allows attention to once again return to the timeless beauty and artistry that marquetry has brought to the finest rooms for centuries, and long may it continue to do so.

Sources: | | | | FineArt by Di Mano in Mano | | |