1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Boulle, André Charles

BOULLE, ANDRÉ CHARLES (1642–1732), French cabinet-maker, who gave his name to a fashion of inlaying known as Boulle or Buhl work. The son of Jean Boulle, a member of a family of ébénistes who had already achieved distinction—Pierre Boulle, who died c. 1636, was for many years tourneur et menuisier du roy des cabinets d’ébène,—he became the most famous of his name and was, indeed, the second cabinet-maker—the first was Jean Macé—who has acquired individual renown. That must have begun at a comparatively early age, for at thirty he had already been granted one of those lodgings in the galleries of the Louvre which had been set apart by Henry IV. for the use of the most talented of the artists employed by the crown. To be admitted to these galleries was not only to receive a signal mark of royal favour, but to enjoy the important privilege of freedom from the trammels of the trade gilds. Boulle was given the deceased Jean Macé’s own lodging in 1672 by Louis XIV. upon the recommendation, of Colbert, who described him as “le plus habile ébéniste de Paris,” but in the patent conferring this privilege he is described also as “chaser, gilder and maker of marqueterie.” Boulle appears to have been originally a painter, since the first payment to him by the crown of which there is any record (1669) specifies “ouvrages de peinture.” He was employed for many years at Versailles, where the mirrored walls, the floors of “wood mosaic,” the inlaid panelling and the pieces in marqueterie in the Cabinet du Dauphin were regarded as his most remarkable work. These rooms were long since dismantled and their contents dispersed, but Boulle’s drawings for the work are in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. His royal commissions were, indeed, innumerable, as we learn both from the Comptes des bâtiments and from the correspondence of Louvois. Not only the most magnificent of French monarchs, but foreign princes and the great nobles and financiers of his own country crowded him with commissions, and the mot of the abbé de Marolles, “Boulle y tourne en ovale,” has become a stock quotation in the literature of French cabinet-making. Yet despite his distinction, the facility with which he worked, the high prices he obtained, and his workshops full of clever craftsmen, Boulle appears to have been constantly short of money. He did not always pay his workmen, clients who had made considerable advances failed to obtain the fine things they had ordered, more than one application was made for permission to arrest him for debt under orders of the courts within the asylum of the Louvre, and in 1704 we find the king giving him six months’ protection from his creditors on condition that he used the time to regulate his affairs or “ce scra la derniére grâce que sa majesté lui fera là-dessus.” Twenty years later one of his sons was arrested at Fontainebleau and kept in prison for debt until the king had him released. In 1720 his finances were still further embarrassed by a fire which, beginning in another atelier, extended to his twenty workshops and destroyed most of the seasoned materials, appliances, models and finished work of which they were full. The salvage was sold and a petition for pecuniary help was sent to the regent, the result of which does not appear. It would seem that Boulle was never a good man of business, but, according to his friend Mariette, many of his pecuniary difficulties were caused by his passion for collecting pictures, engravings and other objects of art—the inventory of his losses in the fire, which exceeded £40,000 in amount, enumerates many old masters, including forty-eight drawings by Raphael and the manuscript journal kept by Rubens in Italy. He attended every sale of drawings and engravings, borrowed at high interest to pay for his purchases, and when the next sale took place, fresh expedients were devised for obtaining more money. Collecting was to Boulle a mania of which, says his friend, it was impossible to cure him. Thus he died in 1732, full of fame, years and debts. He left four sons who followed in his footsteps in more senses than one—Jean Philippe (born before 1690, dead before 1745), Pierre Benoit (d. 1741), Charles André (1685–1749) and Charles Joseph (1688–1754). Their affairs were embarrassed throughout their lives, and the three last are known to have died in debt.

All greatness is the product of its opportunities, and the elder Boulle was made by the happy circumstances of his time. He was born into a France which was just entering upon the most brilliant period of sumptuary magnificence which any nation has known in modern times. Louis XIV., so avid of the delights of the eye, by the reckless extravagance of his example turned the thoughts of his courtiers to domestic splendours which had hitherto been rare. The spacious palaces which arose in his time needed rich embellishment, and Boulle, who had not only inherited the rather flamboyant Italian traditions of the late Renaissance, but had ébénisterie in his blood, arose, as some such man invariably does arise, to gratify tastes in which personal pride and love of art were not unequally intermingled. He was by no means the first Frenchman to practise the delightful art of marqueterie, nor was he quite the inventor of the peculiar type of inlay which is chiefly associated with his name; but no artist, before or since, has used these motives with such astonishing skill, courage and surety. He produced pieces of monumental solidity blazing with harmonious colour, or gleaming with the sober and dignified reticence of ebony, ivory and white metal. The Renaissance artists chiefly employed wood in making furniture, ornamenting it with gilding and painting, and inlaying it with agate, cornelian, lapis-lazuli, marble of various tints, ivory, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl and various woods. Boulle improved upon this by inlaying brass devices into wood or tortoise-shell, which last he greatly used according to the design he had immediately in view, whether flowers, scenes, scrolls, &c.; to these he sometimes added enamelled metal. Indeed the use of tortoise-shell became so characteristic that any furniture, however cheap and common, which has a reddish fond that might by the ignorant be mistaken for inlay, is now described as “Buhl”—the name is the invention of the British auctioneer and furniture-maker. In this process the brass is thin, and, like the ornamental wood or tortoise-shell, forms a veneer. In the first instance the production of his work was costly, owing to the quantity of valuable material that was cut away and wasted, and, in addition, the labour lost in separately cutting for each article or copy of a pattern. By a subsequent improvement Boulle effected an economy by gluing together various sheets of material and sawing through the whole, so that an equal number of figures and matrices were produced at one operation. Boulle adopted from time to time various plans for the improvement of his designs. He placed gold-leaf or other suitable material under the tortoise-shell to produce such effect as he required; he chased the brass-work with a graver for a like purpose, and, when the metal required to be fastened down with brass pins or nails, these were hammered flat and disguised by ornamental chasing. He also adopted, in relief or in the round, brass feet, brackets, edgings, and other ornaments of appropriate design, partly to protect the corners and edges of his work, and partly for decoration. He subsequently used other brass mountings, such as claw-feet to pedestals, or figures in high or low relief, according to the effect he desired to produce. These mounts in the pieces that undoubtedly come from Boulle’s atelier are nearly always of the greatest excellence. They were cast in the rough—the tools of the chaser gave them their sharpness, their minute finish, their jewel-like smoothness.

Unhappily it is by no means easy, even for the expert, to declare the authenticity of a commode, a bureau, or a table in the manner of Boulle and to all appearance from his workshops. His sons unquestionably carried on the traditions for some years after his death, and his imitators were many and capable. A few of the more magnificent pedigree-pieces are among the world’s mobiliary treasures. There are, for instance, the two famous armoires, which fetched £12,075 at the Hamilton Palace sale; the marqueterie commodes, enriched with bronze mounts, in the Bibliotheque Mazarine; various cabinets and commodes and tables in the Louvre, the Musée Cluny and the Mobilier National; the marriage coffers of the dauphin which were in the San Donato collection. There are several fine authenticated pieces in the Wallace collection at Hertford House, together with others consummately imitated, probably in the Louis Seize period. On the rare occasions when a pedigree example comes into the auction-room, it invariably commands a high price; but there can be little doubt that the most splendid and sumptuous specimens of Boulle are diminishing in number, while the second and third classes of his work are perhaps becoming more numerous. The truth is that this wonderful work, with its engraved or inlaid designs of Bérain, its myriads of tiny pieces of ivory and copper, ebony and tortoise-shell, all kept together with glue and tiny chased nails, and applied very often to a rather soft, white wood, is not meet to withstand the ravages of time and the variations of the atmosphere. Alternate heat and humidity are even greater enemies of inlaid furniture than time and wear—such delicate things are rarely much used, and are protected from ordinary chances of deterioration. There is consequently reason to rejoice when a piece of real artistry in furniture finds its final home in a museum, where a degree of warmth is maintained which, however distressing it may be to the visitor, at least preserves the contents from one of the worst enemies of the collector.  (J. P.-B.)