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Cabinetmakers During the Reign of French King Louis XIV

Published on , by Marielle Brie

Basing his study on a rigorous research method and in-depth knowledge of archives, art historian Calin Demetrescu's seminal book now reveals the results of many years' work, with new attributions and a particular spotlight on the output of Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (1639-1715) and Jean Armand.

André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732). Cabinet on stand, c. 1677, oak veneered with pewter,... Cabinetmakers During the Reign of French King Louis XIV

André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732). Cabinet on stand, c. 1677, oak veneered with pewter, brass, tortoise shell, horn, ebony, ivory, and wood marquetry; bronze mounts; figures of painted and gilded oak; drawers of snakewood, 229 x 151.2 x 66.7 cm/90.2 x 59.5 x 26.3 in. Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum.
© J. Paul Getty Museum

Calin Demetrescu's, former curator of the Bucharest Museums, great merit lies in his temerity. His boldness in tackling the thorny subject of attribution in the 17th century when no stamps existed, and his boldness in studying a huge corpus of over a hundred pieces of furniture and objets d'art— which lead to substantial results. The book looks set to be an incontestable benchmark: a view shared by Frédéric Dassas, Chief Curator of the Louvre's Objets d'Art Department: "For several years now, many curators and experts have considered it unreasonable to make attributions, but they carry on doing so. The internationally famous specialist, Calin Demetrescu, explores the attribution issue in terms of how, why and to whom, factoring in every aspect of an enormously diverse body of material." This material, rigorously woven like a backdrop, is crucial and forms the essence of this meticulous study, enabling the author to clarify milestones that lend convincing weight to his conclusions and fresh attributions, presented in the second part of the book. His focus on various players, closely linked with the way guilds functioned under Louis XIV, brings to light a cultural, religious (Catholic and Protestant), economic and social network. Drawing on mostly unpublished archive material, the author reveals the rich complexity of an association of craftsmen forming a coherent group, whose members, from both within and outside France (Italy and Northern Europe), interacted in the spheres of work and family alike. Their movements and social interactions now reveal hitherto unknown or unrecognized aspects of their output.

Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (1639-1715). Top of the First bureau brisé (desk with folding top) for the Petit Cabinet du Roi at Versailles, 16

Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, 1639-1715). Top of the first bureau brisé (folding top desk) for the Petit Cabinet du Roi at Versailles, 1685, oak, fir, walnut, Brazilian tulipwood and ebony veneer, and marquetry of tortoiseshell and engraved brass; gilt bronze and steel, 77.2 x 106 x 59.4 cm/74.4 x 41.7 x 23.4 in. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Ms. Charles Wrightsman.
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

Innovations and Conservatism
Recurring motifs specific to each craftsman are a key element in this research. Although changes in cabinetwork styles fluctuated over a period of 60 years in response to sumptuary requirements and the king's tastes, this did not prevent their creators from repeating stylistic details they particularly liked. From the hardstone cabinets in which Domenico Cucci (c.1635-1704-05) was a master, from 1685 onwards, of furniture with veneering wood marquetry introduced by Pierre Gole and continued by Renaud Gaudron, the author reveals analogical series that shed light on the porous relationships between the royal cabinetmakers and their Parisian colleagues, the bronze makers and ornamentation specialists. Through a simultaneous study of the craftsmen's inspirational sources and the motifs designed for them by specialists in ornamentation, the art historian explores the possible links between the different trades. This is demonstrated by a previously unpublished piece of archive material, which irrefutably links the engraver Pierre-Paul Sevin with Bernard I Van Risen Burgh (1660-1738) through the motif of an ivy-encircled obelisk found in the marquetry panels of furniture attributed to BVRB I. Last but not least, Demetrescu's research method has yielded further results in the new chronology he proposes for the work of André-Charles Boulle. Starting from the master's engraved collection, he has intelligently established the date when Boulle made the preparatory drawings for this publication. By contrasting these with "objects not represented in the collection, whose actual or presumed dates of manufacture are known", the author has dated these drawings to 1706-1707, thus determining a new chronology for the works of the famous cabinetmaker. It is a surprising paradox that although Boulle's artistic personality influenced cabinetmaking up to the 19th century, the craftsman did not manage to establish himself in his time against Gole, Cucci and Gaudron. Apart from the parquet floors he made for the Bâtiments du Roi, his commissions were mainly for clients in the royal entourage: something he had in common with Oppenordt. What now becomes clear is the two contrasting styles characterizing the end of the reign: firstly, the conservatism imposed by the royal furniture department on Gole and then Gaudron, and secondly, the formal and stylistic innovations introduced by Boulle and Oppenordt.

Attributed to Renaud Gaudron. (c. 1653-1727). Cabinet (condition after restoration in 1993), c.1685, oak, ebony, marquetry in veneering wo

Attributed to Renaud Gaudron. (c. 1653-1727). Cabinet (condition after restoration in 1993), c.1685, oak, ebony, marquetry in veneering wood, tortoiseshell and red and green stained horn, with inlaid ivory and gilt bronze, 189 x 129 x 59.3 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.
© Rijksmuseum

New Attributions
Biographical studies of cabinetmakers who worked for the royal department under Louis XIV shed further light, thanks to unpublished archival documents. Demetrescu removes various doubts by analyzing the fortunes, workshops and clientele of craftsmen, providing "new points of reference in the careers of these cabinetmakers and [identifying] ornamental motifs specific to certain masters, particularly Armand, Gole and Oppenordt, all supported by a very thorough and remarkable method," says Bertrand Rondot, Curator of Furniture and Objets d'Art at the Château de Versailles. This method is unanimously hailed by the experts. For Christophe de Quénetain, art historian and member of the TEFAF executive committee, "Demetrescu provides a convincing revision of certain attributions, notably to Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt and Jean Armand, whose workshop he had already identified a few years ago. The proof he provides for the re-attribution of the Comte de Toulouse's pendulum clock to Oppenordt is also unanimously acclaimed. Frédéric Dassas, with whom the author worked closely on the study of the furniture and objects attributed to André-Charles Boulle in the Louvre, "completely agrees with Calin" on his reattribution of the clock. More broadly, the study of Oppenordt's work, in the author's own words, is "one of the most, if not the most interesting case with cabinetmakers who worked for the royal department under Louis XIV." As a result, he has built up a highly homogeneous corpus, thanks to an analytical method and a meticulous system of analogical series. Oppenordt's hitherto almost non-existent body of work has now been admirably swelled, thanks to the identification and attribution of various major pieces. Demetrescu also raises the question of the professional links that existed between Oppenordt and Boulle, reaching new conclusions that suggest a probable collaboration between the two cabinetmakers.

Lastly, the study of the fortunes and social success of the royal cabinetmakers further enhances our knowledge of this group of craftsmen. By considering the ideal they shared of 'a bourgeois lifestyle', the reader is drawn into a daily life that links craftsmen more deeply with the broader scene, and can see their personal tastes and choices as an additional way of understanding their work. A reading of this study makes it fair to agree with Frédéric Dassas, who considers it "a model of thoroughness and erudition, based on an immense corpus of furniture and objects from public and private collections, archive material and sales catalogs from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries". In his book, Demetrescu also demonstrates great clarity in an exercise both risky and complex, presenting a smooth and fascinating demonstration in an elegant and highly readable style.

Worth reading
Calin Demetrescu, Les Ébénistes de la Couronne sous le règne de Louis XIV
(The Cabinetmakers of the Crown under Louis XIV),

published by La Bibliothèque des arts, Lausanne, 440 pages, 400 illustrations, €59
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