Boulle Work

Boulle Work is a type of rich marquetry process or inlay perfected by the French cabinetmaker André Charles Boulle (11 November 1642 – 28 February 1732). It involves veneering furniture with a marquetry of tortoiseshell, pewter which is and inlaid with arabesques of gilded brass. Although Boulle did not invent the technique, he was its greatest practitioner and gave his name to it. Boulle was from a well known Protestant family of artists in France and his family was primarily in Paris but also in Marseille. Boulle was awarded the title of master cabinetmaker around 1666 and, in 1672 Boulle received the post of Premier ébéniste du Roi and was admitted to a group of skilled artists maintained by Louis XIV, in the Louvre Palace. In 1672, Boulle received a warrant signed by the Queen, giving him the added title of ‘bronzier’ as well as ‘Ebeniste du Roi’. André-Charles Boulle’s masterpieces are now mostly in museums and have come to represent the wealth, luxury and finesse of the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

In 2016, a putative descendant of Andre-Charles Boulle, Jean-Raymond Boulle, invented a Boulle Work process of inlay using gem diamonds which is produced by AkzoNobel and has been used by Rolls Royce.

“A present day definition of marquetry is inlay, in which pieces of super thin wood (or shell, ivory, etc.) are glued into elaborate recessed designs in the surface of furniture and other decorative items. Marquetry originated with the work of the ancient Egyptians who produced examples using what was then leading edge skill. It has been evolving for centuries as better methods for cutting thinner sheets of veneer and better tools for sawing veneers into intricate designs have been developed. Along with technological advances, marquetry has become a long-standing favorite hobby in England and is also popular in Germany, Holland, Italy and Russia. Americans, Australians and Canadians are also joining groups and learning this fine hobby.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, marquetry almost faded into oblivion, but in the 14th and 15th centuries renewal of interest and refinements in technique cemented its popularity for all time. Florence, Italy, may be credited with the rebirth because of special schools set up there to teach and perfect marquetry/boulle techniques. Veneers of this time were thick and easily crafted with hand tools such as chisels. By the 17th and 18th centuries, France had become the axis of great marquetry/boulle work.

André Charles Boulle
André-Charles Boulle, is the most famous French cabinetmaker and the preeminent artist in the field of marquetry, also known as “Inlay”. Boulle was “the most remarkable of all French cabinetmakers”. He was recommended to Louis XIV of France, the “Sun King”, by Jean-Baptiste Colbert as being “the most skilled craftsman in his profession”. Over the centuries since his death, his name and that of his family has been given to the art he perfected, the inlay of tortoiseshell, brass and pewter into ebony. It is known as Boulle Work and the École Boulle, a college of fine arts and crafts and applied arts in Paris, today bears testimony to his enduring art, the Art of inlay.

Boulle is named for Andre-Charles Boulle who developed a method for marquetry with tortoiseshell and brass along with pewter and exotic woods. The same principles were involved, but his choice of inlay materials set his work apart. He also gave a name to the work he did, coincidentally naming it for himself.

Contrasting colors and the implication of slight textures make inlay work appealing to a very wide audience. The colors originally employed by the men of Boulle’s time were created by using a variety of specialty woods. At the time Boulle created his masterpieces, few in Europe were creating inlay work with striking contrasts. Woods used were cut into veneer sheets, cut into designs in a single layer of material and glued to a solid surface such as the top or front of a piece of furniture.

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Boulle’s work was dramatic in comparison, but still utilized the same principles. Boulle layered two wafers of equal thickness, one of tortoiseshell and one of metal (usually brass). A sheet of paper marked with a pattern was placed on top, and then the pattern was cut with a special saw through the sheets of tortoiseshell and brass below. The cutout pieces of brass then fit perfectly into the spaces left in the tortoiseshell–dramatic and exquisite and widely collected, so much so that one hundred years after his death, craftsmen were mimicking his techniques and enjoying a status originally set aside for only a few gifted artisans.”

Marquetry is the art of creating intricate pictures and elaborate designs on furniture by skillfully cutting and fitting together thin pieces of domestic and exotic woods, horn, ivory, metal, shell, and other precious materials. While this highly specialized art has roots in ancient times, it was brought to a high level of refinement in the 17th and 18th centuries in France.

The J. Paul Getty Museum owns several fine examples of marquetry, including works by André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732). In 1672, Boulle rose from master cabinetmaker to ébéniste du roi, royal cabinetmaker and sculptor to King Louis XIV, known as the “Sun King.” That same year, the king granted him the royal privilege of lodging in the Palais du Louvre. This position allowed Boulle to produce furniture as well as works in gilt bronze, such as chandeliers, wall lights, and mounts for furniture. Although strict guild rules usually prevented craftsmen from practicing two professions simultaneously, Boulle’s favored position allowed him protected status and exempted him from these statutes. Boulle’s specialty was wood pictorial marquetry, and he was so skilled he became known as a “painter in wood.”

The furniture by André-Charles Boulle was never signed by its creator. As a result, many of the Boulle-marquetry pieces in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection are noted as “attributed to André-Charles Boulle.”

Along with creating elaborate motifs in wood, Boulle was ingenious in his use of specialized materials and metals. His technique of intricate tortoiseshell and brass designs, called “Boulle work,” was highly prized.

Boulle work took two different forms: premiere partie—pattern in metals with the background in tortoiseshell; and contre partie—pattern in tortoiseshell with the background in metal. The Getty Museum’s finest examples of premiere partie and contre partie can be found in a pair of coffers.