In Chantilly, André Charles Boulle glitters!

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Commode (one of a pair) 1708-1709, and behind left, pair of “scabellons”, 1684, both lent by Versailles and right, octogonal gaine, before 1686, Fondation Jacquemart André, Abbaye de Chaalis

At 37 and after two years of running Musée Condé in Chantilly, Mathieu Deldicque proves that research and integrity in art history are not only essential but also winning qualities when you organize an exhibition. The André Charles Boulle show that just opened, is a masterpiece of excellence as glittering as the exceptional bronze ornaments set on the royal desks created by the 17 th century cabinetmaker. At a time when all the luxury good companies emphasize the importance of “hand made”, this daring exhibition leads the way to more vocations, and studies of how the leaders of past centuries  expressed their power. Each of the fifty pieces is a work of art lent by the Wallace Collection and the V&A, the Rijksmuseum, châteaux de Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte, Balleroy and Dampierre, Abbaye de Chaalis and Bibliothèque Mazarine, for the suspensions. It is a revelation to see the evolution of all these desks from 1672 to 1720.

Mathieu Deldicque, dirertor of Musée Condé, explains the technique of copper on turtle shell

Born in Paris in 1642, the third child of an ébéniste who had emigrated from Duché de Gueldre (now Holland), André Charles Boulle was noticed at 24 by minister Colbert and given a studio on three floors to work at the Louvre above many artists. His sister was a “marqueteuse”, he  married the grand-daughter of an ébéniste in 1677  and produced 8 children. He invented the decor in copper or brass on turtle shell and is at the origin of commodes and desks as we know them today. He embellished (and protected) the corner of his desks with bronze ornamentations of women’s heads, claws or foliage. I was very struck when I discovered the desks with eight and six feet, which were there to support the heavy bronze sculptures. 

Little flat desk, cir 1700, Chantilly, musée Condé, detail of a rare marqueterie

He is considered as the greatest “ébéniste” in France and had never been exhibited before, except in Frankfurt in 2009 where some dubious pieces were shown. A special effort has been put here on proving the provenance of each object. And this was made possible thanks to different inventories like the 1715 document when he gave his workshop to his four sons and another one in 1720, when the studio burned at the Louvre and very few pieces were saved. The show takes place in the Grands Appartements of the Prince de Condé, which are contemporary to the pieces (1720), with a spectacular staging of the Versailles furniture in the Grande Singerie and the long Galerie des Batailles, where one desk is being shown there for the first time since 1793. The French Revolution saw many Boulle desks flee to England and it is therefore essential that two major British museums lent their pieces.

William Ross, duc and duchesse d’Aumale and their children, 1858, with the precious little flat desk, collection Chateau de Balleroy

The marqueterie is made of many different woods including pine, oak, walnut, cherry wood, ebony, Norwegian and Brazilian wood, as well as Holly and spruce. Besides the King, (his son  the Grand Dauphin is a huge collector) and his immediate family, his clients belong to the highest members of the court like Cardinal de Rohan, Duc d’Orléans and Duchesse de Berry, and foreign kings like Philippe V of Spain.  He furnished the Ménagerie of Versailles for the Duchesse de Bourgogne (who was married to Louis XIV th’s grandson)  and Louis XIV th bedroom at Trianon. After the fire of 1720, he reduced his activities -he was 78- and kept on collecting drawings from French Italian and Northern school artists.

La Galerie des Batailles created in 1720 by Louis Henri de Bourbon, Prime minister of Louis XV, is a superb setting for all these treasures

The catalog conducted by Mathieu Deldicque, is a masterpiece with contributions by great specialists, such as Daniel Alcouffe, Sébastien Evain and William Iselin. It details the importance of Boulle’s training as a sculptor at 24, after twelve years of apprenticeship as cabinetmaker with his father. It also gives precise pictures of how each desk was made. In 1680, he created two cabinets to celebrate the end of the war with Holland, in 1695, he invents a desk with only four feet, suppressing the four interior feet and reinforcing the support. Foliage replaces ladies’heads in 1700. Followed immediately by satyre heads, real treasures in gilt bronze.

Flat desk with six feet, 1710-1715, lent by Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

Château de Chantilly was the ideal venue for this retrospective since the Prince de Condé commissioned many works by Boulle. Mathieu Deldicque chose to exhibit these lavish pieces of furniture against the white and gold wood panelings, and in the Singerie with its colorful decors by Christophe Huet. A charming watercolor and gouache on ivory, shows in 1758,  the Duc d’Aumale, last owner of Chantilly, with his wife and two of his children by the precious desk by Boulle. The painting is lent by Château de Balleroy.

Flat desk commissioned by Prince de Condé, detail) cir. 1720, Chantilly Musée Condé, photo Guillaume Benoit

This exhibition is a must for anyone who is interested in exceptional furniture and it is a great occasion to learn the beauties of 17 th and 18 th century excellence. The superb catalog published by Monelle Hayot (a bargain at 39€), describes the followers of Boulle, his sons who created furniture until the 1750’s and contributed to the exceptional success of  his works at the end of the century. King George IV acquired, in 1770, a large piece of furniture by Pierre Garnier which is directly inspired by Boulle. Madame de Pompadour bought for her brother a copy of Louis XIV th commode. Boulle’s revival furniture was at the center of the decors at the Tuileries Palace in 1840 and Eugène Lami, furnished duc d’Aumale’s Chantilly apartments with Neo Boulle furniture in 1845-1846. Napoléon III also commissioned many Boulle decors. And Emilio Terry conceived between 1929 and 1931 a rococo decor for Charles de Beistegui with a Boulle desk at the same time when Henry Clay Frick and John Pierpont Morgan bought some of his furniture in Great Britain. Photographs from the Wildenstein’s, the Rohtschild’s and Hubert de Givenchy’s houses are very moving.

Bureau à double caisson sur huit pieds, 1690-1695, Domaine de Dampierre, photo Guillaume Benoit

Until October 6, Musée Condé Chantilly. And you can see “Oudrymania” in the drawings gallery, a collection of the Fables de la Fontaine illustrated by Jean Baptiste Oudry and lent by a benefactor of Chantilly, and in the Library a selection of precious books on “Trees and Forests”, which I will write about later.

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