Painting in Wood: The Art of Marquetry

9 minute read

imageMarquetry, parquetry, and inlay are three related decorative furniture surface techniques that require immense technical skill and precision. Such craftsmanship results in finished works of astonishing beauty and complexity; it is for this reason that the technique boasts a long history. Read on to discover more about the technical process as well as the fascinating evolution of wood marquetry over the history of furniture-making.

Technique and Terms

Marquetry
Marquetry is a technique for creating imagery or decorative motifs on the surface of furniture. The process entails precisely cutting fine wood veneers of various shades and grain types that are then perfectly pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. In addition to veneering, wood marquetry can integrate or utilize materials such as brass, pewter, tortoiseshell, and ivory. Regardless of the materials in use, it is a standard practice to sandwich the thin layers of background and motif materials together in order for them to be sawed into shape simultaneously. This practice, referred to as “packet cutting” helps to ensure that all slivers of wood will cleanly fit together. The process of cutting layers separately, known as “contour cutting” provides more liberties to carefully orient a wood's grain within a design and sometimes denotes higher quality workmanship.

Inlay
Inlay predates the term for marquetry, and the difference between the two techniques is quite subtle. Inlay refers to furniture in which one primary material has been cut out to receive areas of another material for decorative effect. For instance, a wooden cabinet might contain mother-of-pearl inlay that was cut separately to be laid into the wood. The inlay material may or may not extend three-dimensionally from the surface of the primary material. As a noun, “inlay” refers to the secondary material that embellishes the primary.

Parquetry
A style of inlaid wood decoration comprised of geometric patterns that compose a graphic design, rather than an image. Parquetry is more commonly associated with flooring design, but is also seen and utilized in historic furniture design.

Primary of First-Part Marquetry
In the tradition of Boulle work, which will be addressed below, primary or first-part marquetry refers to the first of two patterns that emerge from “packet cut” marquetry work. The primary or first-part, translated from the French “premiere-partie,” is the design with a light motif on a dark background.

Counterpart Marquetry
Counterpart marquetry, translated from the French “contrapartie,” is the opposite pattern that emerges from a packet cut marquetry project. Rather than disposing of the unutilized materials, marqueters routinely create a pattern of the opposite palette from the primary design. The counterpart design is hence composed of a dark motif or pattern on a light background, in the same form as the first-part.

History

The first-known western example of the marquetry technique dates all the way back to the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus, located in present-day Turkey. Wooden panels utilizing an early version of marquetry were constructed for King Mausolus. King Mausolus is most known for the giant shrine built in his honor - hence the word “mausoleum,” which is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The early marquetry panels, however, were constructed for the King's enjoyment in his palace, and date to approximately 350 BCE.

The next significant development in marquetry's popularity occurs during the Italian Renaissance. At this period of time, the technique of intarsia (inlay) gained traction and was utilized by primarily Italian furniture makers who worked across Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Flanders, and England. The newly invented fret saw blade enabled artisans to cut through multiple layers of cut veneer simultaneously, exploiting the packet cut process. Packet cuts enhanced the ability to perfectly align cuts of various types and shades of veneer, which could be made in decorative patterns and design elements. Improved cutting technology allowed “masters of perspective” to realize scenes of classical architectural vistas or trompe l'oeuil curio cabinets all made from delicate cut veneer. The best-known example of sixteenth century marquetry in the above style hails from the Ducal Palace in Urbino, whose interior walls are lined with impeccable marquetry work.

Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio

In the seventeenth century, Dutch and Flemish furniture makers pervaded the world of European furniture, joining the royal workshops at the Louvre and other notable factories. These ebenistes (cabinet makers) took inspiration from the prominent painting styles of the time period, such as floral still lives. In this period, marquetry was hence often referred to as “peinture-en-bois” or “painting in wood.”

While Flemish and Dutch craftsmanship proved to be influential across Europe during the seventeenth century, it is master French ebeniste Andre-Charles Boulle with whom seventeeth century marquetry is most closely associated. So important that an entire of style of marquetry, “Boulle work,” has taken, and pays homage, to the artisan's elegant, luxurious work.

Boulle work refers to marquetry executed in tortoiseshell or horn with brass or sometimes pewter or copper and composed of scrolling, ornate decorative patterns. The style emerged under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, who hired Andre-Charles Boulle as his “ebeniste du roi” (cabinetmaker to the king), after being referred by Louis XIV's Minister of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who claimed to Boulle be “the most skilled craftsman in his profession.” Given the artisan's utilization of metalwork in his marquetry creations, as well as sophisticated ormoulu mounts that further decorate Boulle furniture, he is also known as “le joailler du meuble” or the furniture jeweler. So influential, Boulle-style work remained popular in France throughout the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

While more understated than its French counterpart, marquetry furniture was equally prevalent in England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, under the crowns of William & Mary and their successor Queen Anne. Natural motifs, particularly floral imagery proved popular in the marquetry of the period. These works contained a variety of veneers, as well a inlaid ivory that was on occasion stained green to depict foliage.

In the eighteenth century, mahogany arrived in France. The desirable species prompted a trend of solid wood furniture with a focus on design and form, rather than surface decoration. Because mahogany was imported from abroad, mahogany furniture from this period became know as “meubles de port” (port furniture). In short, surface decoration including marquetry became less prevalent during the first half of the century. Nonetheless, a renaissance of Boulle, Louix XV, and Louis XVI-style furniture and marquetry would reemerge and remain in production into the future.

The techniques and utilization of marquetry would continue to evolve, featured in some capacity across almost every style and period of furniture, including the Art Nouveau around the turn of the century. World War I ultimately interrupted many forms of creative production, including that of fine furniture. Afterwards and out of the brutality of the War would emerge a new style of furniture and design, that of the Art Deco. Even designers of this more streamlined, geometric movement dipped their toes into the longstanding practice.

Example Works

GOLLE DESK

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The Rothschild Desk Attributed to Pierre Golle

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This masterfully crafted knee-hole desk, or bureau Mazarin, is attributed to Pierre Golle, one of the most important Dutch-born French cabinetmakers of his age. It was once part of the famed Rothschild Collection at Mentmore, said to have been one of the assembled in private hands.

The superb piece is enveloped on all sides with phenomenal marquetry of stained and natural woods. From the scrolling foliage and intertwined strapwork to the theatrical masks, birds, butterflies, and flowering plants, each opulent decorative motif exhibits the utmost artistry and embodies the idea of “peinture en bois.” Today the most splendid and sumptuous specimens by Golle are diminishing in number due to the ravages of time, light exposure, and variations in the atmosphere. This desk, however, has been impeccably cared, retaining its vivid oranges, reds, yellows, and greens throughout.

Formerly under the employ of Cardinal Mazarin, for whom this desk is named, Golle supplied marquetry cabinets to the King and the Grand Dauphin at Versailles and other royal châteaux. He also created a marquetry floor for the Grand Dauphin’s Cabinet Doré, which has since been destroyed, for an incredible 7500 livres. While known for his exceptional compositions in veneer, Golle happens to also be the originator of brass in tortoiseshell marquetry that Boulle went on to perfect.

Through his son Corneille, who emigrated to England in 1685, Golle’s designs influenced Gerrit Jensen who supplied marquetry furniture to the court of William and Mary.

Circa 1680

WILLIAM & MARY SECRETARY

William & Mary Period Marquetry Bureau William & Mary Period Marquetry Bureau

The reign of Queen Mary and her Dutch husband King William III led to an influx of important furniture forms, as simplistic designs gave way to innovative ideas including exotic veneers and inlay decoration. This magnificent, late 17th-century bureau cabinet, elaborately inlaid with ivory and marquetry, certainly satisfied the English burgeoning taste for ornamental furniture. William III imported Dutch craftsmen to England who worked with local cabinetmakers, resulting in more elegantly styled pieces like this bureau cabinet. Studded with ivory jessamine flowers and green-stained ivory leaves, the walnut bureau encloses a fitted interior with a writing surface topped by a mirrored cabinet.

As the 17th century came to a close, secretaries, writing bureaus and bookcases became increasingly popular, an imperative piece in the homes of the wealthy and well-educated. Bureau-cabinets like this became the focal point of the manor, serving as statements of wealth, culture and education. The uniquely designed marquetry and simplicity of this elegant secretary result in a truly remarkable and rare William and Mary piece of writing furniture.

Circa 1695

WILLIAM & MARY MIRROR

Mirror glass was a particular luxury during the latter 17th century, for it was in short supply and, at the time, only produced and exported from Italy. A large example such as this incredibly rare William and Mary mirror would have belonged to a family of great wealth and prestige. Since the process to produce mirrored glass was so costly and labor-intensive, the frames that surrounded these treasured items were important in both function and design. Crafted by cabinet-maker Hugh Granger, this remarkable mirror is distinguished not only by its exceptional cushioned frame, adorned in elaborate marquetry of fruitwood and sycamore, but also by the fact that it is signed by its maker. An exquisite example of 17th century English quality construction and design, this mirror also features its original silvered glass.

Circa 1695

SAGEOUT CABINET

This monumental and magnificent Louis XIV cabinet, or bibliothèque, was created by the distinguished ébéniste Nicolas Sageot and is one of only a handful known to be marked with his stamp. Down to the smallest detail, it is a true tour-de-force of 18th-century French cabinetmaking. Sageot was a contemporary of and highly inspired by the work of Boulle—expressed to stunning effect on the present piece.

An elaborate design of gilded brass and tortoiseshell cut into arabesque and floral motifs results in the cabinet's exquisite finish. The entire façade is adorned with a most luxurious marquetry and ormolu mounts of unprecedented quality. The quality of Sageot's work throughout on such a monumental cabinet is superb - it is quite possibly his crowning achievement.

Nicolas Sageot (1666-1731) is first recorded as working in the Grande Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine in 1698 as an ouvrier libre or free workman and became a member of the cabinetmaker's guild and master eight years later. In 1711, he married Marie Brigitte Roussel, daughter of the ébéniste Jacques Roussel, and operated a thriving workshop that specialized in the production of commodes, armoires and desks. In 1720, he retired unexpectedly at the rather young age of 54, leaving behind a body of work that is comparable only to that of the legendary André-Charles Boulle. He was one of very few ébénistes of his time to occasionally stamp his furniture, and of those few, an even smaller number have ever been identified. His works have been discovered in a handful of museums and royal collections including The Wallace Collection and the Swedish Royal Collection in Stockholm. Stamped “Nicolas Sageot”

Circa 1715

BLAKE COMMODE

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The Royal Boulle Marquetry Commode by Blake

This monumental Boulle commode was crafted by Robert Blake, one of the finest and most important English cabinetmakers of his time. It is modeled after the legendary pair of commodes made for Louis XIV by André-Charles Boulle that is amongst the most famous and esteemed of all treasures now housed at the Palace of Versailles. Constructed of ebony and enveloped on all sides with phenomenal tortoiseshell and doré bronze marquetry and ormolu mounts of undeniable skill and artistry, this commode is the pinnacle of furniture craftsmanship.

The original commodes made by Boulle inspired re-interpretations by history’s most esteemed craftsmen. First created and supplied in 1708 by Boulle for Louis XIV’s bedchamber at Versailles, the original pair was one of only four furnishings deemed worthy enough to be rescued from both destruction and sale after the French Revolution. They were placed in the Bibliothèque Mazarine at the Institut de France, where they became known as the Mazarine Commodes, but have since returned to Versailles.

What sets this commode apart from other Boulle recreations is the presence of the mark of Robert Blake, which is featured behind the front left lion paw. The Blake family of cabinet makers was known for their breathtaking executed Boulle-style marquetry. Blake’s signed works are housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, at which a very similar pair of commodes signed by Blake resides.

Circa 1820

MILLET DESK

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This fabulous and rare bureau à gradin, or tiered desk, was crafted by the highly respected ébéniste Theodore Millet of Paris, founder of the acclaimed Maison Millet firm. Displaying an outstanding rognon, or kidney shape, the desk is decorated on all sides with magnificent rosewood trellis marquetry, and is beautifully enhanced by superbly cast ormolu mounts of the highest caliber. Skillfully crafted in the Louis XV taste, this desk is called tiered due to the five drawers and pigeonhole incorporated into the writing surface. The exceptional artistry displayed in this piece garnered Millet numerous awards throughout his career, including the coveted Grand Prix at the 1900 Paris Exhibition Universelle.

Circa 1885

MEIJI PERIOD CABINET

Japanese Meiji-Period Cabinet Japanese Meiji-Period Cabinet

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This exquisite Japanese hardwood shodana, or book cabinet is a masterpiece of Meiji-period artistry. Crafted of either zelkova or paulownia wood, the piece is embellished with inlaid gilt bronze, ivory, and mother0of-pearl scenes in the outstanding Shibayama manner.

Circa 1900

Sources:

Bowett, Adam. "The English Mahogany Trade 1700-1793." PhD diss., Thesis (Ph. D.), 1996. http://collections.crest.ac.uk/9639/1/361085.pdf.

"Commode, Ca. 1710–20." Metmuseum.org. Accessed May 1, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/206990.

Jean Boulle Group. "Boulle's Life - ANDRE-CHARLES BOULLE." ANDRE. Accessed May 1, 2019. https://www.andrecharlesboulle.com/boulles-life/.

Meyer, Daniel, Pierre Arizzoli-Clémentel, and Jean-Jacques Aillagon. Versailles: Furniture of the Royal Palace: 17th and 18th Centuries. Dijon: Éd. Faton, 2002.

"Pierre Golle (French, about 1620 - 1684, Master before 1656) (Getty Museum)." The J. Paul Getty. Accessed May 1, 2019. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1099/pierre-golle-french-about-1620-1684-master-before-1656/.

Ramond, Pierre. Masterpieces of Marquetry. Translated by Brian Considine. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.

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