Louis XIV (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715), known as Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), was a monarch of the House of Bourbon who ruled as King of France and Navarre from 1643 until his death in 1715. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest of any monarch of a major country in European history.
Louis XIV rose to power when he was only five years old. His mother,Queen Anne of Austria, served as regent until he was educated enough to become ruling king. Louis XIV was politically educated by Cardinal Mazarin, who chose the sun for Louis’ emblem. It was King Louis XIV who is referred to as “The Sun King” to this day.
His influential years were marked by revolutionary actions against his mother and political adviser. These actions were referred to as “La Fronde.” Louis XIV disliked Paris immensely and had a great fear and distaste for revolutionaries and those working against the monarchy. This contributed to his decision to later move to Versailles permanently. He married Marie Therese, an Infanta from Spain, solidifying the relationship between France and Spain.
In 1663, two years after assuming absolute power, Louis XIV appointed a supervisor for the royal furniture. In the letter of appointment, the king wrote, “There is nothing that indicates more clearly the magnificence of great princes than their superb palaces and their precious furniture.” With the intention of glorifying the monarchy, Louis XIV embarked on grand building programs that entailed the design and manufacture of splendid sets of furniture. Emulating the lavish tastes of his mentor, Cardinal Mazarin, he acquired or commissioned a dazzling series of seventy-six wood cabinets; some were decorated with lacquer, but many displayed combinations of precious materials such as lapis lazuli, agate, marble, silver, and ivory. (Three of these cabinets are known to have survived: one, somewhat altered, in a Paris museum and a pair in an English private collection.) The king also favored carved and gilded wood furniture and commissioned a broad range of objects in solid silver that included tall candlestands, massive tables, benches and stools, chandeliers, and mirror frames.
Among the foremost cabinetmakers of this period were Pierre Gole, named cabinetmaker to Louis XIV in 1651
and Domenico Cucci (ca. 1635–1704/5), who was employed at the Gobelins manufactory under the direction of Charles Le Brun.
Domenico Cucci (ca. 1635–1704/5), who was employed at the Gobelins manufactory under the direction of Charles Le Brun. André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732), appointed royal cabinetmaker in 1672, specialized at this time in furniture set with wood-marquetry panels of high quality; he was later to work in the metal-marquetry technique (brass or pewter inlaid on tortoiseshell) for which he is best known. Contrast in the treatment of colors and surfaces as well as bold and sometimes exaggerated movement, features of the Baroque style, are characteristic of the furniture produced in these craftmen’s workshops.
The practice of veneering with tortoiseshell, believed to date to the first century B.C. in Rome, underwent a tremendous revival in Europe during the seventeenth century, when the shell of the tropical seagoing turtle was applied to wood surfaces of furniture, where it often served as a ground for inlaid decorative patterns of other showy and sometimes exotic materials. The popularity of tortoiseshell veneer during this period is well illustrated by several pieces in the Museum’s collection.
The tabletop above, designed by Pierre Gole features a combination of tortoiseshell, wood, ebony, and ivory. Reddish-tinted tortoiseshell forms the ground for the brass decoration on a compact desk made for Louis XIV by the relatively unknown Dutch-born cabinetmaker Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (1639–1715)
Oppenordt became a French citizen in 1679 and was named cabinetmaker to Louis XIV in 1684. The engraver and designer Jean Bérain is thought to have collaborated with Oppenordt on the design for the brass ornament on this desk; some of the ornament prints published by Bérain contain motifs that match the shapes of these inlays.
Bérain supplied the designs for a clock case and pedestal featuring exquisite inlay and elaborate gilt-bronze mounts believed to be products of André-Charles Boulle’s workshop. Boulle benefitted from the king’s lifelong patronage and support, and he remains by far the best-known furniture maker of the Louis XIV period. The combination of tortoiseshell and metal inlay exemplified in the Museum’s clock and pedestal was not invented by Boulle, although furniture in this technique is often referred to as Boulle work. The technique seems to have been imported from Italy and was established in France by the mid-1650s.
Working in a large community of painters, sculptors, and artisans housed in workshops under the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, Boulle’s lodgings and workshop were near those of Jean Bérain and the clockmaker Jacques Thuret (died ca. 1738). The three craftsmen were linked by friendship and by blood: Boulle is reputed to have been a relative of Thuret, who was, in turn, Bérain’s son-in-law. It seems quite natural therefore that the three should have collaborated on the creation of the Museum’s clock: Thuret (or possibly his father) produced the movement, Boulle the case and pedestal, following Bérain’s designs for the shapes of the pedestal and many of the gilt-bronze mounts.
Boulle was distinguished from his fellow artisans by a passion for collecting prints and drawings. Boulle was by far the best known cabinetmaker of the Louis XIV period; like the Thurets, he was granted the use of a royal workshop in the Louvre. Boulle lost a number of his possessions ( the losses he suffered in a disastrous studio fire of 1720) of large numbers of such works by the best-known artists of his own and earlier eras. Boulle must have referred to his collection for the design of the ornament on furniture he manufactured, especially for the forms of its gilt-bronze mounts. He is known to have borrowed elements of seventeenth-century sculpture by Michelangelo and the Fleming François Duquesnoy for this purpose, and also to have acquired models for clock figures from contemporary French sculptors.
The rising cost of Louis XIV’s unsuccessful military campaigns, which forced the king to order the destruction of his silver furniture in 1689, caused a drastic retrenchment in his expenditures for the arts. Every aspect of furniture production was affected: restrictions were imposed on the gilding of wall paneling and furniture, and the Gobelins manufactory was closed between 1694 and 1699.
Although Boulle provided quite a few pieces of furniture for the royal household, only two items intended specifically for Louis XIV have been identified: a pair of commodes made between 1708 and 1709 for the king’s bedroom at the Grand Trianon and now exhibited at the Château de Versailles. Boulle’s workshop retained templates for their marquetry decoration and bronze models for their gilt-bronze mounts. (These models are recorded as still among Boulle’s possessions in his inventory of 1732.) His craftsmen were therefore able to repeat the original commission whenever needed. It seems likely that the first workshop replicas were turned out before 1715, since another of Boulle’s inventories drawn up in that year, on the occasion of a transfer of property to his four sons (also cabinetmakers), contains the entry: “three commodes in an unfinished state similar to the king’s commode at the Trianon.”
The workmanship of a Boulle commode is of fabulous quality, exemplified in the casting and chasing of the gilt-bronze winged-sphinx corner mounts. It would appear to belong among the early workshop replicas dating from 1710 to 1715. At that time, the commode was still a relatively new type of furniture that was first produced about 1700 as a combination of a chest and a desk with drawers. Boulle’s original commodes and their copies have been criticized on aesthetic grounds for their awkward treatment of forms, which is particularly obvious in their supporting structures of squat spiral-shaped feet that abut on the inner sides of grandly curving legs. The four low feet might have been added by a practical cabinetmaker. Without them, the ornamental but insubstantial legs could not have supported the weight of the commode, its marble top, and the bronze mounts. In spite of this awkwardness, Boulle’s model was duplicated many times over a period of almost 200 years.
This commode is of the same design and construction as the pair that was made by Boulle for the bedchamber of Louis XIV at the Grand Trianon in 1708. Although this model was copied a number of times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this example appears to be an early version made in Boulle’s own workshop. Appointed to the ébéniste du roi (royal cabinetmaker) in 1672, Boulle did not invent but perfected the marquetry technique of brass and tortoiseshell that has been named for him. So-called Boulle work is created by glueing together sheets of tortoiseshell and brass which are then cut according to the desired design. Once cut, the layers can be combined to form either a tortoiseshell ground inlaid with engraved brass or a brass ground inlaid with tortoiseshell, known as first part and counterpart respectively.
André-Charles Boulle was one of the first cabinetmakers to make effective use of gilt-bronze mounts. The mounts not only protect vulnerable parts of the carcass but also add a great deal of sculptural beauty to the piece. The three-dimensional acanthus-leaf scroll mount on the upper drawer beautifully echoes the two-dimensional design in the brass and tortoiseshell marquetry. Particularly noteworthy are the female figures at the corners, with their feathery matted wings contrasting with their highly burnished faces.
Boulles work was copied for over 200 years and superior quality pieces of the 19th and early 20th Century still command high prices today.
(A word of caution here…poorly made 21st Century reproductions are being sold here in Vancouver as the ‘genuine article’. I assure you they are not. Consult with us, if you plan on purchasing a ‘boulle’ piece in any other store other than ours. Also the old adage applies, “if it’s too good to be true, then it isn’t” Good ‘Boulle’ pieces sell for several thousands of dollars.)
After 72 years on the throne, Louis died of gangrene at Versailles on 1 September 1715, four days before his 77th birthday. Enduring much pain in his last days, he finally “yielded up his soul without any effort, like a candle going out” while reciting the psalm Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (O Lord, make haste to help me). His body was laid to rest in Saint-Denis Basilica outside Paris. It remained there undisturbed for about 80 years until revolutionaries exhumed and destroyed all the remains to be found in the Basilica.
By the time of his death, Louis was predeceased by most of his immediate legitimate family. His last surviving son, the Dauphin, died in 1711. Barely a year later, the Duke of Burgundy, the eldest of the Dauphin’s three sons and then heir to Louis, followed his father. Burgundy’s elder son, Louis, Duke of Brittany, joined them a few weeks later. Thus, on his deathbed, Louis’s heir was his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis, Duke of Anjou, Burgundy’s youngest son.
Louis foresaw a minority and sought to restrict the power of his nephew, Philip II, Duke of Orléans, who, as closest surviving legitimate relative in France, would become the prospective Louis XV’s regent. Accordingly, he created a regency council as Louis XIII did in anticipation of his own minority with some power vested in his illegitimate son, Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, Duke of Maine.
Orléans, however, had Louis’s will annulled by the Parlement of Paris after his death and made himself sole regent. He stripped Maine and his brother, Louis-Alexandre, Count of Toulouse, of the rank of Prince of the Blood, which Louis had granted them, and significantly reduced Maine’s power and privileges.