Fit for a Sun King — a rare masterpiece by Louis XIV’s star cabinetmaker
Christie’s specialist Stéphanie Joachim on a magnificent André-Charles Boulle cabinet from the Aga Khan collection — some 350 years old, and one of only nine known survivals
Soon after Louis XIV assumed power in 1661, he set about making his court the most splendid in Europe, with the help of his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) and his artistic director Charles Le Brun (1619-1690).
Royal craftsmen used ornate materials, magnificent designs and motifs from antiquity to mythologise Louis as the Sun King Apollo.
It was against this backdrop that André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) created this extravagant, 14-drawer cabinet, incorporating an ormulu medallion of Louis XIV in armour, flanked by military trophies, with a radiant sun on its reverse.
Boulle was so famous that the intricate and costly marquetry technique he perfected — primarily using tortoiseshell, pewter and brass, and often accompanied by boldly sculpted gilt bronzes — was subsequently named ‘boulle work’ in his honour.
Here, he also used copper and ivory (for the tiny jasmine flowers), as well as amaranth, padauk, tonka bean, blackthorn, barberry, holly, box, whitebeam, walnut and yew burl — an astonishing rainbow of hues, from white, yellow and orange to purple and black.
‘Such cabinets were the most expensive of Boulle’s works then and are the most sought-after today’ — specialist Stéphanie Joachim
Such cabinets are rare: according to Stéphanie Joachim, a specialist in European Furniture and Works of Art, they were the ‘most expensive of Boulle’s works then and are the most sought-after today’.
Of the nine known to survive, only five are still on their stands as intended, which makes this one — ‘the most important piece in the collection of the Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan’ — a major rediscovery.
After 50 years gracing the couple’s former Geneva home, Château de Bellerive — a property decorated by Henri Samuel (1904-1996) — the remarkable cabinet is offered at Christie’s in Paris on 24 November.
Cabinetmaker to the King
It is thought that Boulle was born on 10 November 1642 to a Protestant cabinetmaker from the Holy Roman Empire, who had settled in Paris and changed his name to Jean Boulle to retain the favour of the increasingly intolerant Catholic regime.
The young André-Charles showed an early aptitude for drawing, engraving, carving and painting, and by 1666 he was a master cabinetmaker — the ‘most skilful of his profession in Paris’, according to Colbert.
On 20 May 1672, Queen Marie-Thérèse duly appointed him cabinetmaker and marquetry expert to the King, simultaneously granting him prestigious lodgings at the Louvre and freedom from the constraints of the guilds.
This meant he could create both marquetry and gilt bronzes in one harmonious work of art.
Boulle continued to work for the next 40 years, drawing inspiration from his vast collection of prints and paintings. (When a fire destroyed his workshop in 1720, the inventory of losses included 48 drawings by Raphael, wax models by Michelangelo and the manuscript journal kept by Rubens in Italy.)
By 1715, when the King died and Boulle handed over his workshop to his four sons, he had furnished the royal household with around 20 rare pieces of furniture, along with gilt bronzes and exquisite marquetry, including inlay parquet flooring and panelling (since dismantled) for the Cabinet du Dauphin at Versailles.
Boulle also took commissions from outside the royal household, gradually building up a body of work that included the ornate coffres de toilette sold for £1.5 million at Christie’s in London in 1994.
A rare survival
The five surviving cabinets on stands may be divided into two groups.
In the two larger cabinets, made between 1675 and 1680, the caryatids that appear to hold up the cabinet are of Hercules and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, whose girdle Hercules was tasked to retrieve.
One of these cabinets, above, sold for £262 and 10 shillings at Christie’s in London in 1948 and is now in the Getty Museum. Its twin, below, is at Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland; according to family tradition, it was gifted to Charles II of England by Louis XIV.
The other three cabinets date from five years earlier, around the time of Boulle’s royal appointment, and include the cabinet in the sale.
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These three cabinets are distinguished by their floral marquetry, a central door adorned with acanthus leaves curling up from mascarons and scallop shells, and caryatids of Ceres (as Summer, with a sheaf of corn) and Bacchus (as Autumn, crowned with vines).
Such termes, or allegorical figures of the seasons, were characteristic of artistic schemes during the Grand Siècle — Le Brun created 16 of them for the perimeter of the Grand Salon of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. In the Aga Khan cabinet, they are lacquered red, although they were originally brown and gold, like their counterparts in Drumlanrig Castle and London’s Wallace Collection.
There is another distinction: although all five cabinets include an ormulu medallion of Louis XIV by Jean Warin (1607-1672), these medallions are only accompanied by royal inscriptions in two of the cabinets — including the Aga Khan cabinet offered at auction.
The inscription on the front of the medallion translates as ‘Louis XIV King of France and Navarre by the Grace of God’, while the sun on its reverse is accompanied by the king’s motto, Nec pluribus impar, 1664. Although the literal translation — ‘Not unequal to many’ — makes little sense, the meaning is clear enough: the power and glory of Louis XIV were equal to none.
This magnificent cabinet was created in his image.
Louis XIV cabinet ‘aux saisons’, by André-Charles Boulle, offered in The Exceptional Sale on 24 November 2020 at Christie’s in Paris