André-Charles Boulle, appointed ébéniste, ciseleur et doreur du Roi in 1672
This magnificent armoire is a masterpiece of André-Charles Boulle, perhaps the greatest of all French cabinet-makers, and superbly represents his extraordinary ability to synthesize beautifully chased sculptural bronzes in an overall iconographic and visual scheme richly dominated by the marquetry to which he gave his name. It belongs to a celebrated series of armoires by Boulle with bronzes depicting Apollo the sun-god and figures emblematic of the seasons, known as the 'Armoires de l'Histoire d'Apollon'.
Born in Paris in 1642, the son of a maître menuisier en ébène, 'Jean Bolt', Boulle himself achieved his maîtrise at a young age in 1666, although it is interesting to note that he also trained as a painter early in his career. His remarkable talents, principally at this stage as a marqueteur, were soon recognized and when in 1672 the apartments at the Louvre of the royal ébéniste Jean Macé became vacant, none other than Colbert, first minister to Louis XIV, recommended him to the king as 'le plus habile de Paris dans son métier', upon which he was appointed Ebéniste, Ciseleur, Doreur et Sculpteur du Roi.
This title reveals how, right from the start of his career (and in direct contravention of guild regulations after the guilds were introduced in 1715), he combined the production of cabinet-work and gilt-bronzes in his workshop, which at one stage included no fewer than six benches for gilding, casting and chasing mounts alone. This resulted in a remarkable degree of artistic unity in his oeuvre, which is probably only rivalled by the greatest cabinet-maker of the end of the ancien régime, Jean-Henri Riesener. It is fascinating to note in this respect that the celebrated Italian baroque sculptor Bernini actually visited Boulle's workshops during a trip to Paris in 1665 and advised him on his designs. Boulle himself was an inveterate collector of drawings, prints and paintings, including works by Raphael and Rubens, many of which provided the sources for his striking classically-inspired bronzes. Boulle's unique ability, aided no doubt by his early training as a painter, was to synthesize all these influences and his own technical virtuosity and innovative designs into an integrated whole.
Although Boulle actually supplied relatively few pieces of furniture directly to the king, the richly allusive, classically-inspired imagery of this sumptuous armoire, centring on Apollo, the sun and poetry deity and leader of the muses, must have been calculated to glorify Louis XIV, the 'roi de soleil' in his role as patron and promoter of the 'gloire' of the Arts of France. The cornice of the stepped 'altar-pedestal' is wreathed with heroic masks of Hercules interspersed with Flora, symbol of fertility, above a bacchic lion's mask within a Venus-shell cartouche, leading to a central pilaster inlaid with pelta-shields, recalling the concept that the arts of peace flourish with the laying aside of arms and armour. The bas-relief panels, inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, celebrate lyric poetry and love's power, and appropriately Apollo's laurel crowns are suspended above them from voluted canopies. On the left, the lyre-bearing deity celebrates his defeat of the satyr Marsyas who had challenged him to a music contest judged by the Muses. On the right, Apollo is depicted pursuing the nymph Daphne, with whom he had fallen in love when banished to earth by Zeus. Daphne, to avoid his amorous advances, transforms herself into a laurel tree, henceforth the symbol of Apollo, and, by extension, artistic achievement. It is the moment of Daphne's transformation, a magical intersection of the human and divine, that is depicted by Boulle, as it had been so memorably by his mentor Bernini in his sculpture in the Villa Borghese, Rome.
The direct inspiration for these relief panels may have come from Boulle's own art collection, as he is known to have possessed an extensive group of drawings of the Metamorphoses by Raphael, while a sketch of Apollo and Daphne, of strikingly similar composition, once attributed to Rubens,a favourite artist of Boulle, is in the Städtishes Kunstmuseum, Duisburg. The bas-reliefs are supported by sunflowered altar pedestals enriched with bacchic ram's masks and lion's paws, all on a marquetry ground wreathed with the sacred vines of Bacchus, while their celestial blue facades of stained horn indicate the sun-deity's realm. Apollo's role as driver of the sun chariot and leader of the seasons is reinforced by the bas relief sides, which depict Flora, the deity of spring and fertility and a bearded, fireside figure emblematic of Winter. These mounts of the seasons are very likely inspired by the garden sculptures carved by Thomas Regnaudin and François Girardon between 1675 and 1687 for the parterre d'eau at Versailles (see P. Hughes, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture, London, 1997, vol. II, p. 824). These twinned themes of the seasons and the sun's progress through the day, are paralleled in the imagery of its pair, formerly in the collection of Hubert de Givenchy, which has frontal bas-relief panels of Aurora and Apollo in their chariots, representing Dawn and Noon, the sun's zenith, while the side panels depict Bacchus and Ceres for Autumn and Summer. Thus throughout, the allusions are to Louis XIV as the centre of being, the Sun, and to his immortality (for which the laurel tree is a symbol) through his patronage of the arts.
THE ARMOIRES DE L'HISTOIRE D'APOLLON
As Jean-Nerée Ronfort has conclusively demonstrated in his exhaustive study of Boulle's armoire's, 'The Armoires de l'Histoire d'Apollon André-Charles Boulle c.1695-1700 and their Unique Place in the Oeuvre of the Master' (published by Phillips New York in their catalogue of Highly Important French and Continental Furniture, 5 December 2001, henceforth referred to as 'Ronfort'), the 'Armoires de l'Histoire d'Apollon' appear relatively early in Boulle's oeuvre. The armoire offered here, together with its pair, formerly in the collection of Hubert de Givenchy, appear to be the editio princeps. The form of the freestanding armoire, which was possibly originated by Boulle, was first developed by him in the 1680's. As demonstrated by Ronfort, the first masterpieces of this form by Boulle are the celebrated pair with central panels of flower-filled vases executed in marquetry of various woods, reminiscent of Monnoyer's still lives, now divided between the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. These armoires already incorporate the concave pediment with masks and the central pilaster inlaid with stylized shields of the example offered here, while the scroll-supported plinth for the vases of flowers recall the platforms supporting the bas-reliefs of the Apollon armoires. A drawing in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris clearly shows the development towards the central motif of a pedestal supported by acanthus-wrapped lion's paws, along with the rosette-filled hinges and the arched base with lion's masks (which would almost certainly have originally featured on the armoire offered here). The right side of the drawing shows the early variant of the flower-filled vase (see Ronfort, p. 56). The lion's paw-supported plinth and bas relief figures emblematic of the seasons also feature on a design from a bas d'armoire in Mariette's Nouveaux Desseins de Meubles et Ouvrages de Bronze et de Marqueterie Inventés et Gravés par André-Charles Boulle of 1707.
The fact that, as Ronfort convincingly argues, the models for the figures emblematic of the Seasons on the armoire offered here and on the Givenchy example differ from those in Mariette's engraving and from all other executed versions of cabinets incorporating the Seasons, while the bas reliefs of Apollo and Aurora on the Givenchy armoire are unique in Boulle's oeuvre, lead to the conclusion that the armoire offered here and the Givenchy example are the original versions of the 'Histoire d'Apollon' series. All the other known examples simplify the iconographic scheme, only utilizing the Daphne and Marsyas bas reliefs, reducing the composition of the facades, and only depicting Autumn and Winter on the sides (see Ronfort, pp. 66-7).
The presence of such rich classical imagery on this armoire and its pair, referring, albeit obliquely, to Louis XIV as the Sun King, might imply a royal commission, although sadly none of Boulle's armoires, of any model, can be traced back to its original patron. Interestingly, two armoires of this form in the Wallace Collection, London, and a further pair formerly in the collections of Prince Demidoff and the Dukes of Westminster, have fleurs de lys cast into the hinges, suggesting a possible royal connection. Ronfort dates this and the Givenchy armoire to circa 1695-1700, which is supported by dendrochronology. It is fascinating to note that in 1698 the first performance of the opera-ballet Apollo and Daphne by Jean-Baptiste Lully fils took place at the château de Fontainebleau, showing that Boulle was responding to the most up-to-date royal fashions. A few years earlier a group of artists, including Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, all of whom had worked for the king, were commissioned circa 1690 by the Duke of Montagu, England's former ambassador to the court of Louis XIV and a committed francophile, to provide the painted decoration for Montagu House, which incorporated panels illustrating scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses including Apollo and Daphne. This indicates again that the story of Apollo, so infused with royal symbolism, was very much au courant at Louis XIV's court in the 1690's (see A. Gruber ed., Classicism and the Baroque in Europe, New York, 1994, p. 184). It is also known that at this time the château de Meudon was being extensively refurbished by the Grand Dauphin, whose apartments at Versailles Boulle had furnished in the 1680's, representing his most important and acclaimed commission from early in his career. Another possibility might be the the château de Sceaux, which at this time passed from the marquise de Seignelay to the duc du Maine, the king's illegitimate son. Colbert had earlier installed a 'Pavillon d'Aurore' at Sceaux, which would have accorded perfectly with the iconography of the armoires. One should certainly not ignore as potential patrons Boulle's other distinguished clients connected to the court, such as the fabulously wealthy banker Pierre Crozat (known simply as 'Crozat le Riche'), Cardinal de Rohan, Philip V of Spain, the duc de Bourbon and the Régent (the duc d'Orléans).
THE OTHER ARMOIRES 'DE L'HISTOIRE D'APOLLON'
The other armoires of this model, all of the second, simplified type identified by Ronfort, are as follows:
-A pair in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, formerly in the collection of A. Wertheimer
-Two of virtually the same model in the Wallace Collection, London (F 61 and F62), one formerly in the collection of the Duke of Buckingham, Stowe, each with fleurs de lys to the hinges
-A pair previously in the collections of Prince Demidoff and the Dukes of Westminster, present whereabouts unknown, with fleurs de lys to the hinges
-one in the British Royal Collection, Windsor Castle
-one exhibited Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Louis XIV, Fastes et Décors, 1960, cat. 50, p. 12 (not illus.), present whereabouts unknown
A LOUIS XIV ORMOLU-MOUNTED EBONY, CUT-BRASS, TORTOISESHELL, BLUE-STAINED HORN AND PEWTER MARQUETRY ARMOIRE 'DE L'HISTOIRE D'APOLLON'**
Inlaid overall in première and contre partie, the concave cornice with flower-filled guilloche moulding above a strapwork frieze with alternating masks of Hercules and Flora, above a central lion's mask and egg-and-dart moulding, each rectangular door divided into three panels, the outer panels with heart-shaped motifs of scrolling arabesques and palmettes, the central largest panel of each door with reentrant corners above a ribbon-suspended scrolling foliate canopy above a bas-relief panel, one depicting Apollo with his harp watching Marsyas being flayed by a Scythian, the other with Apollo pursuing the nymph Daphne, transforming into a tree before her father the river God Peneus, each on a ram's mask and lion's paw-supported plinth, the sides each set with a relief-cast figure, to the left Flora, emblematic of Spring, to the right an old bearded man by a brazier, emblematic of Winter, on an arched base with eight bun feet with gadrooned collars, the interior of the doors with arabesque marquetry in tin on an amaranth ground, with exhibition label to the reverse printed and inscribed in ink 'MINISTERE DE L'EDUCATION NATIONALE/REUNION DES MUSEES NATIONAUX/ORANGERIE DES TUILERIES/EXPOSITION: Le Cabinet d'un Amateur AUTEUR: BOULLE Titre de l'ouvre: L'Armoire Propriétaire: Mme LEBAUDY 57 R. François 1, 8e no de Catalogue', with a Chenue transit label and a further label inscribed in ink 'Lebaudy', inscribed in white chalk to the reverse '5321' twice, and in red chalk 'V' and 'H', minor restorations and replacements, including the ebony central panels of the sides, the shelves and shelf-supports, the later locks of Bramah type and probably English, the two central feet replaced, probably originally with three feet under the central projection, the four outer bun feet probably original, probably originally with lion's mask mounts to the plinth
THE PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Le Cabinet de l'Amateur, 156, no. 213.
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Louis XIV Fastes, et Décors, 1960, no. 49, pp. 11-12.
109 7/8in. (279 cm.) high; 60½in. (154 cm.) wide; 23¼in. (59.5 cm.) deep
E. Molinier, Histoire Générale des Arts Appliqués a L'Industrie, Paris, 1898, vol. III, p.66.
A. Pradère, Les Ebénistes Français de Louis XIV à la Révolution, Paris, 1989, p. 101, no. 8, fig. 46.
P. Fuhring and A. & N. Kugel, L'Armoire 'Au Char d'Apollon' par André-Charles Boulle, Paris, 1994, p. 41.
Madame Pierre Lebaudy, sold Palais Galliéra, Paris, 15 June 1962, lot 51.
Anonymous sale, Palais Galliéra, Paris, 11 June 1965, lot 96.
The Property of a European Private Collector, sold Phillips New York, 5 December 2001, lot 26 ($5,502,500 inc. premium).