Autumn 2012

In the Studio: Peinture en Bois

Study Day
see details below

A New Case Study
on the updated website!
Recent Treatments:

detail from a 19c English
painted cabinet

an 18c gilded frame

an English rosewood

an 18c gilded fauteuil

a Louis XIII armchair

detail of an 18c carved, gilded and painted wall clock

Principal & Senior Conservator
Yuri Yanchyshyn

In the Studio:
Peinture en Bois

Marquetry is often considered the zenith of the cabinetmaker’s art. The ingenuity required to conceive and piece together intricate designs made of various types of wood frequently yields breathtaking results. Unfortunately, objects decorated with marquetry require particular care and are quite susceptible to conservation issues. There is nearly always such an object in the studio for treatment. This, combined with the much anticipated exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens" (October 30, 2012 – January 27, 2013), has led us to reflect on the development and care of this art form.

An Artform Develops

The cutting and arranging of pieces of thin wood to form patterns can be traced back to antiquity, initially in Asia Minor, then spreading throughout the Roman Empire. An early technique, tarsia certosina, used chisels or large shoulder knives to cut locally-available thin woods, which were then set into cavities carved into pieces of solid wood. In 14c Tuscany, tarsia geometrica, featuring geometric designs, was quite popular. Slightly later, the Florentine Renaissance embodied the high point of intarsia. Entire rooms were paneled by intarsiatori, replete with complex renderings in linear perspective and trompe l'oeil, all executed in natural wood colors. An outstanding example of this the Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In time, the demand for ever more sophisticated designs brought forth technical innovations, such as the cutting of a stack of veneers all at once, no longer with a chisel or shoulder knife but with handmade thin bladed saws. After cutting, the veneers were separated and fitted together, forming a continuous design with only the smallest gaps between the pieces (exposed kerf). Materials other than wood were used as well, such as engraved brass, pewter and copper, frequently contrasted with tortoiseshell. This permitted the emphasizing of partye or contre-partye, an outstanding example of which is the image above left. Other materials such as ivory, bone and mother of pearl would have been used for fine details.

The earlier approach of carving cavities in solid wood and inlaying the patterns gave way to gluing the veneers and other materials directly to a prepared panel, permitting much more complex and intricate designs. Marqueters were thus able to follow the lead of fashionable painters – such as Anthony van Dyke and Charles Le Brun – developing magnificent floral designs. The importation of exotic woods from colonial possessions augmented the possibilities, and marqueters began to highlight their floral designs by using dark stains to offset them and by adding vibrancy to the patterns themselves through the use of detail engraving, hot sand to change the colors of elements and even touches of bright color. This style of marquetry became known as peinture en bois, "painting in wood." Later technical innovations included the angled – or "conical" -- sawing of veneer stacks so that all sections fit together with extreme precision, overlapping seamlessly (hidden kerf). A beautiful example of this technique is the floral image on the above right.

Conservation Issues

Modern heating systems pose perhaps the single greatest challenge to the stability of marquetry surfaces. These systems dry out the environment during the winter months, causing the thin marquetry sections to delaminate from the underlying support. This can lead to further damage, as demonstrated by a 19c Boulle-style table recently brought to the studio for treatment. The surface included cut brass and a faux tortoiseshell veneer. A number of brass and veneer sections had partially lifted due to the low relative humidity levels in the residence. Inattentive cleaning compounded the initial problem, bending a section of the cut brass back upon itself and breaking off a small section of the veneer. It is surprisingly easy to inflict damage like this. After we gently reshaped the brass, stabilized all the loose elements and created a replacement for the missing veneer piece, we provided detailed cleaning instructions to guard against future incidents.

Direct sunlight poses another hazard to marquetry surfaces. While it can also promote delamination, the greater danger is that the surface will blanch and lose its vibrancy. An 18c commode was brought to the studio not long ago. One side had been placed very close to a window, and became significantly lighter in color than the rest of the piece. This type of damage is considered irreversible; there is nothing that can be done to re-establish the original coloration, although toned surface coatings are sometimes applied. The next time you visit a furniture exhibition at a museum, notice how carefully the light is controlled in the gallery.

A Conservator's Ethic

Preserving the past is the goal of every conservator. Marquetry poses particular challenges in this regard as its surface is composed of many small pieces of delicate wood veneer and other materials adhered to a solid wooden surface with glue. Our first step must always be to stabilize all the decorative elements, but then we work hard to educate our clients on creating a friendlier environment for their marquetry pieces. We also roll up our sleeves and demonstrate – in great detail – how these precious objects should be cleaned, so they can be preserved for the study and enjoyment of future generations. Please contact us for sensitive treatments of any marquetry objects that may be in your collection.


Study Day: In June of 2012, Yuri Yanchyshyn organized a Study Day for members of the Appraisers Association of America and their guests at the Philip Johnson Brick House, a National Trust for Historic Preservation Site. Such an event is part of our outreach activities, and to invite us to speak to your group - email
Furniture Conservator Yuri Yanchyshyn has worked with wooden objects for over 30 years, from a cabinet-maker’s shop to the laboratories of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Private collectors, museums, architects and designers have all entrusted precious items from the 14th through the 20th centuries to Yuri’s care, and institutions such as Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center invite him to lecture. Yuri holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the California Institute of the Arts and received advanced training from the Amsterdam Academy for Restoration and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.
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Yuri Yanchyshyn