In the Studio:
Peinture en Bois
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.
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.
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
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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