A.-J. Roubo’s L’Art du menuisier on interior woodwork and cabinetmaking in the eighteenth century
Herman den Otter, specialisation Wood and Furniture
The eighteenth-century treatise entitled L’Art du menuisier (Paris, 1769-1775) is widely considered to be the richest source of information on the manufacture of interior woodwork and furniture. The work was intended to be an all-encompassing description of the joiner’s craft, numbering 1316 pages of text and 382 plates. The menuisiers’ guild was made up of interior joiners, coach builders, cabinet makers and trelliswork makers. L’Art du menuisier gives a description of the craft of each of these.
The book is not merely voluminous but was edited in a most sumptuous way; it can be said without exaggeration that the plates are of even higher quality than those in Diderot’s Encyclopédie. The work came to be regarded as something of a Bible within the trade, reflecting the ambition of every joiner. Up until 1930, it was repeatedly being updated and reedited, to be used in contemporary professional practice. It did not become obsolete thanks to the strong focus of french joinery on its glorious eighteenth-century. It seems likely that the high standards of the original work and the fact that much of its content proved its mettle in the course of a century and a half, together made publishers decide to adhere to at least the original title, helped no doubt by the inspiring character of the author, André-Jacob Roubo. My research does not, however, concern the many later editions, but rather the editio princeps, because of its essential role in post-war research into historic production methods in interior woodwork and cabinet making in general, and eighteenth-century french furniture in particular.
Although L’Art du menuisier has furnished historical information to hundreds of publications, it is curious that the work itself nor its author have ever been the subject of serious scientific investigation: in other words, this ‘prime historical source’ has been quoted over and over without its essence, background or reliability ever being looked into. Not knowing its origins and intentions can, however, lead to mistaken interpretation of certain information contained in it.
Quotations from L’Art du menuisier are taken from a relatively limited number of paragraphs, generally without any regard for the structure and internal links within the work. This suggests that researchers who use L’Art du menuisier as a mine for factual data, have little knowledge of the whole. Furthermore, it is clear that the plates are being used frequently with too little or no attention at all being paid to the accompanying text. Not being aware of the fact that some plates illustrate methods that are to be avoided, one is vulnerable to drawing inappropriate conclusions.
This study aims to analyse the structure and content of L’Art du menuisier and surveys the context in which it came into being. Will the work prove to be as essential to our knowledge and interpretation of interior woodwork and furniture as it is generally supposed to be? With the answer to this first question in mind, it needs to be determined what particular role L’Art du menuisier has to play in modern approaches to conservation and restoration.
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