Vernis Martin

With the opening of the Far East to the West in the 18th century, decorative fashions draw their inspiration from Asian crafts.

The forms, the motifs, the subjects are imitated and copied, but the lacques, the formulas of which are jealously guarded by the Asian artisans, escape copying. In order to decorate their creations, French cabinetmakers and craftsmen must make their furniture and then have them exported at great expense in China and especially in Japan in order to make them lacquer. These costly constraints of time (it sometimes takes more than 2 years to go back and forth to paint a piece of furniture!) And money do not favor the expansion of new styles or the full financial health of craftsmen. It is in this particular context that Martin Vernis appears.

This is not the first time cabinetmakers have tried to copy Asian lacquer. As early as Louis XIV, several formulas had been developed but none succeeded in imposing themselves. The fault of too much ignorance of the original compounds and of the necessary natural essences that can not be found in Europe.

Originally from the Faubourg Saint Antoine, the Martin brothers were all master vernissers, specialized in imitation lacquer from China and Japan. They discovered in 1728 a new formula (never totally rediscovered): a fatty varnish, composed of resins based on copal, dissolved in oil and rendered siccative by the addiction of litharge and other elements. They first applied it to the carriages and sedan chairs, and soon to the furniture. Two council judgments (November 27, 1730, and February 18, 1744) gave the Martin brothers the exclusive right to make objects inspired by China and Japan for 20 years.

Various supports for this matter: The Martin brothers, four in number, however were neither inventors nor exclusive practitioners!

Elaborated throughout the seventeenth century and at the beginning of the following century in the workshops of the Parisian vernisseurs, constantly improved, this French lacquer does not represent a single technique but techniques applicable on supports extremely varied: wood, leather, metal , Paper mache, cardboard. In the same way, it was not confined to a single sector of the decorative arts, but was deployed both in furniture and in the decor of woodwork, horse-drawn carriages, small boxes, snuff boxes, cases and other trinkets. The enthusiasm was such that the merchant-mercier knew how to profit by it, offering to their customers, both Parisian and European, objects that thus participated in the elegance of the interiors of this refined century.

This technique also allows the introduction of color which is one of the specificities of French lacquer. Varnish compositions permit a wider range. Henceforth, the black and red backgrounds are replaced by yellow, blue, green, white or gold. By making the technique evolve, the vernissers painters, under the impulse of merchants merciers respond to the tastes of the customers. The iconography gradually moved away from the Asian scenes and landscapes to integrate, to assimilate the art of the painters of then. The works of Greuze, Boucher, Oudry or Vernet are the main sources of inspiration and cover an extremely varied typology of objects.