Jean Baptiste Vuillaume is widely recognized as one of the finest 19th century luthiers, leaving an indelible mark on the French tradition and influencing generations of violin makers and dealers throughout the musical world. His career is marked by a relentless drive to construct the perfect instrument, combining the classical Italian tradition with contemporary French style. He had access to one of the largest caches of old Italian instruments, which he studied assiduously to recreate the great masterpieces, at an affordable price. He was so successful in fact that he counted among his many prizes at World Fairs and International Exhibitions, as well as the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor in France. Never satisfied to rest upon his laurels, Vuillaume unceasingly strove for superior quality throughout his career, constructing together with his talented staff of luthiers nearly 3,000 superb instruments.
After working in the heart of Paris for 30 years, Vuillaume had fashioned a flourishing business through careful attention to clients of all incomes, brilliant innovations in the craft, and a unique synthesis of contemporary French elegance inspired by the old Italian masterworks of Stradivarius and Guarneri del Gesu. His customers included great musicians like Piatti, Servais, and Paganini, great pedagogues like De Beriot, Savart, and Dancla, and nobility from Spain to Russia. Later generations of musicians who performed on Vuillaumes include such legends as Fritz Kreisler, Eugène Ysaÿe, Isaac Stern, and countless musicians in the world's top orchestras and recording studios.
At his shop at 46 rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs, where he built his reputation and business from 1828-1858, he hired several craftsmen to assist him. Among these workers included some of the best craftsmen of the time: Hippolyte Silvestre, Paul Bailly, and August Gemunder, among others. Despite such expert help, Vuillaume always did the finishing work himself, never letting an instrument leave his atelier without his exacting scrutiny. In this way, he guaranteed that the archings would facilitate the silky power desired by Europe's best musicians, that the scrolls were masterfully conceived and sculpted, that the purfling was perfectly laid- in short that his instruments were up to his highest of standards both tonally and aesthetically.
Made in the early to mid-1850s, this violin was made at the height of his mastery, around the time he was awarded the Legion of Honor (1851), and his last gold medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition (1855). A dynamic Guarneri Del Gesú copy, we can see the strong personality of both makers shine through. The low arching produces a robust, energetic tone, at once dark and brilliant. The f-holes are carved with dramatic flair, emulating the great master. The varnish, dark and luscious, exaggerates the violin's commanding presence. The one piece maple back, which has been restored, is quite attractive. A consummate perfectionist, Vuillaume selected woods for their tonal as well as aesthetic qualities, giving this instrument properties that appeal to every sense and sensibility of the performer. Like many Vuillaume violins, this agile instrument combines a lithe and sensitive response with a glowing, compelling sound, ideal for the expressive virtuoso.
Article by Raphael Gold
All photographs by Richard Ward