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’s Fairs and International Exhibitions, 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.
When Vuillaume moved his shop to 3 rue de Ternes in 1858, at the age of 60, his intention was not to retire, but to focus his energies on constructing the finest instruments for concert musicians, collectors, and European nobility. 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. He brought this international fame with him to his new workbench in the outskirts of Paris.
He set up his private studio in the attic of his atelier. It was here that he personally finished and varnished all the instruments that were to bear his flamboyant signature. Not satisfied with allowing an instrument of merely competent quality to go forth from his workshop, 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. He took particular pains to ensure his unique varnish recipes and application techniques were not copied by competitors. He not only varnished each and every instrument produced in his atelier, legend has it he stuffed his apron with aromatic herbs to cover up the scent of individual ingredients.
Made in 1873, this violin is one of the last instruments constructed in Vuillaume’s workshop, and the accompanying sales receipt and certificate show it was last sold by the important Parisian firm of Roger & Max Millant in the 1950’s. The scroll is well balanced, always elegant. The turns on the volutes are harmonious and easy, spiraling fluidly toward a softly rounded eye. The purfling is perfectly set with ebony, gracefully framing the instrument. The one-piece back is of a magnificently flamed piece of maple. The top is of a typically wide-grained piece of dense spruce, ideal for a glowing, soaring sonority. Ever the perfectionist, Vuillaume selected all the wood for its’ aesthetic as well as tonal properties. The instrument is modelled on the work of Guarneri Del Gesu and is dressed in a rich golden red varnish with a soft rose colored hue. Like many Vuillaume violins, this nimble instrument is possessed of a powerful response, giving the player total musical control. The tone is nuanced in color and rich in resonance, perfect for a concert violinist or chamber musician.
Article by Raphael Gold
All photographs by Richard Ward