François-Louis Pique, part 2

Pique’s mature work shows how he adapted his style to satisfy the new craze for Stradivari instruments in Paris

By Sylvette Milliot July 26, 2017

In part 1 we discussed the early career of this Parisian luthier, who lived in a politically troubled era under three different successive regimes: the Revolution, the Empire and the Restoration. But he also worked at a time during which French lutherie was completely transformed, as we shall see.

At the beginning of the 19th century we find Pique in a very different situation. A few years after his marriage he had become a father to two little girls: Agnes was born in 1793; Sophie the following year. A decade later, in 1805, a son was born, Louis, who was to be his expected successor. As a father of three aged 47, Pique worked hard producing a steady flow of instruments and, presumably judging it useful to have some spare money, sold two of his properties. Then follows silence for a few years.

Pique’s signature on a letter from 1802 referring to an Andrea Guarneri violin

We rediscover him on March 13, 1813, when his younger daughter, Sophie, married a certain Sébastien Arnould Meysenberg. This fact is not without importance, because Meysenberg was the son of a piano maker, himself a piano teacher, and was to found a printing house that allowed him some independence. This therefore broadened the circle in which Pique moved.

By 1818 Pique had turned 60. At this point he decided to retire to a country house he had purchased a few years earlier in Charenton Saint Maurice, on the banks of the River Marne. His family having grown up, he had the two small original pavilions replaced by a two-storey house, then moved his furniture there. He converted the ground floor into a salon de réception with many tables for playing dames, trictrac, bouillon and dominos, reflecting the passion of the time for board games. He also worked on the two-hectare land around his estate, creating a pleasure garden, lined with orange and laurel trees in green-painted wooden boxes, then a vegetable garden with fruit trees and vines.

Pique’s signature inside a violin and labels from 1793 and 1806 showing his different addresses

In 1822 Pique’s elder daughter, Agnes, married Nicolas Antoine Lété, an instrument seller who had started out by doing what was called in his native city of Mirecourt, ‘the commerce of the islands’, which is to say he sold diverse merchandise including wood, instruments, lace and souvenirs from Lorraine, to Havana and the Antilles. He had moved to Paris in 1821 and opened a shop there selling instruments, strings and other items. In one advert in a business almanac from the 1820s he described himself as ‘Picq’s successor’ (Pique’s son, Louis, had chosen to become a magistrate with the Seine court of law rather than taking up violin making as a profession).

But sickness was catching up. Just a few months after Agnes’s wedding, Pique was unable to sign a document concerning the sale of a property, due to the loss of use of his right arm, which had also forced him to ask the notary to visit him at home with the documentation. Ten days later, on October 25, 1822, he was dead.

François-Louis Pique violin, Paris, 1809. Photo: Pierre Caradot

Let us now turn to the instruments Pique produced in the last part of his life. As we saw in part 1, he appears to have been seduced by the power and sound quality of Italian instruments. These came with a high price tag and were unattainable to musicians with limited means. But when Italian artists such as Viotti played them at the Concert Spirituel in Paris, the admiration of the audience for their sound was such that everyone demanded similar models from the French makers.

To satisfy this demand, Pique had to modify the structure of his instruments and take extra care over their finish. Accordingly, he lowered his tables’ archings and adjusted his corners, first narrowing then shortening them, thereby conferring a stronger appearance to his instruments. Finally, he changed the texture and the color of his varnish, which becomes thicker and redder on a yellow ground often outlined by a darker purfling, similar to that often seen in Italy.

One exceptional model from 1810 bears particularly refined decorative work showing a country-life scene in the style of the 18th-century French artist Antoine Watteau, who painted the main subjects from the Italian commedia dell’arte. In the foreground Pierrot and Colombine are dancing; to the left Arlequin and Polichinelle are frolicking. Faintly in the background on the right a violinist and a cellist are playing. By contrast the motif painted on the ribs, showing crowns of laurel and acanthe leaves, appears to date from the era of the First Empire. Could these two different styles of decoration indicate that the violin was started at the end of the 18th century and finished in 1810? No documents have proven it so far!

Sylvette Milliot is an expert in French lutherie. This article is adapted from material published in her recent book ‘Nicolas Lupot, Ses Contemporains et Ses Successeurs’.

Text translated by Marie Turini-Viard.

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