Vuillaume, photo 1860, Moulin workshop
7 October 1798|
Mirecourt, Vosges, France
19 March 1875 (aged 76)|
Adèle Guesnet (m. 1826)
Vuillaume was born in Mirecourt, where his father and grandfather were luthiers.
Vuillaume moved to Paris in 1818 to work for François Chanot. In 1821, he joined the workshop of Simon Lété, François-Louis Pique's son-in-law, at Rue Pavée St. Sauveur. He became his partner and in 1825 settled in the Rue Croix des Petits-Champs under the name of "Lété et Vuillaume". His first labels are dated 1823.
In 1827, at the height of the Neo-Gothic period, he started to make imitations of old instruments, some copies were undetectable.
In 1827, he won a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition, and in 1828, he started his own business at 46 Rue Croix des Petits-Champs.
His workshop became the most important in Paris and within twenty years, it led Europe. A major factor in his success was his 1855 purchase of 144 instruments made by the Italian masters for 80,000 francs, from the heirs of Luigi Tarisio, an Italian tradesman. These included the Messiah Stradivarius and 24 other Stradivari.
In 1858, in order to avoid Paris customs duty on wood imports, he moved to Rue Pierre Demours near the Ternes, outside Paris. He was at the height of success, having won various gold medals in the competitions of the Paris Universal Exhibitions in 1839, 1844 and 1855; the Council Medal in London in 1851 and, in that same year, the Legion of Honour.
A maker of more than 3,000 instruments--almost all of which are numbered--and a fine tradesman, Vuillaume was also a gifted inventor, as his research in collaboration with the acoustics expert Savart demonstrates. As an innovator, he developed many new instruments and mechanisms, most notably a large viola which he called a "contralto", and the three-string Octobass (1849-51), a huge triple bass standing 3.48 metres high.
He also created the hollow steel bow (particularly appreciated by Charles de Bériot, among others), and the 'self-rehairing' bow. For the latter, the hair purchased in prepared hanks could be inserted by the player in the time it takes to change a string, and was tightened or loosened by a simple mechanism inside the frog. The frog itself was fixed to the stick, and the balance of the bow thus remained constant when the hair stretched with use.
He also designed a round-edged frog mounted to the butt by means of a recessed track, which he encouraged his bowmakers to use; other details of craft, however, make it possible to identify the actual maker of many Vuillaume bows. The bows are stamped, often rather faintly, either "vuillaume à paris" or "j.b. vuillaume".
Other innovations include the insertion of Stanhopes in the eye of the frogs of his bows, a kind of mute (the pédale sourdine) and several machines, including one for manufacturing gut strings of perfectly equal thickness.
Many of the great bow makers of the 19th century collaborated with his workshop. Jean Pierre Marie Persois, Jean Adam, Dominique Peccatte, Nicolas Rémy Maire, François Peccatte, Nicolas Maline, Pierre Simon, François Nicolas Voirin, Charles Peccatte, Charles Claude Husson, Joseph Fonclause, Jean Joseph Martin, and Prosper Colas are among the most celebrated.
Vuillaume was an innovative violin maker and restorer, and a tradesman who traveled all of Europe in search of instruments. Due to this fact, most instruments by the great Italian violin makers passed through his workshop. Vuillaume then made accurate measurements of their dimensions and made copies of them.
He drew his inspiration from two violin makers and their instruments: Antonio Stradivari and his "Le Messie" (Messiah), and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and his "Il Cannone" which belonged to Niccolò Paganini; others such as Maggini, Da Salò and Nicola Amati were also imitated, but to a lesser extent.
Vuillaume made numerous copies of his favorite violin "Le Messie", the more noteworthy among them being:
|#1952||c. 1853||"The Blade", ex-Kägi|
|#2509||c. 1863||It was sold off in auction after J.B.V.'s death.|
|2556||c. 1864||Now to be found in the Musee d'Art in Geneve, with carved boxwood pegs and tail piece-the same which Vuillaume fitted to the original instrument.|
|A fine copy without number||c. 1868, ex-Jules Garcin||After Jules Garcin, it belonged to David Laurie and then belonged to Wurlitzer, and William Lewis and Son of Chicago.|
Vuillaume was able to craft such a perfect replica of "Il Cannone", that upon viewing them side by side, Paganini was unable to tell which was the original. He was able to recognize the master instrument only upon hearing subtle differences in tone during playing.
The copy violin was eventually passed on to Paganini's only student, Camillo Sivori. Sivori owned great violins by Nicolò Amati, Stradivari, and Bergonzi, but the Vuillaume was his favourite. This instrument is now played by soloist Hilary Hahn.
When making these copies, Vuillaume always remained faithful to the essential qualities of the instruments he imitated - their thickness, the choice of the woods, and the shape of the arching. The only differences, always the result of a personal decision, were the colour of the varnish, the height of the ribs or the length of the instruments.
His most beautiful violins were often named after the people who owned them (Caraman de Chimay, Cheremetoff, Doria)
Vuillaume occasionally named his instruments: twelve were named after birds, for example the "Golden Pheasant", "The Thrush" and twelve were named after the apostles such as "St. Joseph" and "Saint Paul". A few others were also named after important biblical characters "The Evangelists" and Millant, in his book on Vuillaume, mentions a "St. Nicholas".
A rare violin by Vuillaume (c. 1874, Paris) showcases inlaid ebony fleur-de-lys designs and is one of the last instruments to come out of Vuillaume's workshop, made a year before his death. Crafted for the famous violin dealer David Laurie, "Label reads: Jean Baptiste Vuillaume a Paris, 3 Rue Demour-Ternes, expres pour mon ami David Laurie, 1874", numbered 2976 and signed on the label. It's a copy of a Nicolò Amati violin originally belonging to Prince Youssoupoff (a Russian aristocrat and pupil of Henri Vieuxtemps). Only six copies were made.
His main contribution to violin-making was his work on varnish. The purfling's joints are often cut on the straight and not on the bias as was traditional, in the middle in the pin. His brand is burnt at a length of 1 cm. There is generally a black dot on the joint of the top under the bridge. He used an external mould. The stop is generally 193 mm long. In this respect he follows to the French 18th-century tradition of a short stop (190 mm), which was traditionally 195 mm long in Italy and even 200 mm long in Germany. The violin's serial number is inscribed in the middle inside the instrument. Its date (only the last two figures) in the upper paraph on the back. His violins of the first period have large edges and his brand was then burnt inside the middle bouts. The varnish varied from orange-red to red. After 1860, his varnish became lighter.
In addition to the above-mentioned bow makers, most 19th-century Parisian violin makers worked in his workshop, including Hippolyte Silvestre, Jean-Joseph Honoré Derazey, Charles Buthod, Charles-Adolphe Maucotel, Télesphore Barbé, Paul Bailly and George Gemünder.
Nestor Audinot, a pupil of Sébastien Vuillaume, himself Jean-Baptiste's nephew, succeeded him in his workshop in 1875. Vuillaume died at the height of his career, widely regarded as the pre-eminent luthier of his day.
The signature is usually followed by a doubly encircled JBV (J&B are joined). Early on, it was doubly encircled JBV. The labels at "Rue Croix Petits Champs" began using the doubly encircled JBV (J&B joined), which remained the same on "3. rue Demours-Ternes" labels. In addition, most specimens have a number associated with them.
What set him apart from the rest is that he was not only an artist without equal, but also a tireless seeker of perfection to whom there was no such thing as failure. It was this driving force which shone through his life and made his work immortal.
The makers of France and the Low Countries more or less followed Italian models, and during the past century there have been many excellent French copyists of Stradivari and Guarnieri; two of the best are noticed under Lupot and Vuillaume: besides these there have been Aldric, G. Chanot the elder, Silvestre, Maucotel, Mennegand, Henry, and Rambaux.-- George Grove, ed., A Dictionary of Music and Musicians
The names of Maucotel, Medard, Mennegand, Silvestre, and Derazay, and above all Vuillaume, must always shed an imperishable lustre upon the little town in the Vosges mountains.-- H. R. Haweis, Old Violins and Violin Lore
In 1775 Paolo contracted to sell these instruments [the 10 remaining from his father's workshop] and other things from his father's shop to Count Cozio di Salabue, one of the most important collectors in history; and although Paolo died before the transaction was concluded, Salabue acquired the instruments. Salabue kept the 'Messiah' until 1827, when he sold it to Luigi Tarisio, a fascinating character who, from small beginnings, built up an important business dealing in violins. However, Tarisio could not bear to part with this instrument. Instead, he made it a favorite topic of conversation, and intrigued dealers on his visits to Paris with accounts of this marvelous 'Salabue' violin, as it was then called, taking care, however, never to bring it with him. One day Tarisio was discoursing to Vuillaume on the merits of this unknown and marvelous instrument, when the violinist Delphin Alard, who was present, exclaimed: 'Then your violin is like the Messiah: one always expects him but he never appears' ('Ah, ça, votre violon est donc comme le Messie; on l'attend toujours, et il ne parait jamais'). Thus the violin was baptized with the name by which it is still known. Tarisio never parted with the violin and not until his death in 1854 had anyone outside Italy seen it. In 1855, Vuillaume was able to acquire it, and it remained with him, also until his death. Vuillaume guarded the 'Messiah' jealously, keeping it in a glass case and allowing no one to examine it. However, he did allow it to be shown at the 1872 Exhibition of Instruments in the South Kensington Museum, and this was its first appearance in England. After Vuillaume's death in 1875, the violin became the property of his two daughters and then of his son-in-law, the violinist Alard. After Alard's death in 1888, his heirs sold the 'Messiah' in 1890 to W.E. Hill and Sons on behalf of a Mr. R. Crawford of Edinburgh for 2,600 British pounds, at that time the largest sum ever paid for a violin.
Vuillaume's ideal, and by constant study and cultivation of his own rare natural powers of observation he acquired such an intimate knowledge and judgement of Stardivari's work in every detail, that he might almost be said to be better acquainted with the maker's instruments than the master himself. Vuillaume soon found the sale of violins, issued as new works without any semblance of antiquity, an unprofitable undertaking and, recognizing the growing demand in all parts of the world for instruments resembling the great works of Cremona, he determined to apply his great skill as a workman, and his extraordinary familiarity with Stradivari's models, to the construction of faithful copies of the greatmaster's works.
This was the foundation of his success, for the modern copies found a ready sale, and orders poured in upon Vuillaume from all parts of the world. These instruments, imitations though they were, had high intrinsic merit; and it is to be remembered that they were copies made from unrivaled models, with fidelity and care such as only a devoted worshipper and a great master of his art could attain. He spared no pains in striving after perfection in the quality of his materials, and he treated the obscure and difficult problem of the varnish (the secret of which, as applied by the old Italian masters, seems to have died with them) with a success which has probably not been equalled by any other maker since their time.
The number of these instruments bearing his name is enormous, upwards of two thousand five hundred being known to exist; and many of them he made throughout with his own hand.... and we have it on the best authority that every instrument was varnished by his own hand."
Jean Baptiste was born in Mirecourt, where he worked until he was 19. He then went to Paris where the influence of François Chanot led him to approach violin making in a scientific manner. This led to his study of acoustics, analyses of varnishes, and to experimentation of various kinds. He won many prizes and achieved recognition as the greatest technical genius of his time, surpassed in French violin making only by Nicolas Lupot.-- Smithsonian Institution
As to the numbering system, for the most part, his instruments were numbered. But the very fine copies especially those of 'Le Messie' Strad, Guarneri Del Gesu 'Canon' and Del Gesu 'David'(which Ferdinand David owned) and Maggini are without Number(s). According to Doring's tabulation (made between 1947 and 1961), Vuillaume made at least 78 instruments between the 1830s and 1874 that he did not recorded by number, that are "outstanding and magnificent.-- Gennady Filimonov, 2007