17th century fashion in france
In any review of French decorative art, furniture must inevitably play a major part, and in this article we examine briefly the development of furniture as a major artform in France, during the 17th and 18th centuries. We look at the design of various types of furniture and furnishings, the interior architecture, as well as materials and techniques, plus some of the main designers.
Menuiserie or Ebenisterie
During the 16th century furniture was the province of the menuisier who worked in solid wood. The nearest English equivalent to the term is 'carpenter and joiner', but this is not entirely satisfactory. At this time the technique of inlaying, extremely fashionable in Italy, was in France the province of the menuisier, but when it was replaced by more sophisticated techniques such as veneering and marquetry in the early years of the 17th century, the most skilled menuisiers became known as ebenistes, a term often translated as 'cabinet-maker' which again is not strictly accurate. The menuisier proper continued to be responsible for seat-furniture, table-supports, such furniture as buffets (a kind of cupboard) and armoires (wardrobes) of solid wood, the decorative carved panelling for walls (boiseries), door-cases and overdoor mouldings, and window-cases and shutters. In this he was assisted by wood-carvers, and by painters, varnishers, and gilders.
Ebenistes were so called from the fact that when ebony (ebene) was first introduced into France towards the end of the 16th century it was an exceedingly rare and expensive wood used principally for veneers and inlays. Craftsmen who specialized in this work became known as menuisiers en ebene, later shortened to ebenistes, and since veneering was almost invariably done on case-furniture of one kind or another the ebeniste was necessarily also a cabinet-maker. The term, however, can be applied correctly to any kind of furniture decorated with veneers or marquetry, and with related techniques.
The elaborate mounting and applied decoration of metal, which became especially fashionable towards the end of the 17th century, required yet another category of craftsman - the ciseleurs-fondeurs who cast and finished the mounts, and the doreurs who were responsible for gilding.
French furniture of the period under discussion is commonly referred to either as menuiserie or ebenisterie, and these terms will henceforward be used without further explanation, since to translate them would be needlessly confusing. They are both in use today, and the workshops of these craftsmen are a not uncommon sight in provincial France, even though the ebenistes are rarely as skilful as their forebears.
Type of Decoration: Movable or Immovable
Classification according to position in the decorative scheme, whether fixed or not, is not an entirely new concept. The French word for the furnishings of the house - meubles or movables - is sufficient indication of this, because the notion of movables implies the existence of immovables, apart from the building itself, which is always an immeuble. These immovables have usually been taken to be the boiseries, the door-cases and chimney-pieces, and similar kinds of architectural woodwork. Pierre Verlet, however, has recently drawn attention to the fact that the distinction allows room for a good deal of extension. Console tables supported in front and attached at the back to the boiserie (the console d'applique), the carving of the support matching the remainder of the panelling, were certainly not mobile. The large cupboards called armoires, built-in and forming part of the boiserie, must also be regarded as permanent, even though they were later detached and are sometimes to be found today in the storerooms of the brocanteur seeking the support of a new boiserie. But these are obvious examples. The notion may be taken a good deal further. The independent armoire by its very size and weight is semi-permanent, and if it was originally carved to match a particular boiserie it was even more static in intent, even though it has today been divorced from its original setting. Such movable furniture as the canape (a kind of sofa), often by etiquette and because the framework was carved to match the boiserie, may be regarded as having been fixed in its position, and some fauteuils (armchairs), and even a proportion of the chairs, were destined to occupy a fixed point in relation to the rest of the interior scheme. Plans dating from the 18th century exist showing the exact position of all these pieces of furniture. Verlet has also shown how contemporary terminology recognized the existence of this classification, for instance in the case of certain small tables without a fixed position which were termed ambulantes (strolling).
In these days when the original scheme has been scattered to the winds of heaven - the boiseries in New York, the commodes in Los Angeles, the pier-glasses in Chicago, and the fauteuils perhaps gracing a London flat, it is not always easy to understand how complete was the harmony between all the elements of decoration - fixed, semi-permanent, and movable - in its original form, and this kind of classification is therefore often difficult and the line of demarcation vague. Nevertheless, the distinction is an important one to a proper understanding of the period.
Techniques of Decoration in Wood
The principal methods of decoration in wood during the period under review, apart from wood carving, are marquetry, veneering and parquetry. Veneering on a flat surface is simple enough. Thin sheets of rare wood of good figure are sawn and glued to a carcase of some commoner wood like pine or oak. Little difficulty is presented in veneering the simple curve, but the problem of securing a veneer to a surface which is a section of a sphere or a spheroid - a kind of swelling outline termed bombe - was not solved until towards the end of the Regency.
Marquetry is a more or less elaborate pattern formed from inlays of differently coloured woods. These can be exceedingly complex, and floral and pictorial marquetries decorated some of the finest ebenisterie. The term can also be applied to inlays of different materials, such as the tortoiseshell and brass marquetries associated with the name of Andre-Charles Boulle. Boulle cut them from a sheet of brass and one of tortoiseshell clamped together. These, when separated, gave two sheets of alternating brass and tortoiseshell, the first, in which the tortoiseshell forms the background, being termed premiere partie, and the second, with brass predominating, the contre-partie or deuxieme partie. Marquetries using ebony and ivory carving are also occasionally seen.
Parquetry is decoration with sections of veneer of the same wood but with contrasting grain, the simplest form being the parquetry floor of blocks laid in the so-called herring-bone pattern. Much more complex designs are to be found, however, both as floor decoration and as furniture veneering.
Other ways of decorating furniture include painting, gilding, and varnishing with imitations of Oriental lacquer, as well as the use of bronze mounts, and porcelain. Carved and gilt wood, an especially prominent feature of decoration under Louis Quatorze, hardly calls for explanation. Such work is at its best when seen by candlelight, when it seems incomparably rich in appearance.
The opening of trade with the East and the exploration of the western hemisphere in the 16th and 17th centuries brought many new woods to Europe, and French furniture in general is noted for the decorative use made of these rare and exotic varieties. Among many we notice amboyna (bois d'amboine) from the East Indies, violetwood (bois violet) from South America, rosewood (jalissandre) from Brazil, thuyawood from North Africa, satinwood (bois satine) from the West Indies, acajou (mahogany) from the same region, and tulipwood (bois de rose) from Brazil. Many unusual native woods were employed for particular purposes, such as wild cherry, and limewood. Limewood, because of its softness, even texture, and peculiar suitability for the rendering of detail, was a preferred wood for carving in France as well as in southern Germany, where Gothic sculptors such as Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531) and Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533) created some of the greatest ever altarpieces in lime and other woods.
French Furniture-Makers (Menuisiers/Ebenistes)
Before proceeding to a more detailed consideration of the furniture of the period, it is desirable to glance briefly at a few of the craftsmen who contributed to its evolution and pre-eminence. It is worth remembering that, in terms of its technical quality and harmony with its decorative surroundings, French furniture from the Louis Quatorze (XIV), Louis Quinze (XV) and Louis Seize (XVI) periods represents the finest work of its type in the history of art.
Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732)
Andre-Charles Boulle, ebeniste du Roi, was a man of many skills. The typical brass and tortoiseshell marquetry associated with his name was developed by him from techniques introduced early in the 17th century from Italy and the Low Countries. He can hardly be said to have originated it. So closely has he been identified with this kind of work, however, that it is nearly always called boulle. His earliest furniture was decorated with marquetries of wood, and Verlet comments that Boulle shared with Louis Quatorze (XIV) a taste for magnificence, a somewhat overcharged richness, sumptuous materials, and an almost tyrannical symmetry. The King installed him in the Louvre, which made him independent of the craft guilds, and he soon acquired the reputation of being the most highly skilled craftsman in the Paris of his day. But his fame does not rest only on his skill as an ebeniste. He was a bronzeworker, an engraver, an architect, and also a talented painter in the best tradition of Baroque art. Most of his work was done for the royal palaces or for members of the Court. (For more about fine art of the era, see: Baroque Painting.)
Many of the designs for brass and tortoiseshell marquetry seem to have been based on those of Jean Berain the Elder (1637-1711), although no record exists of contact between the two men. He may, of course, have used Berain's published designs, but it is difficult to conceive that they worked entirely independently when their respective positions at Court are remembered. The fashion in furniture design for which Boulle was largely responsible at the end of the 17th century continued until well into the 19th. He had several sons who followed their father's craft - the ebeniste du Roi Charles-Joseph Boulle, for example, who was the master of J.F.Oeben (1720-63) - and many imitators.
For more about the Baroque style, exemplified by the exquisite grandeur of the Palace of Versailles, see: Baroque Architecture.
Charles Cressent (1685-1768)
Almost equally outstanding was Charles Cressent who was ebeniste to the Regent. His influence was neither so strong nor so persistent, but he worked for many important people - for the Marquis de Marigny (1727-81), the fermier-general Augustin Blondel de Gagny (1695-1776), and the banker Pierre Crozat (1661–1740), for instance. Like Boulle, Cressent was skilled in several crafts, with training in sculpture and bronze casting in which spheres he excelled. He sometimes made his own bronze mounts, and he played an influential part in developing the characteristic disposition of the mounts of the rococo period. One in particular representing a small female head with a plumed head-dress and a lace collar, termed an espagnolette - to be found at the angles of commode stiles and sometimes those of mirror-frames - was often employed by him. During his lifetime three sales were held of his furniture which he seems to have catalogued himself, and it is worth observing the emphasis which he laid on the richness and quality of the bronze mounts, such as 'a commode of the most elegant form adorned with bronzes of extraordinary richness'.
Antoine-Robert Gaudreau (1680-1746)
Working mainly in the style of rococo art Antoine Gaudreau was one of the principal ebenistes to the King from 1726 until his death in 1751, supplying a good deal of furniture to Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, mistress of Louis XV 1745-64. Some of his work was based on the designs of one or other of the Slodtz family. A commode in the Wallace Collection with mounts by Jacques Caffieri (1678–1755), is closely based on a drawing presumed to be by the Slodtz which is in the Bibliotheque Nationale. This commode was once in the new apartments of Versailles begun by Louis Quinze in 1727.
Bernard Van Ryssen Burgh
An ebeniste known formerly only by his initials stamped on furniture, BVRB, has recently been identified as Bernard Van Ryssen Burgh (or Risenburgh). He supplied Madame de Pompadour by way of the Parisian marchand-mercier Lazare Duvaux (1703-58), and from what little is known of him he seems to have become a maitre of the guild in 1736, and to have died or ceased working about 1765. His work, of extremely fine quality, is much sought today, and was usually decorated with floral marquetry or with lacquer.
Lacquer was so often employed for furniture-making during the currency of the rococo style that it is appropriate to discuss it here. Oriental lacquer comes from a tree, the rhus vernicifera, the sap of which hardens on contact with the air, and it was among the earliest imports from the Far East. At first mainly from China, the superior quality of lacquer panels used in decorative forms of Japanese art was soon recognized, and these came to be the more highly valued of the two. The panels came to Europe either singly, or made up into caskets which were broken down for remounting as case-furniture or screens. Demand was so great that the various East India Companies found it impossible to maintain a sufficient supply, and many attempts were made to produce a satisfactory substitute utilizing varnishes of one kind or another. In England John Stalker and George Parker published their Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing in 1688, inquiring, 'What can be more surprising than to have our chambers overlaid with varnish more glossy and reflecting than polished marble?', and the use of the term 'japanning' is sufficient indication of the kind of lacquer most in demand.
The Dutch had produced imitation lacquers before this, and the first record of such manufactures in France goes back almost to the middle of the 17th century, when work of this kind was being done by Louis Le Hongre. In 1692 there is record of three factories in Paris producing imitations of Oriental lacquer, furniture, as well as other items of decorative Chinese art, but it was not until the early years of the 18th century that these began to develop into the chinoiserie so characteristic of the rococo period.
In 1730 two of the brothers Martin, Guillaume and Etienne-Simon, devised a varnish, a considerable improvement on anything known hitherto, which became extremely fashionable under the name of vernis Martin - Martin's varnish. It was widely employed in furniture manufacture, for musical instruments, for the decoration of carriages and sedan chairs, and even for such small objects as etuis and snuff-boxes. The prepared surface, sometimes ornamented in relief, was often painted by artists of repute, or in their styles by journeymen-painters. The technique proved equally applicable to interior decoration. The Petits Cabinets of Louis Quinze (XV) at Versailles where the King retired from the formality of the Court were decorated in this way. The varnish known as Chipolin had a glossy surface almost like a porcelain glaze, or Stalker and Parker's 'polished marble', and it provided a new and colourful way of decorating boiseries especially when painted in the manner of some of the more fashionable French Baroque artists of the day.
Although Madame de Pompadour was fond of lacquer furniture, and paid the Martins 58,000 livres in 1752 for work done at Bellevue, it was a taste which the King did not share with her. Now in the Wallace Collection is a commode which was once in the bed-chamber of Queen Marie Leczinska (1703-68) at Fontainebleau. It was made by Marchand and Gilles Joubert (1689–1775), and is described in the Journal du Garde-Meuble as 'of Chinese lacquer with a black ground and Oriental figures and flowers, the top of brecciated violet marble'. The Queen also patronized the Martins, who supplied her with an encoignure (or corner-cupboard) decorated with imitation lacquer in 1738.
About mid century we see the arrival of the South German craftsmen who were to exert so remarkable an influence during the second half of the 18th century. The first of the great German ebenistes was J.F.Oeben (1720-63), who arrived in Paris in the late 1740s and became a pupil of C.J.Boulle in 1751. He worked for Madame de Pompadour and was appointed an ebeniste du Roi in 1754. Oeben developed the bureau a cylindre, a writing-desk with a semicircular closure at the top, either a slatted roll-top (bureau a lamelles) or a solid section of a cylinder. This was the beginning of a fashion for complicated mechanical furniture fitted with a variety of ingenious devices by which it was made to serve several purposes, such as the combined writing and toilet tables with rising mirrors, and tables with rising backs and falling fronts and concealed drawers. The shutter of Oeben's finest work, the bureau du Roi Louis Quinze, completed in 1769 by the great Jean-Henri Riesener, was so delicately counterpoised that it slid open when the key was turned in the lock. A copy of this desk is in the Wallace Collection together with the bureau du Roi Stanislas somewhat similar in design which was made for Stanislas Leczinski. This, too, may have been started by Oeben, although it bears the stamp of Riesener. Since Stanislas died in 1766 the bureau cannot have been delivered, and it appeared in the Beckford sale of the contents of Fonthill Abbey in 1823, when the catalogue described it as having come from the Garde-Meuble in Paris.
Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806)
One of the later rococo artists, Riesener took over Oeben's workshop after his death in 1763, becoming maitre ebeniste in 1768 and ebeniste du Roi in 1774. During the ten years that followed he received numerous commissions from the Court by which he became extremely wealthy, but the favour with which he was regarded proved ephemeral, largely because of the high prices he charged. He continued to enjoy the patronage of Marie-Antoinette however, even during the early years of the Revolution.
Riesener took the place of Gilles Joubert (1689–1775) as an ebeniste du Roi in the same year as the King died. Joubert's preference for the now outmoded rococo style was a product of his age (he was 84 when he retired) and of the King's love for the style he had done so much to foster. The King's death in 1774, however, removed an influence which might have persuaded even Riesener to remain in some degree faithful to his master's preferences, and for almost the next twenty years he supplied furniture to the royal family of unmatched quality, superbly decorated with marquetry and veneering, and magnificently mounted in gilt-bronze, sometimes perhaps by Pierre Gouthiere (1732–1813), which was more to the taste of Marie-Antoinette than was the relative severity of the neoclassical art of the 1760s. Riesener commonly used legs in the form of gaines which he protected with laurel leaves of gilt-bronze, and his secretaires were given chamfered corners decorated at the top with a console (using the word in its architectural sense) which was also of gilt-bronze.
David Roentgen (1743-1807)
David Roentgen also specialized in mechanical devices of the kind already mentioned, and his furniture was decorated with elaborate pictorial marquetries of dyed woods. His bronzes do not equal those of Riesener for quality. Roentgen's furniture was made in Germany, at Neuwied in the Rhineland, and he enjoyed the patronage of Catherine the Great. Although overshadowed by Riesener in France, he was widely considered elsewhere to be the finest European ebeniste.
Adam Weisweiler (1750-1810)
Adam Weisweiler (fl.1774-1809), whose small and elegant tables sell for such fantastically high prices today, became maitre ebeniste in 1778 after serving an apprenticeship with Roentgen at Neuwied. Much of his furniture was commissioned by the well-known dealer, Daguerre, and lacquer was one of his favourite materials. Despite the statement that he seldom used Sevres porcelain plaques, several small pieces reasonably attributed to him are thus decorated.
Jean-Guillaume Benemann (1750-1814)
Jean-Guillaume Benemann, another German ebeniste, was making furniture for the Court by 1784 and became maitre of the guild in the following year. At first he worked under the supervision of the sculptor Haure, who was employed as an overseer at the Garde-Meuble. Benemann took some of Riesener's trade, but his furniture is pompous, pedestrian in design, and much inferior to that of Riesener in its decoration.
Roger Vandercruse Lacroix (1728–1799)
From the Low Countries came Roger Vandercruse (called La Croix) who employed the initials RVLC as a stamp. He specialized in fine marquetry, especially of Oriental subjects, and like several other ebenistes, he seems to have worked with Gilles Joubert (1689–1775), the latter perhaps manufacturing the frames or providing the designs.
Gilles Joubert (1689-1775)
Among the other more notable native-born ebenistes of the 18th century was Gilles Joubert, already maitre ebeniste during the Regency, who began to work for the King about 1748, succeeding Oeben as ebeniste du Roi in 1763. In consequence of the large number of commissions with which he was entrusted he often worked in collaboration with others.
Jean-Francois Leleu (1729-1807)
Jean-Francois Leleu was apprenticed to Oeben, but left the workshop after his master's death as the result of a violent quarrel with Riesener. Maitre in 1764, Leleu worked for both Madame du Barry (Jeanne Becu, mistress of Louis XV 1769-74) and Marie-Antoinette, as well as for the Prince de Conde at Chantilly. He used Sevres porcelain plaques to ornament his furniture and worked occasionally in the manner of Boulle. He has been credited with the introduction of inlaid brass stringing.
Martin Carlin (1730-85)
Martin Carlin (c.1785) made especial use of Sevres plaques in the ornamentation of furniture, probably working to the orders of either Poirier or Daguerre, both dealers who supplied the Court. He also specialized in lacquer furniture, some perhaps made from dismembered Oriental cabinets, caskets, and screens, which were broken down and refurbished in a more up-to-date style. He is especially noted for the quality of his bronze mounts.
Georges I Jacob (1739-1814)
One of the most influential of the menuisiers engaged in the production of seat-furniture was Georges I Jacob, who flourished between 1765 and 1796. Jacob was a pupil of Louis Delanois (1731-92), and a skilful ebeniste as well. Some of his designs for ebenisterie influenced the later Directoire style, and his Paris workshop was continued after his death by his sons, one of whom became a noted ebeniste of the Empire period under the name of Jacob-Desmalter. Jacob began by designing the new and lighter chairs which mark the early years of the Louis Seize (XVI) style. He was among the first to adopt mahogany for chair-making, and it is probably to him that we owe the introduction of the old Roman sabre leg. Jacob supplied the French Court, and his work is also represented at Windsor.
Jean-Baptiste Sene made chairs for the Queen in association with Haure of the Garde-Meuble, as did J.B.Boulard (1725-89) who also worked on the bed of Louis Seize at Versailles. J.B.Lelarge (1743-1802) became maitre-menuisier in 1775 and worked for the royal family. Michel Gourdin, maitre ebeniste in 1752, also made chairs for the royal chateaux. One made by him in the 1770s, probably for the Prince de Conti (a cadet branch of the family of Bourbon-Conde) who was Grand Prior of the Temple, is in the Wallace Collection. It is still in the Louis Quinze style despite its date.
Ebenistes were inclined to specialize in particular techniques. Such well known names as Bernard Van Risenburgh (c.1710-66), Carlin, Levasseur, Riesener, Topino, and Weisweiler were among the foremost craftsmen to utilize lacquer panels, while Carlin and Riesener both employed porcelain plaques. Roentgen was probably the greatest of the ebenistes to employ such motifs as vases of flowers, urns, and musical instruments executed in marquetry, although these were fashionable and done by others. Topino, maitre of the Guild in 1773, specialized in small furniture, and he employed these motifs to great effect, as well as executing elaborate pictorial marquetries. The Germans, Oeben and Riesener especially, specialized in pieces with secret drawers and ingenious mechanisms which enable an apparently simple piece to serve several purposes.
The number of masters of the Guild of Menuisiers-Ebenistes working in Paris from the time when figures first become known in 1723 to the Revolution fell only a little below a thousand, although not all of them made furniture, some being engaged on boiseries and other forms of architectural woodwork. From 1751 every master of the Guild possessed a stamp with which he was compelled to mark the furniture sold by him, even the pieces he repaired which is sometimes a cause of confusion. Craftsmen who, because they worked for the King or for some other reason, did not belong to the Guild were neither allowed nor required to use a stamp, which is one reason for unstamped Paris furniture of the 18th century.
Furniture Marks and Stamps
Marks on French furniture are of several kinds - those of the ebenistes and menuisiers, marks denoting that the piece was at one time in one of the numerous royal chateaux, and sometimes the monogram of the Guild a joined "ME". The subject is a vast one, and there is insufficient space to pursue it in any kind of detail here. In the first category only the name of the craftsman is usually given, generally in full, but sometimes only initials. Most such names are stamped in a straight line; a few are in circular form. Very few provincial workshops added the name of their town or city, although exceptions include the well-known Hache family of Grenoble, Joseph Oeben (or Open) of Tours, Parmentier of Lyon, and Roentgen of Neuwied. A few stamps are usually informative, such as Ferdinand Schwerdfeger ME Ebeniste, a Paris, 1788.
The marks on pieces made for the royal chateaux, which can occasionally be linked with surviving inventories, were sometimes branded, sometimes painted or stencilled, but rarely struck. The royal mark is usually the fleur-de-lys in conjunction with a crown. Under Louis Quinze this sometimes became the double L monogram under a crown. Bellevue is represented by BV under a crown; Chanteloup is CP, but the name, Chanteloup, is also that of an ebeniste of the Louis Seize period. The mark of Chantilly was a hunting horn, which also appears on porcelain made at the Prince de Conde's factory. Interlaced C's beneath a crown is the mark of Compiegne, and Fontainebleau is represented by an F or FON, sometimes in conjunction with a crown or the fleur-de-lys. GR and F beneath a crown refer to the Garde-Meuble de Fontainebleau, and the Garde-Meuble de la Reine is that of Marie-Antoinette. MLM is the stamp of Malmaison, SC refers to Saint-Cloud, CT or T to the Palais de Trianon, GT to the Grand Trianon, and T beneath a crown, or TH, to the Tuileries, so called because tile-kilns were once situated in the grounds. GM signifies Garde-Meuble, V means Versailles, and MRCV within a shield and under a crown is the mark of the Mobilier Royal of the Chateau de Versailles.
Old French furniture has been extensively forged and reproduced, often very cleverly, and a close study of genuine examples is essential to sound judgement. False stamps are sometimes added, and these cannot be accepted as proof of genuineness except in conjunction with a favourable verdict on all other aspects - style, relationship to other known and accepted works, patina, bronzework, and so forth. When everything agrees a stamp is very desirable, and one of those listed above as indicating its origin in one or other of the royal chateaux an extremely important addition.
Influences on French Furniture Design
Nothing can be created out of nothing. The furnishing of Versailles was stylistically a continuation of what had gone before. It evolved from the many foreign influences which competed for attention. Not the least of the achievements of Louis Quatorze and his talented administration, the designers and artists they employed, was the resolution of these often conflicting currents into one style which could be called truly French.
The revived classicism of Italy came to France at the beginning of the 16th century, but, like the English, French designers were at first inclined to regard ornament as the essence of the new style. Thus we find old Gothic forms tricked out with the new classical motifs. To a considerable extent the dissemination of the new styles was a product of the art of printmaking from engraved copper plates, newly discovered at the beginning of the 16th century. These were particularly employed to delineate the popular grotesques which we can trace in varying forms through the ensuing three centuries. Grotesques, an ornamental form of Roman art discovered in the excavated ruins of Nero's Golden House, inspired Raphael's decorations for the loggia of the Vatican, and they became exceedingly popular with craftsmen in many types of art, first in Italy, and then in the northern countries in conjunction with an angular strap-work derived from the Low Countries.
The French King Francois I brought many Italian artists to France, including Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570), Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), to help with the decoration of Fontainebleau. For details, see: Fontainebleau School (c.1528-1610). Both Catherine de' Medici (1519-89) and Marie de' Medici (1573-1642), as Queens of France, helped to strengthen Italian influence, and both came from a family with a long tradition of art-patronage. During the reigns of Henri IV and Louis Treize (XIII), Flemish influence was also strong, and that of Spain, and even of Portugal, may be traced. Henri IV sent French craftsmen to Holland to study the art of working in ebony, installing them in the Louvre as the first menuisiers en ebene, and Louis Treize brought craftsmen from Germany, Flanders, and Switzerland. There is evidence to suggest that one of the latter, a Swiss named Pierre Boulle, was an ancestor of Andre-Charles Boulle.
It was, however, the craftsmen of Italy who brought many of the techniques later developed in France. The Italians were adept at the art of inlaying in a great variety of materials - stone, ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother-of-pearl - as well as being makers of extremely elaborate marquetries in coloured woods. They employed gold and silver mounts for the cabinets of the day, and they anticipated the brass and tortoise-shell marquetries of Boulle, and his gilt-bronze mounts. See also: Greatest Visual Artists (c.1000-1850).
The fashion for luxurious cabinets in France was the product of their popularity in Italy, while those items imported from Holland are almost indistinguishable from their Italian prototypes, so well did the northern craftsmen assimilate the southern style. Cabinets imported from southern Germany were less Italian in style, but often of superb quality, with locks and similar furniture by the metalworkers of Augsburg.
Neither of the great patrons and art collectors Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis) (1585-1642) nor Cardinal Mazarin (1602–61) attempted to stem the tide of Italian influence, and among the many Italian Baroque artists taken into French royal service at the time were the metalworker Domenico Cucci, and the carver Philippe Caflieri.
The origin of the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne is to be found in an attempt by Henri Quatre to collect the foremost French craftsmen under one roof in the Louvre, but it needed the genius of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683), Louis XIV's finance minister, to organize them on a scale large enough decisively to direct the course of art in France.
Main Types of Antique French Furniture
The principal item of furniture in the 17th century was undoubtedly the cabinet of ebenisterie, often on an elaborate stand made by the menuisier and the carver. It was usually fitted with drawers in an interior closed by two doors. The cabinet itself was more or less richly decorated, often with chiselled silver. For a glance at the cabinets of mid century we may profitably turn to the Inventory of Mazarin's possessions, made in 1653. He possessed no fewer than twenty cabinets, described as having columns of lapis lazuli, jasper, and amethyst outlined with gold, inlays of ivory and tortoiseshell, and mounts of gilt-bronze. Those of the King were even more sumptuous. Cucci was paid 30,000 livres for two for the Louvre. Of another made for Versailles the description mentions the:
covering of jasper, lapis lazuli, and agate, enriched in the front with four figures of heros in gilt-bronze on a lapis ground, in the middle with a portico supported by two columns of lapis with bases and capitals of gilt-bronze, and the Arms of France crowned on the front supported by two gilt-bronze angels also on a lapis ground. In the recess beneath the portico a figure in gilt-bronze of Louis Quatorze seated and carrying in his left hand a shield chiselled with His Majesty's device.
The carved and gilded stand was no less rich, the four legs being in the form of pilasters with an azure ground, and four figures representing the principal rivers of the world.
The cabinet is basically a chest on stand. Related to it are the marriage-chests on stands and the commode. The latter first appears a little before 1690. It means 'convenient' or 'commodious', and it was not only an extremely decorative object, to be placed under a pier-glass between windows, but it was useful for storing the multitude of valuable trifles which the 18th century accumulated.
The term does not seem to have become current immediately. In 1718 we find the duchesse d'Orleans using it in a letter and describing the object for the benefit of her correspondent as 'a large table with two large drawers'. The number of drawers is, in fact, variable, and until a little after mid century the customary arrangement was either two long drawers, or two small ones at the top and two long drawers below. The stiles also form the legs, the feet sometimes being of pied de biche form, i.e. deer's hoof. The stiles are slightly curved in a fashion termed profile en arbalete, from a resemblance to the arbalete or crossbow. There was usually little ground clearance in the case of commodes made before the Regency, the lower apron approaching the floor quite closely, and specimens have survived mounted on a stand (gradin) a few inches in height. A serpentine front is an early feature, but swelling curves to the panels - usually termed bombe - are a Regency innovation at a time when ebenistes first solved the problem of applying veneers to this kind of surface. Some of the commodes designed and made by Boulle were based in form on the antique sarcophagus and are termed en tombeau.
Cupboards (Antique French Armoires)
Boulle's greatest skill as a craftsman and designer was probably lavished on the armoire. The armoire is a large cupboard perhaps once for the storage of arms as the name suggests, but later adapted to the storage of many other things - clothes, silver, porcelain, and so forth. The armoire resisted change rather more than other kinds of furniture. It was made far more often by the menuisier than most case-furniture, and the plainer armoires of the reign of Louis Quinze often echo the style of his predecessor on the throne, even when made in Paris, while the mid-century style still survived sixty years later.
The buffet a deux corps, which dates back to the 16th century, is also a tall cupboard like the armoire, but in two separate parts, one on the other, and the earliest examples are very richly carved, although the decoration became simpler as these massive objects were made for more purely utilitarian purposes. Divorced from its top and surmounted by a marble slab it became the armoire basse, the low armoire, often a meuble a hauteur d'appui, a piece low enough to lean on.
Both the armoire and the buffet a deux corps must, because of their size, be reckoned among the least mobile pieces of furniture, and the armoire was often built into the boiserie, being little more than a pair of doors, solid, glazed, or with a trellisage of brass backed with silk to exclude dust. Provided with shelves for the storage of books, the armoire became a bookcase (armoire-bibliotheque).
There is a danger that we shall think of the armoire as an elaborately decorated cupboard, but the term is equally applicable to the plain specimens of menuiserie in oak or pine which furnished the homes of the bourgeoisie or the less important rooms of palaces.
A development of these two pieces of furniture was the encoignure or corner-cupboard, which first appears in the reign of Louis Quinze in two parts, the top being either open shelves or closed with doors. These have now, all too often, been parted from one another, as have the two parts of the English corner-cupboard, although one sees the lower part fitted out with a marble top as a complete piece of furniture. They were later made in this form. Like the armoire, the encoignure was often built in.
Tables (Antique French Consoles and others)
The basic 'table' takes many forms. Verlet has adduced ample evidence in favour of his contention that the word without qualification was employed only to refer to what we should call the table-top. The distinction between the console table attached to the boiserie (console d'applique) and the table de milieu placed in the centre of the room is an important one.
The most precious part of the console table was undoubtedly its marble top. The carved gilt-wood support, however fine, was considered to be expendable, to be changed in accordance with the dictates of current fashion. Verlet refers to the various sale catalogues of the 18th century which describe 'tables of rare marble on their supports', and tops (or 'tables') were not only of marble, but of jasper, porphyry, onyx, alabaster, polished granite, and mosaic. The same distinction is to be observed in the appropriate entries in Duvaux's account book, and it was current in England at the end of the 17th century.
The marbles themselves were of the most exotic kinds - turquoise blue, Egyptian green, red and brown Italian griotte, antin streaked with red, grey, and violet, portor, black with a veining of grey splashed with golden yellow, and breche d'Alep which was a brecciated marble of grey, black, and yellow pebbles. For the less affluent bourgeoisie there were imitations of marbles, either painted in trompe l'oeil or made from marble chippings embedded in stucco (the Italian scagliola), such as that of Grisel who advertised in the Mercure that he had discovered a composition which imitated all marbles, even to the most precious, so perfectly as to deceive connoisseurs. It would not, of course, be difficult for a skilled workman to recut an old marble top to a more fashionable shape, and this we must assume was done occasionally. (See also: Marble Sculpture.)
During the reign of Louis Seize console tables were rarely attached to the wall, being placed instead on four or more legs, when, strictly, they become side-tables. The term, however, is to be used with care. English side-tables are more often than not serving-tables, whereas the Louis Seize variety were frequently intended to be ornamental, for carrying a clock or a garniture of Sevres porcelain vases.
The dining-table in France until quite late in the 18th century was nearly always of common menuiserie - boards placed on folding trestles such as had been used in the Middle Ages. The expandable table of ebenisterie, into which leaves could be inserted in the English manner, did not come into use until quite late in the 18th century. There were several reasons for this. The trestle-table could be adapted to the seating of a very large number of guests; it could easily be taken down and stored when not in use; and it was large enough, and strong enough, to provide room for the elaborate table-decorations customary during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The art of table-decoration was carefully studied. At first of silver or silver-gilt (vermeil) and later of porcelain, the complete ensemble often took hours to set out. English readers can get an impression of the appearance of an 18th-century banqueting table at Apsley House, where the Duke of Wellington's Portuguese silver table-decoration is set out on a table extending for most of the length of a large salon, but this is a relatively late survival of what was customary in the more exalted 18th-century circles.
In the 18th century the porcelain of Meissen was popular as table-decoration, and many of the small figures modelled by Johann Joachim Kandler (1706-75) - the most important modelleur of the Meissen porcelain manufacture - and his pupil Johann Friedrich Eberlein, in the 1740s, were originally in large sets intended for this purpose, even though they are now treasured singly in cabinets. Meissen porcelain marked KHC (Konigliche Hof Conditorei) testifies to its presence in the cupboards of the Court kitchens and confectioneries, and ultimately on the royal table. These figures were inspired by those made from sugar which decorated Roman banqueting tables in the 17th century, and whether of silver or porcelain they were usually provided with a large centre-piece having a definite theme, with figures contributing to the same theme dotted about among the plates, dishes, and tureens, which they matched in form and ornament. It was also far from unknown for two sets to be used, one for dessert which was laid at a separate table. (For other types of pottery, see: Ceramic art.)
The trestle-table was essential to seat the large number of guests customarily invited to dine with the King on formal occasions. The movement towards greater informality, of which the rococo style is one aspect, perhaps began with the Regent who, like Louis Quinze, was impatient of ceremony, but it was certainly well in evidence after the construction by the King of the Petits Cabinets at Versailles.
Informality marked the 18th century increasingly as the years passed. Rooms became smaller, more intimate, and more varied in their purposes. State occasions were fewer. Louis Quinze observed the retirement ceremony in the State bedchamber, but he slipped out through a side door to his real bed when the courtiers had left, to return the next morning in time for the lever. This may also be seen in the progress towards smaller tables, which multiplied in their variety as the century unfolded. The ambulantes were the equivalent of the occasional tables of 18th-century England, where a similar evolution may be observed in the introduction of the Pembroke table, the tip-up tea-table, and small tables with a tray-top and tripod feet for placing near the chair. In France these small tables evolved in great numbers, usually inspired by the more important of the dealers, such as Poirier and Daguerre. The 17th-century gueridon had been a candlestand with a tray-top, a stem, and a tripod foot. [Note: The first gueridons were in the form of a blackamoor holding aloft a tray; the figure represented a Moor named Gueridon.] The 18th-century piece of furniture termed a gueridon was very different. It was a table, usually circular, quite small, and with a shelf or shelves between the legs. Frequently it was provided with a top of porcelaine de Sevres for tea and coffee cups, such as Carlin made a speciality. A pierced gallery was added to protect the precious Sevres coffee service from being knocked off by a passer-by.
Work-tables were almost infinite in their diversity, and rarely are two alike. They were made to hold the implements for sewing and embroidery. 'Chiffonniere' is a term among many, some of which are obscure, and probably the invention of the dealers of the period. Night-tables or bedside-tables (the table de nuit, the table de chevet for the head of the bed, or the vide-poche into which the pockets were emptied, are some 18th-century terms for them) housed the chamber-pot in the cupboard below which was provided with a marble shelf, while the tray-top carried the candlestick and the requirements for the night. These tables commonly had pierced hand-holes on either side for ease of carrying, since they were stored in the garde-robe during the day.
Also in great diversity were the tables which pandered to the 18th-century passion for gaming, which continued unabated until the Revolution. One of the panels of Huet's Petite Singerie at Chantilly depicts monkeys in the costume of the day playing at cards, but card-tables apart, special tables for all kinds of games - chess, backgammon, roulette, and billiards - were placed wherever company gathered.
Writing Tables (Antique French Bureau)
Belonging to a group of furniture classifiable as a kind of table is the bureau-plat - a large flat writing-table (table a ecrire) with drawers in the frieze. It was first introduced about the beginning of the 17th century, and the name comes from the stuff used to cover it - drap de bure, a sort of drugget. Although it resembles a table, however, the bureau also seems to have been a variety of cabinet, a 17th-century record refers to a 'cabinet ou grand bureau'. The term 'bureau' seems to have been reserved for the more imposing examples with large drawers, while 'table a ecrire' referred only to small tables for this purpose. Thus we find in an inventory of 1677 'a small table in the form of a bureau with five drawers'.
The familiar English desk flanked by pedestals of drawers supporting the top on either side of a knee-hole is comparatively rare in French furniture, although it occurs occasionally. The more usual arrangement in the 18th century was the addition of a cartonnier or serre-papiers, (untranslatable terms for what are essential ornamental racks of pigeonholes and drawers), often to the flat top on one side or the other. These, like the bureau itself, were frequently superb specimens of ebenisterie, whether separate from or integral with the table. The great bureau du Roi Louis Quinze is strictly a bureau-plat on which has been placed an unusually elaborate cartonnier extending over the whole of the upper surface and closed with a cylinder-front.
The true bureau-plat with its cartonnier was immense in size, fit for formal occasions and great houses. It was made for the offices of Ministers and fermiers-generaux. Hardly to be regarded as belonging in the same category is the bureau or secretaire a dos d'ane (the ass's back), with a sloping front, which is also called a bureau a pente, in the 18th century a bureau a dessus brise (with a broken top), and sometimes a secretaire en tombeau. Verlet points out that it is a mistake to call the single desk an ass-back, a term which could only be applied to a back-to-back partner's desk on this plan, with a slope on both sides, but in any case 'a dos d'ane' is a relatively recent dealer's term for such desks. Bureaux of this kind have fall-fronts which rest on two pull-out slides on either side, or are supported on the upper side by two brass pieces shaped like a compass. The place of the cartonnier of the bureau-plat is taken by an arrangement of small drawers and pigeon-holes above the level of the opened writing surface, as in the case of some similar English desks.
At the other end of the scale, testifying to the amount of letter-writing customary before the invention of the telephone, are numerous bureaux made for a variety of purposes, such as the bureau de dame (the lady's desk) for the boudoir, which is sometimes a small dos d'ane on slender legs, or the bonheur du jour, a small flat writing-table with an additional receptacle at the back for papers and oddments, usually drawers or shelves enclosed with doors. Under this frivolous designation the bonheur du jour became increasingly popular during the second half of the century, but seemingly it did not receive its name until about 1770, and it was probably given to it by one of the dealers although there are entries in Duvaux's account book apparently referring to pieces of this kind.
Many pieces of furniture, apparently small tables intended for other purposes, were fitted for writing with pull-out slides which were leather-covered, and a small drawer at the side for ink and pens. Others had a reading-slope incorporated rising from the top and supported at the back with an adjustable stand, with a ledge at the bottom on which the book was placed. In some pieces the whole of the top lifted upwards.
Toilet-tables of ebenisterie often had a writing-slide incorporated, or even a reading-stand, in addition to various compartments for toiletries and the mirror. The top frequently opened in the middle to reveal the mirror which lifted upwards and was held by a stand, and the top folded back on either side to provide access to small compartments fitted with hinged or sliding covers. The interiors of these compartments were lined with satin or padded, and they contained cosmetic pots and jars of silver and Sevres porcelain. This, however, was an almost standard version, of which many variations in shape and size are to be seen. These tables were ambulantes, often on casters, to enable them to be moved from the bedroom to the boudoir, and to the garde-robe when not required. A less elaborate kind of toilet-table, often of menuiserie, was draped with one or other of the decorative materials of the period, with toilet accessories of silver, porcelain, or faience on the top, and an independent mirror which could be removed at will.
Another variety of writing-desk, which developed from the armoire rather than from the table, is the secretaire en abbatant, sometimes called en armoire. In general plan it closely resembles certain walnut bureaux made in England at the beginning of the 18th century, but in France it is an innovation of the reign of Louis Quinze. In its usual form it has a large fall-front which, when let down, uncovers a series of drawers, and provides the writing-surface. The lower part was usually given double doors enclosing shelves (on one of which was placed a strong-box) instead of drawers in the English manner. Often it was provided with a companion piece - the chiffonnier, not to be confused with the chiffonniere which is a work-table. Both these objects, because of the large surface presented by the doors and the fall-front, offered exceptional opportunities for elaborate decoration in marquetry.
A provincial variation is essentially a commode, the top of which was adapted for writing by the addition of pigeon-holes and drawers at the back enclosed by a sloping front, like the dos d'dane, and surmounted by a bookcase with glazed doors, the whole being very similar in appearance to the English bureau-bookcase.
Vitrines (Antique French Glazed Cabinets)
Perhaps the only entirely new development of the Louis Seize period was the vitrine, a glazed cabinet for the display of such trifles as porcelain figures, small items of bronze sculpture, Oriental curios, and bibelots of one kind or another which had formerly found a place on the mantelshelf or on a corner etagere, a tier of shelves which sometimes surmounted a lower encoignure or was attached to the wall. Vitrines, usually simple in design, often have a pierced gallery at the top, another introduction of the period, but more elaborate specimens, Louis Quinze in style, especially those decorated with paintings after Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743) in the sort of varnish associated with the Martins, are of 19th-century date. (See also: French Painting.)
Screens (Antique French Panels)
Screens were the province either of the menuisier, when they are carved and gilded, or of the ebeniste, when they are veneered or of solid polished wood of exceptional quality. In the 17th century draught-screens (paravents) of very large size were sometimes made of incised and coloured Chinese lacquer which gained its name from the port of trans-shipment on the Coromandel coast of India. From years of exposure to light and dust these have now lost their original brilliance, but the rare enclosed cabinets of this kind of lacquer, when finely preserved, are evidence of the colourful appearance of these screens when they were new.
18th-century draught-screens were of many materials, quite often in a frame of ebenisterie, the panels perhaps of silk, embroidered fabrics, Chinese painted paper, or painted lacquer and varnish. In front of the chimney-piece was the firescreen (ecran), which was generally rectangular on a double support at either side. They were often quite elaborate, with sliding panels, and sometimes a shelf in addition for small articles, and even a drawer. The adjustable pole-screen of the English type made its appearance at mid century, and hand-screens were usually of Chinese paper with a turned handle. Chinese paper, termed papier des Indes, was especially popular during the reign of Louis Quinze.
The tendency throughout the century was for screens to follow room design and to become smaller. The great seven-foot twelve-leaved Coromandels of the 17th century were no longer necessary, nor was it possible to house them. Large paravents began to disappear, to be replaced by the ecran, which became more elaborate as its usefulness as an additional piece of furniture became apparent. The firescreen en secretaire, for example, was provided not only with a drawer but with a small shelf and an inkstand.
Types of Wood Used in Furniture
Throughout the 18th century Paris furniture of good quality was usually veneered, whilst much provincial furniture was of solid wood. Provincial pieces are, for this reason, in native woods of one kind or another - oak, walnut, beech, wild cherry, olive, ash, and so forth, while elm was usually reserved for boiseries. Care was taken to select wood with a good figure, and knots and burrs were valued for their decorative effect. Pear wood, which takes dye well, was often stained black, and such wood is termed 'ebonized'. It is met quite frequently in 18th-century records as 'bois noircy'. Until the beginning of that century few imported woods were employed, apart from the much-valued ebony, but the interest in the West Indies, awakened during the Regency, led to the import of mahogany (acajou), which came particularly into the ports of Le Havre and Bordeaux. Provincial furniture from the latter area was often carried out in mahogany and early armoires of solid mahogany are not unknown. By mid century it was relatively common, and Lazare Duvaux delivered several pieces of mahogany furniture to Madame de Pompadour. Soon it had almost replaced walnut for the finest work.
Other woods were imported freely. Satinwood, violetwood, rosewood, tulipwood, and amaranth (which is a variety of mahogany), were among them. The demand for exotic woods suitable for coloured marquetries and veneers rose steadily. For the most part they were needed for marquetries - a field in which the possible range of colours had hitherto been very limited. Violet, green, yellow, red, black, grey, and white became possible, some in a variety of shades, while the decorative possibilities of grain and figuring were also explored. These techniques replaced the combinations of wood with other materials common in the 17th century, and the motifs employed became extremely complex, ranging from the simplest chevron pattern, called point de Hongrie, to panels of elaborate geometric marquetry bordered and outlined with inlaid fillets of contrasting colour, and to coloured pictures in inlaid woods. The latter were the culminating point - floral bouquets, trophies, and even figure and architectural subjects, some of which necessitated the use of dyed woods which have now lost their original colour. Roentgen was the greatest exponent of this kind of marquetry, and he developed a fashion which first appeared soon after mid century. By using smaller pieces of wood he produced pictures in far greater detail than the earlier ebenistes, and by heating the surface and by engraving it he attained a much more varied effect.
Equally colourful, and always expensive, were lacquer panels, both genuine and simulated, and a certain amount of furniture, especially seat-furniture, was always painted and gilded, a fashion more marked towards the end of the century.
During the reign of Louis Seize there are few technical innovations of consequence in the realm of furniture-making. Mahogany was common enough to be used in solid form, especially for chair-frames, and Marie-Antoinette even had the parquetry of her boudoir floor made from it. Brass stringing began to take the place of stringing of inlaid wood, and was probably less expensive.
Beds (Antique French Lits)
If we leave boiseries and architectural woodwork to one side, the menuisier principally devoted himself to seat-furniture, table-supports, and beds.
Almost until the end of the reign of Louis Quatorze the bed-chamber remained the most important room in the house; the salon - the large reception room where the company gathered - did not begin to assume a predominant position until the closing years of the 17th century. The focal point of the bed-chamber was the bed itself, on which even people of modest means often lavished all, or more than all, that they could afford. Financiers, aristocrats, and especially the King, had beds the richness of which has never been surpassed. This was the product of the establishment of the Court in a fixed position. Until well into the 16th century the Court moved about from place to place, from one royal palace to another, at relatively frequent intervals, for the purpose of allowing the King to oversee every part of his dominion, sometimes staying in encampments of large tents and portable buildings. In medieval times one Court official was known as the 'driver of the tapestry sumpter' and was responsible for the movement of the royal tapestry art, which were taken down in one place and rehung in another. Portable beds were still common in the 18th century, both for campaigning and travelling, although few have survived.
At Versailles the finest beds, fixed in their position and awarded a place of honour, were monumental in size and decorated with the greatest elaboration. They were usually provided with four posts (quenouilles), one at each corner, which upheld the canopy. The 17th-century bed was mainly the province of the tapissier instead of the woodcarver as it had been in the 16th century, and the menuisier usually provided little more than a plain framework on which the tapissier could demonstrate his skill. Canopies became increasingly luxurious, and the top of each post was decorated with costly plumes and ornamental pommes or 'apples'. Mazarin's inventories refer to 'four velvet apples to put on top of the posts', while those of Madame's bed towards the end of the century bore 'apples' of gold and silver brocade, with plumes of green, white, and yellow feathers. The plumes were called panaches, from the plume of feathers decorating medieval helmets.
The bed was totally enclosed by ample and sumptuous curtains, and when drawn they left a space between them and the bed itself. Additional to the curtains were the lambrequins, draperies looped upward at intervals or scalloped and fringed, which hung from the frame of the canopy, the curtains being suspended inside the lambrequins on rings sliding on rods. At the back a hanging was permanently suspended, and the bedhead itself was lavishly upholstered. Canopies occur in a variety of forms, attached to all four posts at the top in the case of the bed called a la francaise, at the back only if it was a la duchesse, in the form of a crown if it was an imperiale, d'ange when it was suspended from the ceiling, and a pavilion if it was in the form of a pitched roof. These are but a few of the many terms used to describe canopies, some of which are now obscure.
The bed itself, its mattress and its coverings, provided a suitable subject for the display of luxurious materials of all kinds, both imported and made in France, which included silks, satins, damasks, brocatelle, and delicate passementeries and fringes, like the bed owned by Richelieu of velvet heavily fringed with gold passementerie. Mazarin's bed had curtains of pearl-grey satin embroidered with flowers in scarlet, green, and cream, with a counterpane of the same material, and flowers in scarlet, gold, and silver thread. His State bed was of crimson velvet ornamented with silver flowers alternating with flowers of gold, the curtains of crimson taffeta, and the rest, including the counterpane, fringed with gold and silver, the four posts surmounted by massive silver ornament. The King possessed no fewer than four hundred beds, all more or less sumptuously decorated, and of every conceivable variety, enhanced with scallops and fringes of silk, gold, and silver. Nor was he parsimonious in giving beds to his mistresses. Louise de la Valliere's bed was covered with gold and silver in squares on a crimson ground, with a monogram worked in gold. Less sumptuous beds marked the descent in social scale, but even a simple country gentleman had a bed of violet satin embroidered with small pieces of cloth of gold and bound with silver threads.
From about the middle of the 17th century some of the women of the Court received their guests reclining on a lit de repos, a day-bed, and both Fouquet and Mazarin possessed splendid examples of this kind. They became popular at Versailles, the cushions covered in luxurious materials and the frames of gilded wood. These are perhaps better classified as seat-furniture rather than beds.
By the middle of the 18th century beds had become far less elaborate. They now fell largely into three different categories - a la francaise, a la duchesse, and a la polonaise. The bed a la francaise had a head-board only. The duchesse bed had a canopy attached only at the back, the front part being suspended from the ceiling; the Polish bed usually had three backs, at either end and on one of the long sides, the canopy, where provided, being upheld by iron rods. These beds were primarily intended for an alcove which was increasingly being provided for the purpose, the three walls taking the place of the earlier bed-curtains which were now to be found only in the front. Canopies of great luxury and varied form were still customary, and the head-boards for French and duchesse beds were handsomely decorated. Occurring less frequently were the beds a la turque and a la romaine, but these terms are imprecise and obscure, and it is now difficult to be certain exactly what they meant.
Most of the more exotic names given to beds of the Louis Seize period principally mark differences in the type of canopy and the arrangement of the hangings - such as L'Imperiale (with a crown-shaped canopy), a la Panurge, or a la Militaire. There was also a revival of the four-poster of the Louis Quatorze period, but with fewer drapes, the woodwork as often of ebenisterie as of menuiserie. Legs, now no longer concealed beneath voluminous draperies, were characteristic of the furniture supports of the time. The emphasis on woodwork rather than on textiles is the reason why more beds have survived from this period.
If the bed proper largely remained the province of the tapissier, the day-bed (the lit de repos) was the work of the menuisier and the carver, the tapissier providing the coverings and the cushions in the same way as he did for seat-furniture generally.
The Canape (Antique French Settee)
The canape (which is a basic term for the settee) first appeared in the middle of the 17th century, but seemingly the word first occurs in 1700, in an inventory of the possessions of Andre Le Notre (1613-1700) - the French landscape architect to Louis XIV. (See also other royal Baroque architects like Louis Le Vau [1612-70] and Jules Hardouin Mansart [1646-1708]). The canape probably developed from the banquette (a bench without a back) or the lit de repos, but in effect it is an enlarged armchair made from two or more chairs put together side by side with an arm at either end. At first of considerable length, and more or less fixed in its general design, it became smaller during the reign of Louis Quinze and its varieties multiplied. Some variations were of a relatively minor character to which exotic names were given by the dealers of the day, and these are now often difficult to separate one from the other.
The canape proper nearly always occupied a designated position and was often carved with its frame matching the boiserie, but some of its variations were less fixed, it frequently being placed in a lady's bedchamber at the foot of the bed. Here she reclined to receive her visitors: a habit in keeping with the old Roman style as well as the new style of neoclassical art.
Terms of Turkish derivation are fairly common. The principal one was the sopha, an overstuffed canape which was often of great length. The ottomane (not to be confused with the English 'ottoman') was a sopha the ends of which were usually rounded to form a semicircle (en gondole). Sultane and turquoise are also terms of similar derivation denoting relatively minor differences. The term paphose is seemingly of Greek origin, but even Andre Jacob Roubo a menuisier whose L'Art de Menuisier published between 1769-74 is a primary source of information on the menuiserie of the period, confessed an inability to do more than define it as a kind of unusually ornate sopha. The duchesse was a kind of chaise-longue or bergere with a back at one end only, to which was added a stool (tabouret) with two sidepieces and a footstool with a low footboard called a bout de pied or foot-end, when it became a duchesse brisee. Alternatively it took the form of two bergeres at either end with an intervening leg-rest. The veilleuse was a day-bed large enough for night-time use.
Chairs (Antique French: Louis Quatorze, Quinze, Seize)
The evolution of the chair requires discussion. The strict etiquette governing the positioning of chairs in the 18th century was partly a product of the fact that the woodwork was carved to match the boiserie of a particular room, and the coverings were similar to the fabrics of curtains and portieres, and often the wall-hangings. Occasionally works from the Beauvais or Gobelins tapestry factories were accompanied by matching sets of covers woven for the chairs and canapes, although this was a luxury reserved only for the finest houses.
In the 17th century, however, chairs were not so numerous as in the 18th, and they were, at formal gatherings and even at informal ones, allocated strictly according to social rank. Nor must we omit reference to the kind of chair to which one was entitled. For the greater number of minor Court officials no seating at all was provided. For the lowest rank of those entitled to sit a high stuffed cushion had to serve. Next in order were those whose rank was high enough to be awarded a pliant - a folding stool. Slightly higher in the scale was the tabouret or stool proper, and the banquette or bench on which several people could sit side by side. Next came the chair with a back, and finally the fauteuil with a back and arms, the latter being a very rare honour, the finest specimen always being reserved for the King. Status was also equated with the richness of the chair offered. Invited to sit in the chamber of a nobleman of high rank, a minor country gentleman, a bourgeois, or a poet might be offered a chair with turned rails and a rush seat.
In the Middle Ages the chair without arms did not exist, and even the chair with arms - the chaise a bras - was a great rarity, stools or benches being the rule. The Old French from which 'fauteuil', meaning an armchair, is derived is fauldsteuil - the equivalent of the Old English faldstool, derived from the Old High German, falden, to fold. It once meant a folding-stool or chair similar to the Roman curule chair, of which a seventh-century example is preserved in the Louvre - the chair of Dagobert which has a back and arms added in the twelfth century.
The chair without arms was a by-product of the fashion for the vertugadin or farthingale, a kind of hooped petticoat, in vogue during the last quarter of the 16th century, and the term fauteuil for an armchair did not become current until the second half of the 17th century, when the voluminous wigs of the period necessitated a chair with a modified back, in contrast with the high backs of the old Gothic chairs which were usually of solid wood elaborately carved, the hardness of the seats alleviated by cushions. The chaise a bras had always been a prerogative of the most powerful and influential personages in any assembly, and at Versailles it was reserved for the King and his immediate family. The custom was preserved throughout the reign of Louis Quatorze, a stickler for etiquette and protocol. The fauteuil of this period had a relatively high back, rectangular in form, which was overstuffed like the seat. The frame was of carved wood, usually gilt, and the legs were linked and strengthened by a stretcher (entretoise), either in the form of an H, or, on the finest examples, an X-stretcher, curved and handsomely carved. Covering was of the richest materials, including brocade, satin, damask, velvet, tapestry, the piled fabric of the Savonnerie carpet factory, silk, embroidery, and, on the least important examples, moquette or serge. Leather coverings, usually on chairs influenced by Spanish work, were embossed in imitation of wall-hangings, hammered over an intaglio plate so that the design was imprinted on the surface and ornamented with metal. Rush-seated chairs (a la capucin), popular in the reign of Louis Treize for the less important rooms, were replaced by seats of woven cane during the second half of the century, but they continued in use for rustic interiors.
A departure soon after 1680 was the fauteuil en commodite or en confessional, analogous to the English wing armchair, which was primarily designed for comfort, and exempt from the strict rules governing the use and disposition of the more formal seats. These anticipated the attention to comfort which was to be a feature of 18th-century design.
The 18th century saw the introduction of many new kinds of seat-furniture, much of which had comfort as its principal objective. The bergere, for instance, introduced during the Regency, was an armchair with a deep seat and comfortable upholstery, and cushions on which one could half-recline in luxury, which, with the addition of a stool or stools on which to rest the legs, became something very close to a duchesse brisee. It was sometimes designed on the same principle as the wing-chair, when it became a bergere en confessionnal.
The fauteuil proper, as well as the chair without arms, is divided into two classes - en cabriolet, with a curved back, and a la reine, with a flat back. Of these two, the former was an occasional chair, to be moved at will, and the latter more or less fixed in its position, not merely by custom and etiquette but often by its relationship with the boiserie and the remainder of the furnishings.
Under Louis Quinze the cabriole leg was invariable, and the frame was handsomely carved in the taste of the period, being painted or gilded in addition. The menuisier prepared the frame for the carver, who passed it on to the painter or gilder. Then it went to the upholsterer (tapissier), who delivered it to the customer. The accotoirs (the upright part of the arms) were recessed and curved backwards during the Regency to accommodate the enormous skirts of the period, and the arms themselves were usually padded with manchettes, except in the case of some cabriolets. Desk-chairs were sometimes given a low semicircular back termed en gondole, and the same term is sometimes employed for canapes the ends of which are shaped in a similar fashion, or for bergeres with this kind of back.
Throughout the 18th century the etiquette governing the position of chairs was progressively relaxed - beginning with the Regency and the emphasis on comfort. A contributory factor was the popularity of smaller and more numerous rooms. The large salon lent itself to formal seating arrangements, the chairs a la reine occupying their position against the wall, and those en cabriolet, movable at will, grouped in the centre according to the needs of the company, but this was hardly essential in more intimate apartments.
With the decline of rococo, cabriole legs began to disappear, to be replaced by those which were straight and tapering, often fluted, and sometimes with spiral ornament. The legs terminated at the top in a cube carved with a rosette. Backs were often square or trapezoid in form, frequently of an oval medallion shape, and generally en cabriolet. The accotoirs of early Louis Seize chairs are usually curved backwards, but towards the end of the period they often become straight. A fairly common back, termed a chapeau, has a slightly curved top rail terminating at either end in short, sharp counter-curves just before it joins the two stiles on either side. Other terms include the lyre, with a back in the form of a lyre; the corbeille de vannerie (wicker-basket), also an open splat; and the montgolfiere or balloon shape, testifying to contemporary interest in the ascents of that intrepid aeronaut. Bergeres continued to be popular; the fauteuil en bergere was a comfortable fauteuil somewhat in this form and not so large as the bergere proper.
The emphasis on comfort so noticeable as a feature of the rococo period is no less obvious during the second half of the century, and coverings were of such rare stuffs as silk and velvet of one kind or another, but printed cotton also makes its appearance as an upholstery material. Leather-covered dining-chair seats were stuffed with horsehair, and provincial chairs for the same purpose with rush seats on turned legs are light and well proportioned. The backs are usually a chapeau, and the seat was often given a square cushion tied to the stiles and the front legs with tape. Oak and walnut were commonly used for chairs, and for the first time we meet mahogany (acajou) which became popular under English influence in the case of chairs which are not unlike those designed by Hepplewhite and Sheraton. With some of the more ornate chairs of the period the influence of Louis Quatorze is also apparent.
Carved work drew freely on classical ornament; at first such motifs as the Greek wave-pattern were used as a frieze, and a little later patterns such as the entrelac (interlacing circles), all of them derived from ancient art.
The greater number of mirrors were made by the menuisiers, who prepared them in rough form for the carver and gilder. But frames were not always of wood. Those surrounding the mirrors of the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at Versailles, for instance, are of bronze. From the beginning of the 17th century onwards great ingenuity and the most luxurious materials were lavished on mirror-frames. Mazarin's inventory refers to one of ebony decorated with Augsburg silver pierced in the form of foliage, and there are several contemporary references to German silver mirror-frames from Augsburg being imported into France. Tortoiseshell, ivory, gold, silver, silver-gilt, and all kinds of exotic stones, such as lapis lazuli, ornamented the finest specimens.
Mirror-frames attracted the attention of the ornemanistes. Jean Le Pautre (1618-82), Jean Berain the Elder (1637-1711), and Daniel Marot (1650-1712), to name only three, left many such designs. Boulle made mirror-frames in his characteristic marquetry. Louis Quatorze had nearly five hundred mirrors of all kinds, some of which had frames of gilt-bronze additionally embellished with coloured glass.
The mirrors of the reign of Louis Quatorze are usually rectangular, in a heavy frame finely carved with the motifs of the period. Most have an elaborate cresting, usually foliate, sometimes with figures, and sometimes with trophies. The mouldings of the frame are often multiple, the intervening spaces filled with narrow strips of mirror-glass. Most are gilt, although colour combinations such as crimson and gilt are not unknown. Among the most handsome of these are mirrors in scarlet lacquer frames bordered by carved gilt wood and decorated with chinoiseries in gold. A frame of cartouche shape sometimes occurs in gilt wood.
The fashion for narrow strips of mirror glass inset into the frame itself had not entirely disappeared with the Regency. Regency frames are among the first objects of the period to foreshadow the development of the rococo scrollwork of Louis Quinze, and scallop-shell ornament is fairly common, especially in the form of an agrafe. While still rectangular, some Regency mirrors are both longer and narrower, proportions familiar in the case of English mirrors of the Queen Anne period, and these sometimes have arms terminating in candleholders (bras de lumiere) on either side at the bottom.
The exotic materials of the early years of Louis Quatorze gave place to carved wood before the end of the century, and the lowering of the mantelshelf of the chimney-piece, a fashion perhaps initiated by Robert de Cotte (1656-1735), provided more room for overmantel mirrors. Almost all the 18th-century ornemanistes, from Pineau to Lalonde and Salembier, made designs for mirrors in great variety. The carved wood of the frame was especially adaptable to the motifs and swirling curves of rococo, and some of the finest mirrors belong to this period. Contemporary records refer to mirrors in bronze frames, and one 15 feet by 8 feet was the work of Caffieri. In silver, toilet-sets made for the draped dressing-table were provided with a mirror in a handsomely chiselled silver frame which was often extremely elaborate, but most went to the Mint and few have survived.
Louis Quinze mirrors have asymmetrically carved frames, the cresting forming an agrafe which is usually of characteristic pierced scrollwork, and sometimes formed from a scallop-shell. Often the frame had multiple curves, sometimes restrained but, at the culmination of the rococo style, extremely elaborate, with proliferating C- and S-scrolls and luxuriant acanthus foliage.
At this time mirror-frames of porcelain were being made at Meissen, and they were well known in France where the products of the royal Saxon factory were wildly fashionable. Faience mirror-frames also exist, but neither variety approaches in size those of more conventional materials.
The asymmetry of the mirror-frame was occasionally carried to unusual lengths, the top of the scrolled cresting being distinctly to one side of the centre line. An unusual site for a cartel clock was in the centre of a tall overmantel mirror, about one-third of the way from the top. An 18th-century engraving shows a clock in this position.
Louis Seize mirrors, while returning to symmetry and to the earlier classical motifs, are often in elaborately carved frames, usually crested with an urn or sometimes a trophy, and sometimes with the quiver. The sumptuous independent toilet-mirrors of the Louis Quinze draped menuiserie dressing-table, however, gave way to the new enclosed tables of ebenisterie with a plainly framed mirror concealed beneath the rising flaps of the top.
Although the finest mirror-frames were of carved wood, increasing demand towards the end of the 18th century led to the production of frames ornamented with stucco mouldings, sometimes with free-floating and semi-floating parts supported on stiff iron rods. Convex mirrors were limited in number, and largely regarded as curiosities. They had existed for centuries. The painting known as The Arnolfini Portrait, for instance, by the Flemish master Jan van Eyck, has a mirror of this kind on the wall. An interesting by-path is to be found in the development of burning-mirrors in the 17th century, principally for scientific purposes. These focused the sun's rays, and they generated sufficient heat to melt metals of all kinds. One such mirror was employed in the preliminary experiments which led to the development of Meissen porcelain.
Antique furniture, fine tapestry and other decorative designwork from Versailles, or the age of Louis Quatorze, Louis Quinze or Louis Seize, can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.