The Louis XIV Furniture Style
The style of Louis XIV may be divided into three phases which essentially correspond to the three periods in the life of the monarch.
The early phase under Cardinal Mazarin, 1643-1661, was dominated by Italian Baroque influence.
During the second phase, under Louis XIV's personal rule, the foreign elements were eliminated or transformed and the Louis XIV furniture style was unified. It reached its perfect maturity around 1685-1690.
The last phase and decline became evident after 1690. In the final years of the 17th century a new style, known as the Regence, began to develop considerably before the death of Louis XIV.
Although Louis XIV furniture affected public taste to some extent in the second half of the 17th century, it was never in a general manner adopted throughout France. Louis XIV furniture was too elaborate and costly to be found in the homes of the middle class. It is true that the principles of design identified with the Louis XIV furniture were also found in a simplified form in some cabinetwork of a plainer variety. However, the sumptuous interiors and the elegant cabinetwork so characteristic of the Louis XIV style were confined to the royal palaces (see Palace of Versailles) and to the splendid mansions of the aristocracy located in and around Paris.
Essentially Louis XIV furniture was rectilinear in form, although curved lines were frequently found even before the style reflected the influence of the incoming Regence.
Curved lines appeared in the Baroque scrolls employed on the legs and stretchers of chairs and tables. The Louis XIV style curve was firm and brief .
In all probability the finest pieces of furniture executed in the Louis XIV style harmoniously combined the straight line and the curved line. This was evident in the console tables with their oblong tops and richly carved scrolled legs, and in the tall rectangular armchairs with scrolled arms and scrolled legs and matching stretchers.
The quadrangular tapering pillar leg with a bold capital was typical of the era. The leg of cabriole form terminating in a cloven hoof foot also appeared before the end of the 17th century.
The practice of turning as a decorative process was largely eclipsed by the more elaborate methods during the Louis XIV style. However, turning was often employed on the legs of chairs and tables. When the legs of the chairs were turned the arm posts and stretchers were generally finished in a similar manner. Baluster-turned members were quite popular, while spirally turned members were relatively few.
Among the principal woods used in Louis XIV furniture were ebony, walnut, oak, beech wood and various woods employed in marquetry work, such as box, almond, holly and pear wood.
Ebony was extensively used for the magnificent court furniture and a typical characteristic of the Louis XIV style. Much of the finest furniture made by Boulle and his numerous imitators was of ebony and carved gilt wood.
The richly carved and gilded furniture, such as the chairs, settees and console tables, was also made from different semi-hard or soft woods.
The use of walnut and oak was restricted to a greater or less extent to large panelled pieces of cabinetwork, such as cupboards and other pieces of a similar nature. Chairs and tables, generally of a plainer variety with turned members, were also made of walnut as were most veneered cabinetwork.
Quite a few plain, inexpensive light chairs were made of beech wood or wild cherry and were finished in a lacquer varnish.
Oriental lacquer with rich and strong colorful decoration, were greatly admired by Louis XIV and there was a great demand in France for lacquered cabinets and for lacquered panels for screens. Because of this vogue for lacquered wares, workshops were allocated in the Gobelins to improve this medium of decoration. Later, in the following century, French lacquer achieved a remarkable standard of excellence.
As a result of a genuine enthusiasm for Chinese art, a remarkable phenomenon of European chinoiseries was developed. These chinoiseries, with their fantastic compositions depicting an imaginary world of pseudo-Chinese figures and scenes, first appeared mingled with Baroque ornament around the end of the 17th century.
Jean Berain was particularly instrumental in developing the early phase of chinoiseries in France, where they became fashionable as a decoration on lacquered woodwork, furniture, silver, wallpaper, porcelain and cotton and linen textiles. Cabinetwork displaying this style of ornament is considered to be in the style of the Regence, which was essentially a transitional style between the Louis XIV and the Louis XV.
The marquetry of brass and tortoise shell combined with magnificent bronze appliques was regarded as the supreme artistic expression of Louis XIV furniture.
The marquetry of various colored woods was also employed, but to a much lesser extent, to decorate the surface of furniture. Much of this work was inspired by the contemporary Dutch floral marquetry, with tulips and anemones being fashionable floral motifs. In order to gain a greater variety of colors the different woods were often shaded and tinted. As a rule the shading was done by means of a hot iron while the tinting was done by chemical washes. Occasionally in this marquetry of various colored woods, other materials such as ivory, different kinds of metals and tortoise shell were used to provide additional color and contrast.
Carving was undoubtedly one of the favorite methods for decorating the surface of furniture. Profusely carved gilt-wood furniture was a marked feature of the Louis XIV style.
Applied mounts of bronze doré were employed on all the various kinds of marquetry and inlaid furniture and were veritable works of art. Female masks, winged masks, acanthus foliage, heads of sphinxes and satyrs were all included among the fashionable motifs modeled in gilded bronze.
The practice of gilding furniture was freely employed. Richly carved chairs, canapés and tables in the royal suites were generally entirely gilded. The carved ornament on painted furniture was usually picked out in gilt in order to give it a rich and brilliant effect.
Panels and Moldings
Panelling was found on walnut and oak cupboards and on other similar articles of furniture. Rectangular panelling was the most common, and occasionally the four corners were hollowed out.
A typical form of panelling during the Louis XIV style retained its four right angles, with the center portion of the upper line changed to a semicircle. Sometimes the bottom line was rounded in a similar manner. In addition to the rectangular panels, circular and oval panels were also employed.
The subdivision of panels and the use of moldings on cupboard doors were often most effective. The moldings used on Louis XIV furniture were always emphatic and strong. Unfortunately they were sometimes complicated and heavy, such as the heavily molded and projecting cornices found on cupboards. The moldings which often used on the arms and legs of chairs were characterized by their suppleness and refined proportions.
Marble and Mosaic
A pronounced feature of Louis XIV furniture was the use of rare and richly veined and colored marbles such as for the tops of the elaborately carved gilt wood side tables.
A form of stone mosaic work, originating in Italy where it was known as pietra dura, was much favored for the Court furniture, in particular for ebony cabinets and for the tops of elaborately carved gilt wood side tables.
In this form of inlay work the designs were made of stone tesserae, such as agate, amethyst, lapis lazuli, onyx, carnelian, jasper and chalcedony. The decorative motifs, which included birds, flowers and butterflies, were realistically depicted in their brilliant natural colors. The tops of the side tables, which were ornamented in this manner, were generally of black basalt.
Upholstered chairs and canapés were extremely fashionable. As a rule the colors of the textiles were warm and brilliant, crimson being a favorite. The different rich and strong colors provided an effective contrast to the dark woods used by Boulle and to the ebony cabinets encrusted with stone mosaics.
Late in the reign of Louis XIV the colors began to grow softer. Embroidered and painted silks woven in China were used in the upholstery work on the Court furniture as well as for window draperies and bed hangings. These magnificent silks with their white, gold, blue and rose grounds were sprinkled with flowering shrubs, birds, butterflies and other fashionable Chinese motifs. Plain and figured velvets, damasks, brocades, satins and taffetas were also included among the fashionable textiles.
Around 1680 imported chintz and muslins made their initial appearance and they rapidly gained in favor. Different kinds of needlework, especially point de hongrie (or the flame stitch), were also popular.
Toward the end of the reign of Louis XIV tapestries came into use for furniture coverings. The splendor and magnificence of the textiles used in upholstery work and for wall hangings was one of the outstanding features of the Louis XIV style. From around 1662 onward all of the great tapestries were woven in France.
Ornaments and Motifs
The classic Baroque ornament of the Louis XIV style was praiseworthy for the symmetry of its composition and for its finished elegance. The French artists drew deeply for their inspiration on Italian Baroque art. However, they carefully avoided the excesses of Italian Baroque ornament and they purified the composition in accordance with their own good taste.
Heavy heroic Roman ornament and war-like trophies were employed in the early phase of Louis XIV furniture. Included among the fashionable motifs were arabesques, rinceaux, lambrequins, cartouches, rosettes, strapwork and C- and S-scrolls.
A favorite background design was the diamond pattern, with each diamond or lozenge often centering a dot or some small conventionalized motif. The shell motif was everywhere and was always symmetrically treated. Human and animal grotesques of a pleasing design were widely used.
Female masks were much employed and they frequently had radiating crowns. Satyr masks often had long plaited beards.
Included among the popular animal motifs were the lion's head and paws, the ram's head and horns and the cloven hoof of the stag. Various kinds of fanciful conceptions and monstrous beings, such as satyrs, winged genii, dolphins, sphinxes, griffons and chimeras were found in the repertory of ornament.
Groups of children, cupids and the winged heads of cherubs were all used. Figure subjects taken from mythology were sometimes found in ambitious pieces of Louis XIV furniture.
The acanthus leaf was the favorite form of foliage and was worked into many compositions. Water lily leaves, palm leaves, branches of laurel, olive and oak were also found. Garlands and festoons were made of fruit and flowers.
Certain decorative details were also borrowed from architecture. The Doric triglyphs taken from the frieze of Doric columns were used by Boulle and his followers.
Other decorative motifs, which were used in a limited manner and which were to become very popular in the 18th century, included ancient weapons, thunderbolts and tridents of mythological gods, trophies of musical instruments and the implements of fishing, hunting and agriculture.
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