THE progress of the style which took possession of all decoration in the reign of his great-grandfather, gave to the furniture of the reign of Louis Quinze a character of its own even more like an outcrop of the life of those that used it than had been that which preceded it. On the introduction of the style, it underwent an immediate adaptation to the peculiar genius of the era, as shown in the ostentation and glitter of the court, and the almost universal love of ease and pleasure. But what were merely accessory features at the first, in the process of development through many years became the essential qualities of the variation that at length obtained under the name and style of Louis Quinze; for the Grand Monarque had lived to see death twice take away his heir before he placed the sceptre in his great-grandson's little hand, and thus the style of his reign, as already mentioned, had had opportunity of developing all that it contained, so that if still further change were desired, there was nothing to do but seize the most fantastic elements, and exaggerate them till what grandeur there was in the original style was destroyed by accumulation of senseless details. There was 6ome grandeur in the old Louis Quatorze; neither the Gothic nor the Renaissance rivalled it for purposes of parade, fitted for the shining reception of a perpetual pageant. It was not its grandeur, though, that its successor either carried on or rivalled, but merely its mesquinage.
The Quatorze had already made use of the occasional absence of symmetry in grasping its great effect of varied and abrupt light and shade; the Quinze formulated it, so to say, into a principle. Symmetry became with it not only a thing of no consequence, but an untoward circumstance not to be encouraged. Still making some classical pretension, using the anthemion, for example, although only as a 6hell, together with other classic members, it nevertheless seemed fairly wearied of the right lines, the severe flexures and simplicity of the antique, and indulged itself in a system of random fancies loosely thrown together without an artistic idea, and entirely at variance with classic use. To look over the drawings of the designs of this period, it is impossible to imagine that they were in tended for furniture: rank weeds growing in summer heat around parcels of rocks and shells tossed together would present as reasonable an appearance of purpose. And it is from these rocks and shells, rocaiUes and coquilles, that the style receives its opprobrious epithet of the Rococo, a mere corruption of the two words—the BocaiUe it is generally called in the laud of its birth, while its involved, crimped, shabby lines are known a8 coquillages. Other details figure in the ornamentation, such as grottos —rock forms still, to be sure—roses, cornucopias, upset vases, scrolls; but over all the shell, which, so far as research has been able to trace it, appears first in ornamental art upon the Arch of Titus, is here triumphant— the shell which, although freely used in the Jacobean, never before so nearly made all decoration look like a work in Palissy-ware or an illustration of conchology.
Perhaps we are wrong in saying these rocks and shells and roses were thrown together without an artistic idea, for a purpose was really evident through all the vagaries of the Louis Quinze—the predominating idea of the Louis Quatorze, elaborated to its last limit, of affording splendid contrasts of light and shade; and in order to dash the light with still broader effect, an infinity of meaningless detail was unwisely carried out with a much more than Chinese disobedience to the laws of symmetry; for the Chinese abuse symmetry by the means of symmetry itself, even in their avoidance of it in particulars succeeding in balancing the whole.
There is nothing in the entire range of art acting as an example or incitement to this Rococo. Before it existed there was nothing like it, and there has been nothing like it since, unless it may be the imitations of it where even its poor prevailing intention has been forgotten, and only its exaggerated peculiarities remain. In its elevations every shape and line throughout the medley is seen to be turned and twisted and involved with the most curious misunderstanding of beauty. The Louis Quatorze ornamentation, indeed, was born of the Cinque-cento infinitely debased, but the Louis Quinze seized the striking differentiations of the former style from its base, and thrust them not only into remote caricature, but utter dissimilarity and removal. It lengthened the acanthus scroll into endless reedy wandering foliations, and it took the blase fancy of the day with the multitudinous detail and the brilliancy of ridged and broken outlines in constant succession; and not the least amusing part of the whole was the travesty of nature it made when obliged to render natural objects. It looked upon nature as a rude and barbarous affair that needed some dressing of French taste before it could be considered fairly en grande toilette, and it arrayed her according to its own fancy before offering her to your acquaintance.
Perhaps it was precisely the style that should have been expected of that age, which, already inheriting corruption, in little more than half a century prepared chaos. It was the court, and those that aped the court, on whose requirements furniture was modelled. It was they who bought and used furniture and commanded decoration ; they commanded it of a sort befitting the giddy, volatile spirit that danced on the crumbling crust of a volcano ; and they wanted it, perhaps, to match the robes on which silken, gold, and silver embroidery had been replaced by embroidery in gems — rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and brilliants supplying the desired color with the lustre of light itself. While the shameless king led his vile life of a sensuality more abominable than that of an Eastern voluptuary; while the court was abandoned to levity and insatiable pleasure, glittering with splendid vice and wanton waste; while the arts were patronized by a Pompadour, furniture, which is the clothing of the daily life, with its twenty-four hours, its needs and deeds, could do nothing but represent that vicious life. In other matters at that time intellect was not slumbering. The apathy of its rulers, plunged in their own pleasures and pursuits, had given the nation time to think, and that great impulse was starting which caused French ideas to rule the world. But philosophy and science did not yet trouble themselves with furniture: it was who should attain the academic fauteuil, not how that fauteuil should be made and ornamented.
Of course where profligacy and luxury demanded so much, and where the gold extorted from the people flowed in a thousand prodigal streams, manufactures flourished as seldom before. The king himself took a great interest in the Gobelin tapestries which had become of such marvellous value, made at the expense of the Government, and not to be purchased, being preserved for royal use and royal gifts, and in the exquisite Sèvres porcelain, which now adorned everything on which it could be used.
But the manufacture of furniture itself was of no such worth : its very shape hindered its solidity. The spindling, unconnected, un trussed legs of the chairs, and of the tables that were utterly unfit to uphold the heavy slabs of marble that crowned them, must needs presently strew the floor as once the rushes had done. Solidity was not in the least looked after or desired, and veneering had come into such general use as to complete the ruin of all noble work, in itself entirely in discord with a noble style. Veneering, indeed, was in its glory in the reign of the Rococo, and the universal face of furniture was falsehood. Rosewood had come in, and mahogany, and superadded to these the lacquers, a curious taste in lacquer-work having arisen, so that Paris was filled with rival workmen imitating the lacquers of the Orient. Furnitures made in France were sent out to
Coromandel to be lacquered, and we see the result in many an article of Oriental furniture to-day, where the shape is still imitated, especially in the long and slender crooked legs. These pieces of furniture were called Coromandel8, and were usually passed off as entirely of foreign
production. Large articles of furniture were not altered in their shape from that which they had held for many a year, although the ornament applied to them was of the new character. The armory still maintained its dignity, and the bookcase borrowed from the armory. They were in little use, the life of intrigue then adopting small rooms and closets, and furnishing them with pieces to correspond. Light fantastic delicacy was the order of the day ; and the greater part of the pieces can be told from those of the Louis Quatorze, not only by the coquillage and the bravura conspicuous in the outline, but by the longer and slenderer supports that have forsaken the full curve and taken a departure at a lesser angle, and by curves in the face of the furniture, sometimes the whole front rounded out, both in the height and in the length, with alternate hollows— that outline first appearing in this style—and sometimes the doors and drawers in flat profile, and the corners and sides rounded out and ornamented.
Thus with the Louis Quinze there was developed a great taste for what are termed babioles—little tables, toy cabinets, tripods, guéridons, étagères, chiffonniers, pedestals—made after countless varieties, but all with undu-
latorv feet, all falsely constructed, all glowing with gilding, and all decked out with the roses and wreaths and festoons, and that ever-changing but always the same shell which resembles the tiny spread feather on the head of a half-fledged ground-sparrow.
Nevertheless, with all the defect of the Louis Quinze, bizarre to the last degree^ it yet was not altogether without elegance. It made a complete effect, according to its own purposes—the effect of dazzle and of luxury. A Louis Quinze drawing-room, carried out to the letter, looks, to be sure, the least in the world like the stage set for a conjurer, but a conjurer that can make the sun shine on a gray day, that can turn fatigue into pleasure, and fill discontent with cheer; that is because, with whatever faults it lias, it is the only style of all that has ever paid complete attention to physical comfort. The straight back, the upright lines, the honest and sturdy supports of the Gothic, the perfect grace and beauty of the Renaissance, are nothing to be compared, for comfort to the aching, the worn, and the weary, with the deep-seated deliciousness of the Louis Quinze. What comfort has crept into the Gothic and the Renaissance—the properly tilted back, the seat at a healthy angle with it, the elastic support of springs—is there only because the Louis Quinze taught that such a thing could be. The Venetian chair that is made of three planks, the first for the tall back going straight from the floor, the second mortised into that, and supported in front by the third, and the whole then carved out into an intricacy of noble beauty, may be a most inviting, most satisfying, and delightful object to the eye; but the tired frame that feels the grasshopper a burden will pass it by and sink into the soft pillowy arms of the Louis Quinze.
It would 6eem to be the one good act, albeit unconsciously so, of that detestable monarch's life that he lent his name to a form of seat that has been a blessing to " the lame and the lazy and those that won't work." The beds of the style are miracles of restful luxury too. They often had the ancient back like a sofa's, as well as head and foot, and the three sides then under their lofty tented hangings were stuffed and tufted and richly upholstered. In everything where comfort was to be had, that was considered even before splendor; and round forms, so supporting to the body that sitting for a length of time afforded 110 fatigue, yielding and cushioned springs, characterize the style quite as much as any of its rococo-work does. And as the Venetian chair tells that it was used by no inert and enervated race, but by one ready to maintain its mighty name, so these round, cushioned, downy seats, and this dazzle of gilded shells and rocks, tell all the story of the lassitude and luxury of the court of that vicious ruler to whose self-indulgence and sine they owe their birth.
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