Xix

LOUIS SEIZE;

HE furniture known under the name of the Louis Seize had at once an amazing difference from its immediate predecessors and a curious similarity to them. The similarity was in the festoons, the garlands, the gilding, the not entirely forgotten shell of the decoration; the difference was in the shape of the article, and the care and serious study expended on it. It was an eclectic affair; and although very far from an ideal style, it chose the best of several. Refin^rnent was evident in its lines, and some comprehension that there was a world outside of Paris—the very opposite of anything to be gathered from the results of that habit of the Quatorze of neglecting detail in order to secure broad effect, through the unwise inheritance of which the Rococo had wound up not only with neglect, but with a complete ignorance and lawlessness of fancy that implied indifference to all beyond, if not contempt. And there was in the very aspect of the Louis Seize, in its right lines and its freedom from idle curvatures, some subtle and perhaps unconscious hint that here virtue was respected where lately vice had been enthroned. Nor is this entirely fanciful, since it is certainly impossible to look at the furnitures of the three reigns—the Quatorze, the Quinze, and the Louis Seize—and not observe where license became profligacy and was again restrained into decency— household and palatial decoration colored necessarily by the moral qualities of its designing and accepting minds.

Since changes have been made so vastly easier than they were in the old days of which M. Vicollet-le-Duc tells us, since people have grown so restless, and since wealth has in every way so multiplied itself, there has been almost as frequently a fashion in furniture as in millinery—some reason, if insufficient, some apparent philosophy, to be found in the change in both cases. And it seems to us that in its encroachments and selections —it possessed, we think, no inventions—the Louis Seize deserves, perhaps, more the name of a fashion than a style, having neither the freedom and novelty of the Quatorze nor the purity of the Grecian, nor, although using a mingling of both, marked by that pronounced individuality proper to the conception of an absolute style.

Whether fashion or 6tyle, we find in it, notwithstanding its attempt at nobler things, an evident clinging to the traditions of the century and a half behind it at court; just as in the king himself, who would never appoint a bishop or confer a benefice outside of the pale of noble birth, was apparent a leauing toward the privileged orders, although it had long been a recognized fact that the interest of the kings was with the people and against the nobles. We see, moreover, in its coup cToeil an uprising of popular thought and republican ideas, with the Classic turn that was given to all things much more distinctly than ever before, actuated probably by the example of the Grecian republics, the more wide-spread knowledge of whose history, joined with the awakening events of the American Revolution, was fast undermining the structure of the heaven-descended right of kings. It was also impossible that such a new world should have been opened, such a literal resurrection of the dead past in its beauty, as in the uncovering of Pompeii, that was all the time progressing, without producing a deep impression ; and Pompeian ideas are so constantly reflected in the Louis Seize that it seems, in many respects, almost a repetition of the early Renaissance. In addition to all that, without doubt the very great favor that Classic aspirations had been meeting in England also, where, in a debased state, the Classic had prevailed many years, and during the last half century, especially since the publication of Adam's " Spalatro "—a description and restoration, with plates, of Diocletian's villa—with a more thorough acquaintance of the right spirit and details, had reacted on the French taste, wreary of gaudy trifling, and just in the mood to accept it.

Ideas that lead to radical change and renewal, the student observes, first come in literature, in dress, in architecture, last of all in furniture; and they reach furniture modified by many other influences than those of direct art—convenience, the fashion of garments, the habits of life, making themselves felt quite as much as the inspiring power of Greek lintel • or Gothic arch; and the careful reconstructer can, as has been said, build again the whole fabric of a forgotten society from the features of its furniture. If he attempt, at some future era, to reconstruct history from the Louis Seize, he will find a love of sumptuous splendor and revelry on the

Louis Seize Chair.

one side, just beginning to be held in check on the other by the new ideas born of disgust for courtly vice—and for such wanton and useless expenditure as that where the mere hangings of the bed presented by Madame De Montespan to the bride of the royal prince, her son and the king's, cost, with their marvellous embroidery in gold and pearls, more than a million livres of the present day—together with a recognition also of the rights of man that amused and expressed itself by means of the forms in use in the times of early austerity and desired freedom. He will see that this was furniture that could array, as it did, the salon where Madame Roland and her friends discussed the principles of liberty, and also furnish forth the revels of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers at the Petit Trianon.

The earlier chair with sprawling legs, called the cancan, from which the vile dance of the same name derived its appellation, belonging to the Louis Quatorze, was a chair not to be accepted in the fashion of Louis Seize, but to be departed from as widely as circumstances would admit. There is not a sprawling leg to be found in any article of the Louis Seize; they are nearly all upright, turned sometimes in various ways, imitating vases and cups, the flat tazza at the top, and in the main resembling little columns, or oolonnettes, headed and supported by tiny astragals, usually fluted, and usually with the fluting accentuated and broken again by vertical lines of gilding. Gilding did its best, indeed, in the Louis Seize, not with the vulgar profusion that it superceded, although more ostentatiously still than pleases the correct taste, but with rather remarkable freedom, considering the fact of the return to Greek profiles, and with that the naturally accompanying exhibition of a severer fancy than had ruled before for centuries. Severe in outline only, it would seem, for, when we come to decoration, there were the multitudinous wreaths and festoons and knots and ribbons, with rosettes of roses set in a square, nests of the acanthus, and scrolls half in doubt whether they are not broken fragments of a shell, with countless other variations in the mouldings and mounts. But heavy articles were well lifted off the floor, grace was regarded from a chaster point of view than when the polite world sat and lay on the old agglomeration of curves, while comfort, although carried to no such point of Oriental luxury and lounging as once, was yet by no means overlooked. Meantime the various babioles, that we have spoken of as coming in during the last generations, were retained, and the new woods were freely used in their construction, but all redeemed from the curve, and Grecian-ized. The material difference between the Louis Seize chair and that of the Quinze was its more upright form, the classic contour of its lines, and of the ornament that was doing its best to be freed from the Rococo;

while carving, perhaps inspired by recent English work, when used in preference to the perfect marquetry or in conjunction with it, was never in any French work since the early Renaissance of so rich a description. The sofa had the same character as the chair, sufficiently comfortable, not unpicturesque, on the whole, in spite of its too splendid glitter; mirrors

Lonis Seize Bedchamber.

had become very large, and, used extravagantly still, made resplendent features in the fashion; the tables were on long, slender, straight or tapering legs, sometimes simply standing four-square, sometimes with oval-shaped connecting bars between the feet, most of them of a pleasing appearance ; and the cabinets, built in various shapes, were exceedingly beautiful pieces. Some of these cabinets resemble the little Italian bureau, which, light in construction, without fragility, was certainly as pretty an article as a drawing-room can know, its slender supports strengthened by the ornamental bars between, frequently long double ovals meeting in a vase or any other ornament, and the top raised and filled with numerous little drawers surrounded by elaborate ornament, the handles made of carvings of precious marbles in flowers and fruits, and a central space enclosing, between gilt colonnettes with richly wrought tiny plinths and capitals, more intimate and secret drawers behind the space of its ornament. We have been shown a precious old bureau of this description in this country, the price of which was not extortionate at something over a thousand dollars.

Wliile, as we have seen, the effect of Louis Seize furnishing was somewhat more severe, it was equally as splendid as that of its predecessors. The panelling of rooms had no more of the Rococo flourishes ; they followed straight lines, and usually, of whatever material made, were painted white ; the pilasters between were carved with minute richness and delicacy, and were gilt so finely and substantially that the gilding is in perfect preservation to-day. The quills of the fluted columns were beaded, and arabesque-work after the old Raphaelesque designs accompanied the decoration of many interiors, these portions carved and those painted and gilt, the gilding alloyed so as to produce various tints—the coppery red, the silvery green. The furnitures themselves, when of merit, were designed by Riesener, Roentgen, Cauvet, and many other artists of celebrity, who also often took in charge the whole accompanying scheme of decoration; and various articles were made of tuffip,.j?urple, laburnum, and rosewood, or of lighter woods colored in the various golden-brown shades by means of a hot iron. The chief ornament was marquetry of elaborate pattern and workmanship in floral garlands, surrounded by borders of fine diaper-work. The chairs, and couches were upholstered in Gobelin, or in. the costly French and Italian silks. All these articles were further enriched by the remarkable metal mounts of Gouthière, Barthélémy, and others, modelled with exquisite precision, chased and gilt again with a solid finish that defies time and tarnish ; while Sèvres china, profusely used, added its charm to the whole.

The style which succeeded the Louis Seize was so exceedingly faulty that it would needs have been followed by a reaction, if not by a return to that which it had supplanted, even if the restoration of the legitimate sovereigns had not enforced a banishment of everything that had obtained favor under the usurping powers—the great waves of those mighty events felt in the drawing-room as well as mounting to the scaffold. But of course when the kings had their own again, they did their best, or rather the purveyors to the court did, to make their absence forgotten, and took things up as nearly as possible where they were when the fatal axe of '93 had fallen. In this way it has come about that the Louis Seize furniture is again the favorite of that fashion which, after intervals of departure from its standard, always local, never universal, has returned to it, with the greater elaboration of its Pompeian features, and palaces are gay with the things whose associations are full of the sad history and bitter renunciation of one of the most picturesque and unfortunate women of all time. Far more refined and only less splendid than previous French styles, it is as well suited to the frivolities of the life too frequently led nowadays by the extraordinarily wealthy as more stable

and solid and dignified furniture could be. While full of its reminiscences, it supplies a glitter that does not exist in the Renaissance, and it is lighter and airier than the Gothic, which, besides, exacts more archaeological knowledge than has been, until lately, in the possession of many individuals, and which, even if not an anachronism in connection with the manners and habits of those about it, would be at any rate most singularly at variance with the French costumes of the men and women of the period. It is the nearest approach to the old Quattrocento that modern styles have made; and if certain purists deride the Renaissance, we can remember that people of as much weight in the world's history—such as Raphael, Romano, and Cellini—assisted at its formation.

The Louis Seize is now made with a perfection that gives it a right of existence until the spirit of the age shall develop something superior— something in which gilding shall be subordinate, and veneering a lost art. At present the Louis Seize furniture is made in America with a nicety and purity quite equal to that which characterizes the best examples, and its wonderfully beautiful carving is unrivalled by any that comes from abroad.

0 0

Post a comment