1

LOUIS XV FURNITURE

^IIERE were no clearly defined lines between the Louis XIV and the Louis

XV styles of furniture. The sweeping curves and ornate decorations which characterized the designs of the early "Quinze" period were the natural outgrowth of the late "Quatorze" epoch. From the time that Pierre Mignard succeeded Lebrun, as art director, a gradual change had taken place in all handicraft. Instead of one controlling force there were a dozen influences. Designers, free from the restraint of obeying one master mind, worked on independent lines. In rare cases this was productive of good. The arts as a whole suffered seriously. With the death of the Grand Monarque the last of the seventeenth-century traditions passed away.

Louis XV, like his great predecessor, was only five years of age when he was proclaimed king. During his minority the office of regent devolved upon the duke of Orleans. This term of eight years, 1715-1723, was an important period in the history of decorative art. The old court with its stately ceremonies, its pomp and magnificence was gone, and in its place was a new court bent on the lightest and gayest amusements. The formal arrangement of rooms, the classic treatment of walls and furniture, found little favor with the regent and 'his followers. To conform to the tastes of the day decorators introduced the extreme rococo. The broken shell, the twisted acanthus, the curled endive, and the flowing scroll formed a part of interior woodwork. The cornice, the wainscot, the mantel, the moldings of windows and doors, the frames of panels and pictures, embodied one and the same idea. To harmonize with this setting furniture was, of necessity, constructed on similar lines. Plain surfaces were abhorred. Everything glittered with elaborate mounts of bronze and ormolu; everything was ornamented to such a degree that its real purpose became a secondary consideration. Several pieces of furniture were sometimes combined in one in order to give wood and metal-workers greater scope for ingenuity. Some of the regency designs are strange combinations of writing-desks, bureaus, and timepieces. The workmanship of this fantastic furniture is of a high order; the greatest artists of the day bestowed their skill upon it. While it does not surpass in beauty of execution the work of the masterly band who designed furniture for Louis XIV, it equals it in many ways. A few of the great cabinet-makers, who were associated with Lebrun, lived to execute orders for the regent, and also for Louis XV.

Charles Cressent, a pupil of Boulle, and one of his most noted followers was closely identified with the style of the regency. Dubois and the elder Caffieri were among the number who adapted their methods to the tastes of the time. Boulle was less flexible. With the spirit of the day he was never in touch. His work belongs so entirely to the "Quatorze" period, it is such a complete expression of the formalism of the seventeenth century, that it is impossible to associate him with the succeeding epoch. He produced much that was fine in the latter years of his life, but it bears little resemblance to the handicraft of his contemporaries.

Among the painters of the regency who lent their talents to the embellishing of walls and furniture were Lancret and Watteau. Among the hosts of interior decorators who designed furniture were Meissonier, de Cotte, Boffrand, Oppenord, and Pineau. Meissonier was the real leader of the rococo school. To him is credited the introduction of the broken shell, and the countless twists and twirls which were such a feature of French decoration during the eighteenth century. His defiance of the rules of balance and proportion delighted the duke of Orleans, who gave him many commissions. Meissonier disregarded all principles of symmetry and sought to obtain novel effects by introducing startling contrasts. One side of a cabinet or console would often be treated in a manner quite different from the other. He was consistent

gobelin tapestry designed by boucher and tessier, 1757. executed by neilson
louis xv sofa, petit trianon

only in that he carried his scheme of contrasts to a very fine point. In furnishing a room every detail conformed to this erratic treatment. Meissonier achieved considerable fame and lived to see his work extolled and condemned. That he had a powerful influence on the arts of the day his many enemies could not deny. Flemish, ■ German, and English cabinet-makers borrowed extensively from him. Chippendale, in his early days, patterned many of his designs after Meissonier. His book of drawings for furniture, The Gentle-man and Cabinet-maker's Director, bears more than a chance resemblance to the work of the Frenchman. Some of the designs for state beds, bureaus, and commodes surpass the most extravagant conceptions of Meissonier, and emphasize the fact that rococo ornament in the hands of the English passed even beyond the limit placed upon it by the French.

The work of the great furniture-makers of the regency and of the Louis XV period had certain qualities of elegance and grace, which foreign wood-workers were unable to imitate. This is especially noticeable in the German and Italian handicraft of the day. The German rococo and the Italian baroque combine all the faults of the style rocaille without any of its redeeming features. There was no suggestion of heaviness in the most ornate piece of French furniture. Fantastic as the design often was there was no hint of absurdity in its construction or decoration. Possessing a discrimination which the German and the Italian did not share, the Frenchman was able to preserve the narrow line that separated the extrava-

gant from the grotesque. Symmetry, which was such an important factor in the eyes of the furniture-makers of the Louis XIV period, was lacking in the work of many of the later craftsmen.

Louis XIV carried his love of balance to such a point that Madame de Main-tenon once wrote,. "The king will have us all buried in symmetry." Such fine distinctions did not trouble Louis XV, nor the men and women of his court, whose favor or disapproval made or marred the success of an artist.

The group of men—decorators, designers, furniture-makers, workers in metal and marquetry—who spent their lives in the endeavor to please a capricious court formed a large and notable body. Within the compass of a single chapter it is not possible to give more than a brief mention of the great artist-artisans of this period. Many volumes would be needed to treat in an adequate way French handicraft of the eighteenth century. The subject of furniture alone, if presented in all its phases, would demand a chapter on the great tapestry industries of France, another on Sèvres porcelain, a third on metals, and a fourth on lacquer. Wood alone formed but an insignificant part in the making of a large portion of the Louis XV furniture. Marquetry had its place, but the pieces in which marquetry alone is used for ornamentation are very rare. The talents of the tapestry-weaver, of the potter, and of the goldsmith, were utilized to produce those marvelous cabinets and commodes which to-day, when offered for sale, bring prices which can scarcely be expressed in less than four figures.

Among the men who made this sumptuous furniture may be mentioned Rie-sener, Cressent, Leleu, Oeben, Röntgen,. Duplessis, Pasquier, Carlin, Hervieu, Gouthière, and the Caffieri. Jacques and Philippe Caffieri belonged to a famous family of metal-workers. Jacques was a son of Filippo Caffieri, who came to France from Italy about the middle of the seventeenth century. He had served Pope Alexander VII with distinction "but, tempted by the reports, of the generosity of Louis XIV, joined the band of workers at the Gobelins. For more than a century the name of Caffieri was closely associated with French furniture. The metal mounts and moldings which came from the workshop of Jacques and his son Philippe were not surpassed by those of any other designer. The exquisite finish of their metal-work was notable in an age when beauty of execution was the rule rather than the exception. The commode with bombé or curving front was the usual medium chosen by them to display their intricate garnitures of bronze and ormolu.

Pierre Gouthière followed the methods of the Caffieri. He and Riesener were younger men and were identified with both the Louis XV and the Louis XVI styles. Gouthière executed many beautiful pieces of furniture for the duchess du Barry. At the time of her execution she owed seven hundred and fifty-six thousand livres for furniture designed and ornamented by him. The government

LOUIS XV FURNITURE

refused to pay this sum, and after endless lawsuits the ill-fated Gouthière died in poverty. His work lacked the strength of that of Philippe Caffieri and Charles Cressent, but it was marked by elegance and great delicacy. A dull gold finish, which he is said to have invented, makes it possible to distinguish his unsigned work. In 1858 the marquis of Hertford desired to have a replica of one of Gouthière's most famous pieces, the "Cabinet d'Artois/' at Windsor. To produce this copy, years were given to the task, and the cost, including the delicately chased mounts, was three thousand pounds.

Jean Riesener was born in Glaud-beck, near Cologne and bore somewhat the same relation to Louis XV that Boulle did to Louis XIV and Vouet to Louis XIII. Among the cabinet-makers who served the capricious king, no one pleased his fancy more than this transplanted German. He was a pupil of Jean François Oeben, and after the death of his master, succeeded to the title of ébéniste du Roi. Less is known of Oeben than of many others who filled positions of minor importance.

The celebrated bureau du Roi was begun by Oeben and finished by Riesener. Few pieces of furniture have been* the theme of so many discussions. Signed "Riesener 1769 à l'Arsénal de Paris" it is only in late years that Oeben has been given a share in its glory. No article of handicraft belonging to the "Quinze" period has been the cause of so much conjecture. Column after column has been printed to prove this theory and that. Sometimes all the honors are given to Riesener; again he is stripped of his laurels and they are handed to Oeben; again they are divided among Riesener, Duplessis, and Hervieu. It is now believed that the conception of the design was due to Oeben, that Reisener completed, the task, that Duplessis modeled the mounts, and that the casting was done by Hervieu.

The "bureau" is in reality a secretary of unusual pattern. Viewed as an object of art it is a marvelous piece of work. The mounts are of bronze of a most elaborate character. Reclining figures of great beauty, medallions, vases," wreaths, and

'MÉ^Mel

n

louis xv chair, garde-meuble louis xv chair, garde-meuble garlands are the metal ornaments of this remarkable piece of furniture. Lavish as the description sounds there is a suggestion in the treatment of the whole design of the simplicity of the Louis XYI period. Could the vases and the figures be removed the bureau would show little trace of the style rocaille. Had the date been 1750 instead of 1769 it would doubtless have been treated in the true rococo spirit. The bureau du Roi is typical of the work of the time in the skill shown in the decoration of the back.

No hidden corners were shirked by French craftsmen. The care bestowed upon the framework of furniture may be noted in the illustrations of the chairs from the Garde-Meuble. They have lost something in beauty by being robbed of their upholstery. As furniture studies they have gained in value. They show just what French furniture-makers borrowed from the Flemish and what they in turn gave to the English. They have the curving legs which superseded the pedestal support of the Louis XIV period, and the rococo carving which supplanted the classic acanthus leaf. It is a mild rococo, however, and in the case of the straight-back chair, worthy of faitiiful reproduction. Similar in treatment is the sofa from the Petit Trianon which was designed for du Barry. It is of French walnut and the upholstery is deep old rose. These pieces represent the simple side of the style.

"Rococo" is an elastic term and one that has been applied to every stage of rock and shell decoration from the time of Louis XIII to the declining days of Louis XV. With many people the word is wholly associated with modern conceptions. The Louis XV furniture of the shops is fearful to contemplate, and when brought into juxtaposition with the furnishings of the usual house, becomes what Marjorie Fleming termed the multiplication table, "Something that human nature cannot endure." Even genuine pieces of old French furniture cannot be placed with impunity side by side with the household gods of to-day.

Styles of decoration and furniture are the outgrowth of conditions. The Louis XV style of furniture was the direct result of definite causes. When studied against the background of the eighteenth century it becomes one of the most fascinating in history. It may not appeal to one in the same way that the styles of the early Renaissance and Georgian periods do; it may not fit into every-day life as does the colonial; it will not bear reproducing except under the most exacting conditions; but that it has a distinct charm of its own cannot be gainsaid. It must be studied with the life and art of the period constantly in mind—the pleasure-loving Louis spending a fortune on the whims of de Pompadour and her extravagant successor, du Barry; the great artists of the day, like Lancret and Boucher, turning from vast canvases to decorate a fan or a snuff-box; the great metalworkers, Caffieri and GouthiSre, bestowing the same care upon a sconce or candlestick that they gave to some momentous commission; the foremost tapestry-weavers devoting months to the upholstery of a footstool. Trifles were matters of such consequence that they assumed the importance of serious undertakings.

That furniture should receive the careful attention of great painters like Watteau, Lancret, and Boucher was the natural result of an age that placed so high a value on the perfection of detail. If the walls of a room were worthy of their regard the furnishings were no less so. Many of the most treasured pieces of the regency and of the Louis XV period bear decorations by Watteau and Boucher. Screens and cabinets were painted in the manner which they had made famous. Boucher's cupids and Watteau's shepherdesses have more than a passing interest. They seem the very essence of the art of the day. Watteau's untimely death occurred early in the reign of Louis XV, but a host of pupils perpetuated his methods.

Painted furniture formed a distinct class. Equally unique were the pieces which were enriched with plaques and panels of porcelain. Madame de Pompadour was largely responsible for the introduction of this fragile furniture. She was at the height of her power when the beautiful soft paste porcelain of the Sèvres manufactory was perfected. In striving for novel decorations in the furnishing of her apartment her fancy turned to rare china. Marquetry, foreign lacquers, carvings, and paintings were for the moment discarded. Sèvres porcelain was chosen to form the embellishment of cabinets, writing-desks, and the many other articles which found place in the elegant boudoir of the king's favorite.

One class of furniture not yet mentioned was designated as Vernis-Martin. For more than a century cabinet-makers had sought to obtain a lustre which would give to their work the appearance of Chinese lacquer. During the reign of François I a few pieces of Chinese furniture were imported from Portugal. In the seventeenth century, as trade between Holland and China increased, many articles of Chinese origin found their way to France where they were highly prized. So

louis xv arm-chair, garde-meuble

great was the demand for oriental lac that panels of Chinese woodwork were inserted in French furniture. This was a combination, however, that could not long be tolerated. A Dutch cabinet-maker named Huygens is credited with being the first to discover a preparation which had the qualities of lacquer. The Martin family of Paris, after years of experimenting, perfected a composition which was called Vernis-Martin, or Martin's varnish. This invention placed them in an independent position. They were carriage-painters but with the success of their lacquer they became cabinet-makers. In the painting of carriages they had a field for considerable skill, for vehicles of all kinds were elaborately ornamented in the time of Louis XV. Coaches and sedan chairs received as careful a scheme of decoration as the interior of houses. Frequently the scheme was the same. The craze for repeating the inevitable scrolls and shells extended to every possible object, without reference to its size, purpose, or construction. This was where the rococo school differed from all others under the sun. When my lady sat in her boudoir she was surrounded with dancing cupids and rose garlands, with gilded wreaths and painted scrolls. When she was carried through the streets of Paris in her sedan chair she was still be-wreathed and bs-scrolled. Cupids danced, and pastoral maids simpered, and if they were not the cupids and pastoral maids of Boucher and Watteau they were such a clever copy that the effect was precisely the same.

In the decorating of such sumptuous vehicles the Martins had served a long apprenticeship. It is not to be wondered at that, in later years, they achieved renown not only for the beauty and durability of their lacquer, but for the skill with which they painted figures and landscapes. They were followed by many imitators, and "Vernis-Martin" pieces, so called, became very common,but like all imitations they lacked the spirit of the originals.

The small articles of furniture of Louis XV's time — the clocks, chandeliers, candelabra, sconces, and mirrors—were as skilfully constructed as the large pieces. The workmanship of these bronze'and gilt objects was carried to a high state of perfection. In some of them there was beauty of line as well as matchless execution. It is interesting to compare a clock of this period, here illustrated, with the Louis XIV timepiece in the preceding chapter. The difference between "Quatorze" and "Quinze", as exemplified in small things, is clearly set forth.

lotus xv clock:

Both clocks belong to the bracket class; both are of the same size and mechanical construction; both are ornamented with marquetry and metal mounts. The Louis XV has more sweeping curves; the mounts, instead of closely outlining the woodwork, form an independent feature of the decoration; the,acanthus leaf, as a motif, is abandoned and the curled endive takes its place. These articles are typical of the two styles. They are chosen from the middle periods. Late Louis XIV furniture resembled early Louis XV, and late Louis XV approached the Louis XVI. The rococo school, by its very extravagance, brought about a reaction that, was destined to transform furniture-making.

Wood Working 101

Wood Working 101

Have you ever wanted to begin woodworking at home? Woodworking can be a fun, yet dangerous experience if not performed properly. In The Art of Woodworking Beginners Guide, we will show you how to choose everything from saws to hand tools and how to use them properly to avoid ending up in the ER.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment