Chapter V

LOUIS XV (1715-1774)

DURING the Louis XV period in France, extending over three score years, there was developed a decorative style that was distinctive. The first eight years are often referred to as the Regency period; they were the years of the king's minority, when Philippe de Bourbon, or Philip of Orleans, acted as regent.

Philip became the leader in matters of French decorative art, and it was he who laid the foundations for the Louis XV style. He took pleasure in upsetting traditions, and established an era of luxury and extravagance. In art, as in life, formality was thrown overboard, and gaiety took the place of the martial pomp of the previous reign.

Under the regent, Louis was brought up to a life of indulgence and ease in the midst of a pleasure-loving court, and it was only natural that his should be a gay and extravagant reign. Among his favorites were the Comtesse du Barry and Madame Pom padour, who helped to encourage the gaiety and luxury that affected all the styles of the period, with which their names have always been closely connected.

In many respects it was not an effete period, however; it was far from barren of artistic results. Indeed, it was the most exuberant of the French decorative periods. The state ateliers continued to enjoy royal support and were the centers of artistic production.

The list of clever and talented masters of applied art who flourished during this reign is too long to give in full. Interior decorators, designers, painters, potters, tapestry-weavers, cabinet-makers, and metal-workers cooperated in an extraordinary manner to make this a most productive period. The designers of decorative sculpture exerted a dominating influence. Oudry and then Boucher became director of the Gobelin Tapestry Works, producing wonderful reproductions of paintings in which sylvan and amatory scenes took the place of the martial and classical subjects of the previous reign. Unfortunately for us, many of the delicate colors they used proved not to be permanent. Charles Cres-sent, who rose to prominence as a decorative sculptor during the Regency, was one of the best designers and cabinet-makers of the century. Jean Riesener was another Louis XV cabinet-maker of prominence. Jacques Caffieri and Pierre Gouthière, skilful metalworkers and cabinet-makers, added their part to the development of the styles. Lancret and Watteau, painters, embellished the walls and furniture of the period. Meissonnier, a designer, was a leader in the dominant rococo school. He defied the laws of balance, often making one side of a console or cabinet quite different from the other without disturbing the sense of harmony. His work is said to have greatly influenced the English Chippendale. And there were many other masters, including a host of interior decorators.

In 1753 Louis made a royal institution of the Sèvres porcelain factory, adding a new impetus in this field of applied art. Under Madame Pompadour Sevres porcelain plaques were much used to enrich cabinets, writing-desks, etc.

It was during this reign, too, that the Martin family flourished, and Vernis-Martin lacquer became popular. The Martins were carriage-painters who invented a lacquer finish in imitation of the popular Oriental lacquer, and then developed the more distinctly French Vernis-Martin. Simon Etienne Martin established the Vernis-Martin works in 1744. This lacquer was made in red, brown, gold, speckled bronze, and even black, and was used on many kinds of furniture, such as tables, cabinets, and elaborate sedan chairs. Watteau and Boucher painted pictures for these Vernis-Martin pieces and also for Vernis-Martin panels, overmantels, and doors.

The later styles of the Louis XIV period gradually merged into those of Louis XV through the medium of the Regency. The taste for curves and rococo details had already made itself felt. The styles of the Louis XV period are marked, in general, by a greater suppleness in the lines of furniture, a more constant use of ornamental metal sculptures, rococo details, and the irregular harmony of related parts.

The Regency style was a medley of mythological, classic, and modern, expressed with much parade and ostentation. The austere and heroic gave place to abandon, frivolity, and extravagance in decorative art. About 1720-25 a strong Chinese influence was felt, both in the increased use of lacquer and in some of the design details.

The Louis XV style proper, however, was a purely French development, built upon the Louis XIV, with very little foreign influence. It was a capricious, whimsical style, exaggerating the late Louis

XIV forms, with a freer use of curves and rococo details. It was a less restrained style than that of Louis XIV, more elegant, and in some ways more graceful. Often, however, it lacked the merit of the previous style, when it carried its extravagance too far.

The dominant decorative motif was the rococo or rocaille, used in irregular symmetry with skilful audacity. It was used in combination with ribbon and lace effects, natural flowers and hanging baskets, the broken shell, the twisted acanthus, the curled endive, and the flowing scroll. It was the master metal-worker, Caffieri, who introduced the endive or celery motif to supplant the classic acanthus.

As has been stated, the lack of precise balance in the use of ornament is a distinguishing mark of the Louis XV style. Unbalanced details were introduced during the Regency, and later, under the leadership of Meissonnier, all attempts to have the design alike on both sides of a given center were abandoned. Nevertheless, though the details were different, the effect of balance was retained by skilful arrangement of unlike sections.

These ornamental details were used lavishly in interior woodwork—on cornice, wainscot, mantel, door- and window-casing, and panel- and picture-

Late Louis XIV armchair with curved legs, upholstered tapestry. The details are balanced

Louis XV console of carved and gilded wood, with marble top

A Louis XV table of polished oak with carving typical of the period frame. Furniture was designed to conform with them. Plain surfaces were avoided, everything being profusely ornamented, chiefly with elaborate mounts of bronze and ormolu, as well as carving.

Toward the end of Louis XV's reign there was a slight reaction toward greater symmetry and simplicity, foreshadowing the style of Louis XVI.

The furniture of the Louis XV period reflected the spirit of the times in form and in decoration. Many kinds of woods were used, including mahogany to some extent, as well as cherry and cheaper woods painted and gilded. Marquetry was not employed extensively, though we sometimes find inlay of tulip, rosewood, maple, and amaranth on some of the larger pieces. The doors and panels of commodes, cabinets, etc., were often veneered, with the grain of the wood running diagonally. All the larger pieces were embellished with metal mounts and carved appliqué, most of it exhibiting superb workmanship.

Indeed, good workmanship was a characteristic of Louis XV furniture. While the chairs of the period were perhaps its most interesting product, there were many other noteworthy pieces in the typical style—tables and elaborately carved consoles, and wonderfully decorated cabinets and commodes. The boudoir was highly developed as a

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