Chapter Vi

LOUIS XVI (1774-1793)

BETWEEN two decorative periods there is always a period of transition. Signs of change are to be noticed in the styles of the late Louis XV period. Nevertheless, the transition at this time, though leading to a style radically different, was comparatively brief, and we find the elements of the new style in full swing early in the reign of Louis XVI. It was, indeed, a more or less arbitrary change, carried out by some of the same artists who had worked under Louis XV. Though some of the features of the Louis XVI style doubtless owe much to the dainty taste of Marie Antoinette, perhaps she has received more credit than was her due, for when she came from Vienna as the bride of the young dauphin, she found the new style already under way.

As a matter of fact, the marked changes in the French decorative styles which developed during the brief reign of Louis XVI were due to a more or less

A Louis XV armchair with canc scat and back /

armchair of walnut upholstered with tapestry

A Louis XVI armchair with square back and seat of cane and frame of carvcd walnut

A Louis XVI armchair with oval back, of painted'and gilded wood.

logical swing of the pendulum to a taste for simpler forms after an over-abundance of the elaborate. Moreover, the artists of the period had become studiously interested in the antiquities recently unearthed at Herculaneum and Pompeii and also in the work of the Italian Renaissance. A classical revival resulted, corresponding to that represented by the work of Adam, Wedgwood, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton in England. The return to simpler forms, more graceful lines, and greater restraint in ornamentation appealed to the volatile French taste. The ponderously or elaborately dignified gave place to a playful and dainty character which we have come to associate with the name of Marie Antoinette.

There are critics who profess to see in the Louis XVI style, as in that of Robert Adam, only a feeble reflection of the classic, lacking comfort, elegance, and stability. Such critics are persons—and there are always some—who are constitutionally incapable of appreciating the unadorned beauty of simplicity and perfect proportion. My own faculty of appreciation reacts more promptly to this more chaste form of art than to the more ornate expressions of Chippendale and the artists of the Louis XV period. Despite severity of line, Louis XVI furniture combines beauty and comfort with exquisite proportions.

Though shorn of ornateness, it does not lack elegance. Though quiet, it is never vulgar. It suggests, indeed, aristocracy. It is a refined style, removed as far as possible from the monstrous, ugly, and grotesque, and characterized by delicacy of outline and fineness of detail. There is a certain purity about the style and a quality which indicates that its simplicity was not the result of poverty of imagination, but of self-imposed restraint. Finally, the style was executed with the best of workmanship and painstaking finish.

As to details of the Louis XVI style, it may be said to be rectangular in principle. Straight lines and the simplest curves replaced the reversed curves and flowing scrolls and give the keynote to the style. Ornamental details, which were used with restraint, were largely classic in type and derivation and were used with great skill. They were often copies of Pompeian and Italian Renaissance carvings. Rococo ornament was abandoned, the horizontal Greek band taking the place of the shell in mouldings. The overdone acanthus and the endive made way for the laurel and the oak-leaf, the latter appearing especially on large pieces of furniture, such as cabinets, bureaus, and consoles, and also on clocks, mir-

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