French furniture pieces from the 18th-century. Louis XIV furniture

France entered the 18th century in full, magnificent gallop. Louis XIV, its greatest monarch, the Sun King, had earned France the fashionable reputation it would enjoy for the next 3 centuries. Having begun his reign in 1643, Louis XIV is most commonly associated with the Baroque style period although his reign spans well into the early Rococo period.

The Baroque style encompassed French style throughout the 1600s and in some areas until 1750, overlapping the Rococo style. In France, it reflected the grandeur and splendor of Louis XIV’s majestic reign.

Curved fronts were first used on large cabinets, wardrobes and chests of drawers, echoing the new baroque architecture. Chairs became richly carved with new high-backed forms. Columnar legs, carefully and intricately gilded, were used on tables, chairs, and stands for chests. Simple variations of chairs were made with turned parts in place of the carved areas, but the same tall backs were used. The most elegant and elaborate furniture of its day was made for the court of Louis XIV in France, and as a result, much of Baroque furniture has become labeled Louis XIV style.

André-Charles Boulle, Louis’ chief cabinet maker, developed the marquetry technique of using brass and tortoise shell that now bears his name. Boulle’s use of highly colored inlays of precious wood, tortoiseshell, brass, pewter, or copper to depict geometric arabesques, landscapes, or flowing draperies came to represent the Baroque style of furniture decoration.

As the century progressed, Louis XV’s court retained the love of lavishness, but without much of the charm of the previous monarch. Nonetheless, it ushered in the Rococo period, characterized by ornate design, ormolu, gilt and the introduction to France of mahogany. While Rococo began in the reign
of Louis XIV it flourished in that of Louis XV under the sure and magical hand of the king’s cabinetmaker, Bernard Van Riesenburgh, who produced some of the most exquisite examples of this period’s designs.

Rococo furniture exhibits a greater delicacy in the scale of objects and a more intimate connection between furniture and people. Furniture pieces for Parisian houses were conceived to be in scale with people rather than with the rooms.

French Rococo furniture is considered by many to be the most elegant of all Rococo furniture. French designs were characterized by complex, sinuous forms that curved in every direction. Whimsical patterns were inlaid on layers of veneer that, in turn, were framed with ormolu outlining the legs, edges,
and drawer fronts of a piece. Columnar legs were replaced by
animal-form legs in a variety of curved forms.

French fauteuils, or armchairs, were also made of beechwood from the late mid-18th century. The fauteuil exhibited upholstered back and seat and a molded voluted frame, that was sometimes gilt, and gently curving cabriole legs. Upholstery fabrics quite often showed entire scenes from Greek mythology or fables, rather than monochromatic profusion of flowers or shells.

During the mid-18th century, French cabinetmakers introduced the commode, an ornate chest of drawers, with applied mounts. Most popularly made in the double curve, or swollen-looking, bombé shape, the commode was generally made of walnut, for urban pieces or chestnut for provincially-made pieces. Such chests of drawers were often decorated with inlays in a variety of materials, from contrasting woods to tortoise-shell. Handles were sometimes gilt, but most often cast in ormolu. The popularity of the commode soon spread from France across the Continent and across the English Channel.

Unlike many English cabinetmakers and designers, French craftsmen
in the 18th and 19th century stamped their products with their
initials or their name, making it a little easier to identify
the origin of the pieces.

Madame Pompadour, Louis XV’s influential mistress, recognized
the inherent danger in the unrestrained extravagance of the
French aristocracy. It is said that she warned Louis, telling
him, “Aprés nous, le deluge.” Louis XVI, his queen, Marie Antoinette,
and their court ignored the warning, and the decadence of the
French court continued. Oak was now often deemed too coarse
a grain and walnut and mahogany, infinitely more suitable to
ornate carving, became the dominant material for furniture,
with the occasional pieces made of fruitwood and satinwood.
Mahogany allowed for furniture lines becoming more graceful
and serpentine. Furniture legs became lighter-looking as splayed
feet replaced bracketed feet.

The use of cane for the back of chairs or sofas returned, then
made its way to England toward the end of the century. The bergère,
a chair with caned back, sides and seat, made its debut and
remained popular into the middle of the 19th century.

The French fashions of carved foliage motifs, slender legs,
flowing curves and show-wood gilt frames for upholstered sofas
and chairs swept its way to England and can be seen in the designs
of Hepplewhite and Sheraton.

As letter writing gained the status of fashionable pastime,
French cabinetmakers produced a number of styles of writing

The escritoire, a cabinet with a drop leaf front panel that served as a writing surface gained increasing popularity in France and the Continent. It continued in wide-spread use through the entire 18th century and into
the 19th century as well.

One of the greatest social impacts of the 18th century was its
popularization of reading. Novels and poetry books became available
for the wealthy middle-class as well as the aristocracy. As
a symbolic act of its difference from the peasantry, the wealthy
bourgeoisie began to imitate the aristocracy by collecting books.
In France, as in other countries on the Continent, Bureau and
bureau bookcases became status symbols. As such, these cabinets
were often more ornately decorated than other items of furniture.

Bureau bookcases were generally made in two pieces. The top
section was made to rest within the molding on the top of the
lower section, while the two sections were held together by
screws. Bureaux matched the other furniture of the room or house.
As a result, writing and book cabinets took on the bombé style
of the commode, or the block-front fashion. These styles extended
to the American Colonies, although they never gained popularity
in England itself. Secretaire cabinets held books. Early on,
the pair of doors on the upper section of a bureau were either
mirrored or plain. By the middle of the century, glazed glass
replaced the mirrors.

Writing cabinets could be decorated in marquetry, or even lacquered
in black, scarlet or green, and highlighted in gilt. In the
later part of the century, delicately decorated elegant ladies’
writing desks, such as the bonheur-du-jour, were also made.
These pieces of furniture were made smaller, to accommodate
the more genteel atmosphere of a lady’s boudoir, morning parlor
or sun-room.

Toward the later half of the century, renewed interest in the
designs of ancient Greece and Rome ushered in Neo-Classicism.
The first phase of Neoclassicism is
called the Louis XVI style, despite the fact that Louis XVI’s
reign began in 1774, later than some of the best examples of
Neo-classical style.

Neoclassicism was a reaction to the Rococo style and an alternative to those
bored with the increasingly ornate decoration of Rococo articles.
While most British claim that Robert Adam, the English architect,
introduced the first of his neoclassical designs before 1760,
the French claim that an important collector, La Live de Jully,
had furnished a room “à la grecque,” at about the same time.

Regardless of who began this latest revolution in design, furniture
shapes were simple and geometric; rectangular, circular, and
oval forms rested on straight, tapering legs that were either
square or round in cross section. As lines became more streamlined,
furniture items became more elegant, more refined.

Common motifs echoed architectural decorations such as flower
garlands, drapery, paterae (medallions), dentils, and Doric,
Ionic, or Corinthian moldings.

Wooden inlays remained highly popular; marquetry and parquetry
added to the uniquely beautiful designs of
the period. An increasing interest in Eastern motifs brought
the return in Chinoiserie, with scenes in finely executed wood
inlay, often highlighted with gilt. Ebony also gained
popularity, in particular works by Louis XVI’s master cabinetmaker,
Jean-Henri Riesener and Georges Jacob.

French tripod tables, also called occasional tables, were at
times decorated with ormolu legs, and a decidedly unique French
touch — porcelain plaques made by famed china maker Sèvres
and other Paris factories incorporated into the table top. This
style, however, did not become popular in wither England or
in America.

French tapestry became more decorative in the 18th century.
designs and panel sizes were adapted for the smaller Rococo
salon. Classical and contemporary military themes and pastoral
scenes were particularly popular. Tapestries were enormously
expensive even in the 18th century, so it is not entirely surprising
that toward the end of the century, as the aristocracy in France
sees its social sphere unraveling, the art of French tapestry
declined until its revival in the late 19th century.

1792, the world came crashing down on the court of Louis XVI.
As the Reign of Terror began to sweep France in 1792, scores
of priceless items of furniture, art, china, etc. were lost
forever, burned wantonly in the bonfires that too often followed
a peasant raid on an aristocratic chateau.

By 1793, with the beheading of Louis and Marie Antoinette on
the guillotine, the Neo-Classic period came to an end, as the
New France made a deliberate and conscious attempt to develop
its own style. Attempts at a more simplified look had already
begun with the Directoire style during the 1790s.

Archeology-inspired designs marks the Empire style period of the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Although French designers and
furniture makers had already begun to design furniture in ancient Roman style during the Directoire period of the 1790s, the greatest innovation of this style came under Napoleon’s court designers, Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine. Escritoires of the Empire period utilized elaborate vaneer work and often had marble tops. Typically, these cabinets often sported Neo-classical pillars as well.

Bookcase of this period could be painted and parcel-gilt.
Most were made in mahogany. Typically, martial-style ormolu
mounts and decorations such as astragals in the shape of
crossed spears, were designed to celebrate Napoleon’s military

One of France’s greatest claim to fame in the 18th century
was it production of ornamental clocks. (Clocks/clockmakers)
The period of Louis XV introduced the cartel clock, a highly
decorative, often in gilt or ormolu, these ornate wall pieces
were spring-driven. Many cases were surmounted by intricately
carved and gilt mythological or heroic figures.

In the mid-to late 18th century, Abraham-Louis Bregeut
(clocks/clockmakers) designed the first carriage clock.
By the early 19th century, about 99 percent of all carriage
clocks were produced in France.