Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Antiques And Arts News Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The French Renaissance And The French Styles

( Originally Published 1920 )

Gothic art was indigenous to the soil of France. By temperament, association and practice the French people were the logical ones to accept, mature and express the Gothic idea. Unhampered for the most part by classic traditions, unfettered by a strong national expression, and still in a somewhat formative state, they accepted in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries the material which blossomed and bore fruit in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Gothic as an expression-particularly in architecture and furnishings-was an idea foreign to England and Italy, and by them expressed with a very strong tinge of national colouring. This betrays the national difference quite as strongly as it emphasizes the original Gothic formulation. Having matured and expressed the Gothic idea, the flower of its expression was found in cathedrals, monasteries, libraries, and in some details of the palaces of the king and of the highest nobles. So far as general domestic architecture, furnishings and decorative material are concerned, little remains, and probably little was produced, up to the time of Louis XII in the late fifteenth century.

On the other hand, the Renaissance, with all it signified, was indigenous to the Italian soil because Italy was the home of classic and Roman traditions and everything classic in form was acceptable as an expression of that tradition. In France, however, the Renaissance was an affected style, as it was also in England and the northern European countries. It must necessarily be so, equally, in this country and at this time.

Consumed with the Gothic idea and having exhausted in ecstasy the materials necessary in telling its story, the French were ready by 1495 for a new idea. Earlier periods had seen the Crusades, and those taking part in them had passed through the land of the Renaissance into the influence of the Orient and, naturally, they had brought back with them to France more or less of the feeling which they had unconsciously absorbed. They also brought back souvenirs of these strange civilizations, and gradually public notice was drawn to the difference between their own products and these foreign forms of expression.

Louis XII, in his Italian campaign, grasped more than had any of his predecessors of the advanced state of civilization in that country and the forms in which this was expressed. His followers, too, returned with more and more accumulated souvenir material, some forms of which were applied to the Gothic background of the palaces in France. He may, therefore, be styled the forerunner of the Renaissance in France.

The Renaissance really began with Francis I who came to the throne in 1515. By birth, association, temperament and disposition he was of the quality likely to demand change, refinement, a more or less flippant expression of social ideals, and a fulness of beauty in social expression which the pure Gothic idea forbade. Three great influences were set in motion by Francis I, which changed the whole complexion and direction of French endeavour and worked out the two great periods in French art which may be called the French Renaissance and the French period styles.

The first of these influences was the change in religious viewpoint during his reign. Instead of the concentration on religious idealism which characterized the earlier centuries, he focussed his thought and spent his time and his energy as well as that of his associates upon the development of the commercial social ideal. This phase of life involved the turning of constructive creative energies into the channels of architecture, furnishings and decoration, in order to satisfy its new demands.

Naturally, since Gothic was the expression of the centuries already past, he turned his attention to the cultivation and promulgation of the newer ideas of the Italian Renaissance. He visited Italy and saw for himself, persuaded artists to leave their country, furnished materials and directed forces-all to the attainment of this end.

The second modifying influence was the change which resulted in the social or domestic ideal. The strict adherence to the family vows and all that that entails had been the social ideal of the earlier national development. Francis, by openly inviting to court the most beautiful, cultured and fascinating women of the land, and by choosing successively the companionship of one or more of these to the exclusion of the rights of the queen, developed a new attitude toward social and domestic relations. This social change reached its culmination in the days of Louis XV in the eighteenth century. This difference in the power and place of woman in social and court life led to wild extravagances, and the most ingenious methods were employed to obtain new and subtle art expressions for the satisfaction of each favourite as she, in turn, enjoyed the royal favour.

Art, from this time on became, in France, more or less an art for women. Each epoch showed to a great extent the striving of artists in every field for something extravagant and beautiful which should be suited to the taste and refinement of Milady, whoever she might be. This fact places the French Renaissance and the French period styles at once in a category by themselves, their qualities being quite individual when compared with those of other nations.

The third influence was the rapidity with which France was organized, politically and socially, during this reign and, through the extension of commerce and international association, the accumulation of wealth which was lavishly expended in the social lines before indicated.

It is not our intention here to enter into details of the period of the Early Renaissance in France, but to set in motion certain ideas which account for the maturity of the French styles as we know them and lead up to an appreciation of the value of these styles in modern decoration.

The French Renaissance may be said to include the time from the accession of Francis I in 1515 to the accession of Louis XIII in 1610, and was developed largely during the reign of Francis I, Henry II and Henry IV. The short reigns of Francis II and Henry III have made so little impress on art styles that they are not worth mentioning in this connection.

The reign of Francis I, Henry II and Henry IV, however, are each dominated by particular ideas, and still the fundamental influences are the change in religious attitude, the birth and development of the new social ideas and practices, and the commercial relationships which made possible the rapid advancement in every line of creative endeavour.

It must be remembered here that there are three stages of development in all art periods. They may be called the Early, the High and the Decline. We look to the Early period for the finest expression of sane idealism which the period gives, to the High period for the rich, full, material display demanded by the principles which control the inception of the thought, and to the Decline for the complete materialization of the original idea with the loss of simple constructive necessities in the deluge of ornament and ostentatious display. We find also in the Decline an injection of materialistic, physical idealism where the aesthetic or the spiritual idea had dominated the original thought.

The period of Francis I represents the first idealism of the Renaissance in France. It may be said to express in its entirety the best period of the Italian Renaissance modified first by the temperamental qualities of the French people and then by the personality of Francis I and his immediate associates. Its architecture represents a tremendous step in the evolution of modern luxury and comfort. Its decorative appearance embodies the laws of decorative choice and arrangement sensed keenly and worked out in the adaptation of the best statement of Italian Renaissance forms. The textiles and textures are the expression of the fairly restrained, though beautifully decorated, ideas of the Middle Renaissance. The development of furniture was intensely interesting because the two new ideas, of beauty for the senses and of comfort for the body, were vying with each other for new fields in which to exercise the lately awakened instincts of a slumbering consciousness.

Tables, chairs, cabinets and chests were modified from the Italian material, scale, construction and combination to the distinctly French, which was smaller, lighter, less dignified, more domestic and less formal. In all other fields of endeavour the same general qualities of refinement, scope and concrete beauty are clearly felt. This was the beginning of the second great temperamental expression of the French people.

The period of Henry II may be briefly described as a cross between the style Francis I and the Baroque Italian Renaissance, with Francis I and Early Italian ideas strongly prevailing. Added to these two influences was the new Oriental idea, espoused and promulgated by many in the court, including the court favourite Diane de Poitiers. For her and through her came some of the finest expressions in the period of Henry II. Naturally a woman of exquisite taste, of liberal education and unlimited power, it was possible for her to develop, particularly in the interior of houses, the ideas to which the Early period had given birth.

Much of this period was devoted to the advancement of the art of tapestry weaving, wood carving and textile manufacture. At times the art seems to be dominated by the High Renaissance or the early stages of the Decline in Italy. This was due, no doubt, to the influence exercised by the queen-Catherine de Mediciwhose ideas and practices were always strictly Italian. She surrounded herself as much as possible with such Italian prelates, workmen and court ladies as would throw the weight of their influence toward Italian expression as opposed to that broadening type which was embraced by Diane de Poitiers. New kinds and more articles of furniture were in demand to satisfy the growing taste for display and comfort. Certain types of chests became cabinets, cabinets became sideboards, sideboards, dressing tables and writing desks, things unheard of in any country, even in Italy at that time. Ornament was a no less prolific field for creative genius.

The whole range of Italian Renaissance was exploited, resulting in a heaviness, a mixed aggregate, and a collection of forms lacking the delicacy, simplicity and refinement with which the period of Francis I speaks so eloquently. Architecture received little impetus although it became the function of the royal power to complete and add to the great number of buildings begun by Francis I and either left unfinished or found too small adequately to express the needs of his epoch.

Suffice it to say that the Renaissance reached its height of decorative possibility in the reign of Henry II, and lost in this reign-particularly toward its close-the exquisite qualities which the period of Francis I had given. This was the natural, spontaneous adaptation of the Italian Renaissance in genuine French feeling.

The period of Henry IV shows a strange conglomeration. Born a Huguenot, and during the first part of his life a believer in all that the Huguenot faith proclaimed, his reign marks an epoch of consistent severity and plainness which outlines itself with great distinctness against the rich informalism of Henry II. Later in life, however, he and his followers seem to have lost the idea for which the Huguenot faith stands and to have realized that it was not the natural outcome of the conditions under which they lived.

No doubt the negotiations between France and Italy, in which Marie de Medici was sold to France to satisfy a debt, had much to do with the future development of this style. Although she was married to Henry IV, it must be remembered that her life was quite apart from that of the court as France knew it, and even from the king himself, for she was not crowned queen until a very few days before the assassination of the king.

The French conception, as already developed, was then established plus the ideas which Marie de Medici and her court imported directly from the Pitti Palace in Florence, where she had been brought up in a peculiarly isolated way in an uncongenial atmosphere. Her associates were bourgeois; she was lonely and piqued, discouraged and sad, whimsical, and by nature inclined to material things. The fact that she was starved in every way in her youth, bartered for a monetary consideration and placed in an impossible situation, may account for the kind of influence she exercised on the rest of this period and the Early period of her son, Louis XIII.

Being surrounded by persons inferior in birth and culture, and not having the fullest confidence of the king and his ministers, she naturally sought to express herself in such things as would at least demand attention and remark from all with whom she came in contact. Evidently, too, there were certain persons of the court whose taste must be deferred to.

Architecturally, most of the work was the completion of things already begun. So far as furnishing was concerned, some new pieces were originated and others fell into disuse. Flemish artists began to make themselves felt because of the Edict of Nantes which gave religious freedom in France to all and was the signal for an influx of Flemish, English and West Germanic artisans. Nearly all of these represented the art crafts in some form. The finest workers in metal, wood, stone, cloth and other media found their homes in France. This influence is felt to the very end in the quality of the technique shown in the expression of any idea in anymaterial up to the time of the French Revolution. Much, however, of its efficiency was lost with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in the last days of his life.

So far as the feeling in this period is concernedand that is the important thing in this connectionit may be styled the decline or decadence of the Renaissance in France. It really corresponds in France to the decline of the Italian Renaissance which occurred from about 1550, and is characterized by the bourgeois taste which always chooses the most ornate, the showiest and the most impossible things under the impression that they are true examples of refined artistic selection.

Perhaps the most important conclusion to be derived from the period of Henry IV is that, given a plain, simple, dignified, sincere, consistently decorative thing and one which is involved, dissembling, unpardonably loaded with decoration and worked in unrelated motifs and materials, the bourgeois taste invariably selects the latter. This is partly due to the fact that all are not trained to select intelligently or reasonably, and most are not qualified through emotional endowment or training to select without stopping to think why a thing is, or is not, good. Neither this intuitive perception of consistency in decoration and beauty nor an intellectual conception or judgment of it was present in the dominating idea of the period of Henry IV.

To grasp the Baroque influence or the materialistic naturalistic substitution for idealism it is only necessary to study the type of persons, the quality of ornament, and the technique manifested in the tapestries of the day. This same aggregate quality idea was seen in the painting, as may be easily distinguished in the wonderful, though sensuous and voluptuous, paintings of the court of Marie de Medici by Rubens. Out of the same consciousness that chose and admired these tapestries and paintings came the choice of and admiration for the furnishings and fittings of the interior. Cabinets, chests, tables and chairs were not only covered with carved materials, but loaded with them. This decorative material consisted of a grotesque combination, impossible in nature and irregular in art, of human, animal, vegetable and mineral motifs naturalistically done but unthinkably combined.

This adaptation of the universe in a naturalistic form in all materials is no more art than it is nature. It is a misconception of the relation of nature to art, a misconception of decoration itself, and an evidence of wrong judgment as to the choice and application of decoration. It is the inevitable sign of a decadent taste and a love for show which entirely eclipses the power to distinguish the eternal fitness of things, which is the foundation of all art expression. The inspiration for all this was found in the life of the times. It was the natural consequence of the acceptance by the people of a foreign form of art expression with the many outside influences which modified its growth and the culmination of an idealism which puts physical, sensuous 'gratification before not only the spiritual law but the aesthetic conception as well.

While this period may be said to be the closing one of the French Renaissance, it is the foundation for the subsequent development of periods which may be called the French styles. There is much in the period of Francis I which may be copied or readapted with profit and pleasure in the development of the American ideal. Clearly, to actually copy the Francis I style is quite impossible since our conditions are so dissimilar. The period of Henry II, too, presents structural features, forms, new articles of furnishing and decorative ideas which are really forces not only in the French periods but also in modern times if handled as force instead of objects to be copied.

Decorative features, textiles, pottery and the like found a beginning in these periods which in many others have not been improved upon for their decorative effect.

Thus are decorative forces potential and may be used in many combinations and arrangements when one understands for what they stand. On the other hand, to copy these slavishly with backgrounds and accessories is quite as impossible as to so copy the architecture itself.

For the period of Henry IV there is less to be said. A selection of anything which is truly expressive of the period indicates a dearth of other material.

The French Renaissance may be said to end with the death of Henry IV in 1610, although its influence was felt for some years during the regency of Marie de Medici.

Louis XIII came to the throne in 1610, and was contemporary with James I and Charles I of England. During his reign of thirty-three years the transition from Renaissance to strictly French period styles took place. One of the marked characteristics of the French is their adaptability or susceptibility to new ideas and their assimilation, modification and re-expression of these ideas.

At the end of the reign of Louis XIII scarcely anything was left that could be called Renaissance in its form or feeling so thoroughly had it become modified by other influences and permeated with the true French atmosphere. Briefly considered, the period of Louis XIII-from the artistic decorative standpoint-illustrates the epoch of conflicting influences accepted, harmonized and reconstructed, and it paves the way for the magnificent development of the period of Louis XIV. By nature Louis XIII was less fitted to dominate a style than any of his predecessors. His genius and his attention were devoted to quite other fields of development. But certain inevitable influences were felt that modified the national attitude and brought into its development new ideas which resulted in the grand periods that followed. One of the most interesting and one of the strongest influences for growth in the arts and letters is found in the power of Cardinal Richelieu.

Immediately upon his assuming a position of importance, Richelieu furthered the causes of science and art, and bent his energies toward the furthering of their development during the time of his power. In sympathy with scientific research and a devoted lover of the beautiful, he did much to pave the way for intensive development along these lines, in which his influence was felt for two centuries after.

The queen, Anne of Austria, a Spanish woman with all the inherent tendencies of strict, formal, Spanish etiquette, contributed no small part to the formulation of this new and very mixed type of art expression. Spanish art at this time was a mixture of the Saracenic influence as it was expressed in Granada and the Italian Decadence as it was espoused by the Spanish people. Grandeur, elegance, show and heaviness were the chief characteristics Anne of Austria contributed to the period of Louis XIII.

At this time the Flemish influence was felt in the form of twisted woods, simple rectangular structures, the scroll, and their peculiar treatment of the acanthus. Their methods eventually took firm root in French soil. Add to this the influence, through the Duke of Buckingham and his suite, of the English period known as that of Charles I, and one readily perceives how the period of Louis XIII received vast potential influences-Italian, Spanish, Saracenic, Flemish and English. All of these required to be assimilated, reconstructed and intelligently used to express the needs of the new phase of life into which France had entered.

Difficult it would indeed be to describe in a limited space the period of Louis Enough may be gleaned, however, from this brief discussion to stimulate the reader to historical research and period study, to make him realize that he is looking for the natural consequence that must follow the acceptance of certain ideas, and that any art expression is but the natural result of harbouring certain ideals and allowing the mind to see them as important factors in the satisfaction of life's requirements. This whole period may be said to be a transition between the adaptation of Italian styles to French use and the new idea of seeking structural and beauty elements anywhere, and using these elements in an adapted way to express the taste and intelligence of a people whose requirements or needs change as their civilization advances. In this way only is it possible to make a consistent use of the art forms of any period in the expression of individual needs.

Bookmark and Share