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The French Styles

( Originally Published 1920 )



The period of Louis XIV, Le Grand Monarque, from 1643 to 1715, is not only the longest reign of any European monarch, but also by far the most important of any French king. The high tide of this period marks the epoch of absolute monarchy in France, and also of the crystallization of a national form of expression in all fields. This not only greatly influenced the subsequent French styles, but has been the source of inspiration in other national period forms.

Certain clearly defined conditions existed when Louis XIV assumed the reins of government, contributing each in its way to the climax reached during his reign.

First. France had organized and partially developed a political policy whose tendency was the extension of national domain and the promotion of international relationships. This gave an impetus to French thought, while association and contact with other lands and other forms of life affected the general consciousness.

Second. There had been established through the untiring efforts of Richelieu, Mazarin, and their collaborators a respect for arts and letters, science and commerce, which touched the remotest parts of the kingdom, and gradually admiration for the arts became the fashion, developing almost to a mania, particularly among the upper classes and the court.

Third. Conscious effort appears to have been divorced from religious idealism and concentrated on social evolution, which became the dominating impulse of the rapidly developing nation.

Fourth. The early isolation of the court at Versailles and the gradual magnetic influence it exerted over the beauty, talent and money of the realm, hastened the development of forms of social etiquette, ceremonial observance and pageantry which established the social criteria for the world at large.

Fifth. Through the Edict of Nantes, France was flooded by hordes of Flemish and Dutch Huguenots who were artists and craftsmen, working in all materials, ready to do the bidding of any court personage whose whim and resources permitted creation in any field. This variety of craftsmen, the excellence of their work, and the wealth of material at their command aided no little the growth and maturity of this entirely new French period art expression.

Sixth. It must be remembered that Francis I established an entirely different social domestic ideal. It has been said before that the art of France is an art preeminently for women. In no periods is this so clearly felt as in the periods of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. While in scale, in colour and design much of the period of Louis XIV is masculine in its feeling, the style itself and the variety of its forms is no doubt very largely influenced by the female favourites of the monarch.

During the ascendancy of Madame de Montespan the period reaches its highest form of development. The qualities of the woman-her indomitable will, her love of show, her vanity and pride, with the refinement and culture which she undoubtedly possessed-are all clearly seen in every object supplied the court during the years of her most absolute sway, not alone over Louis himself, but over all those who through her influence expected and received favours. La Valliere, with less force, therefore less power, made far less impress than did de Montespan; while Madame de Maintenon, whose life was given to service and to the outward regeneration of the court, has left an indelible impression of heaviness, formality, lack of grace and an entire absence of the playful charm which the High period expresses in so notable a degree.

The important fact to be retained is that the art of Louis XIV is dominated by female influence, and that this influence, increasing, finds its climax of perfection in the following reign, when Louis XV expresses it most completely.

There is still another condition which has no little bearing on the remarkable crystallization of the style of Louis XIV. This is the period of absolutism in which the monarch declared himself the church and the state. All impulses bent to the one, the aggrandizement of self and the promulgation in no uncertain terms of the absolute monarchical ideal. This in no little measure is the reason for the gradual disappearance of the influences of the Italian Renaissance, the Saracenic invasion, which came through Spain, and of the Teutonic motif. It resulted in the ultimate crystallization of a united French form of expression. Perhaps an examination into the effects of these influences will serve to establish a mental connection which will give the period of Louis XIV a place in the decorative idea.

First of all, this new concentrated social ideal developed the most magnificent and ornate display of modern times. The wealth of material, its luxurious combinations and its military effects, have been the admiration of the unthinking from that day to this. Again, the whole palace at Versailles, with its walls, its ceilings, its accessory objects, formed a vast stage setting for the most extravagant pageants in court life that history records. The thought of the palaces as a suitable background against which to show furniture or people was furthest from the Louis XIV idea. The palace produced a scenic effect into which the most gorgeous costumes, the most subtle, and still pretentious, manners and customs, the most ornate and unrelated forms, were constantly to be seen moving to and fro. Consequently the result must be overdone, heavy, mixed and whimsical, so far as its applications to real life are concerned.

To be sure, there was good and bad in the materials used, in the designs prepared, in the technique of the work done and in the caprices that inspired it. But the aggregate of these things produced a mixed effect beyond ordinary comprehension, and too involved to be a part of anything except the most luxurious, richest and most presuming of all possible interior expression. Even then it must be readapted, refined and worked out by the most artistic hands in order to make it appear as anything else than a grand ballroom or hotel dining-room when seen as a full blaze of glory.

It is important that we should not confuse the architecture with the interior furnishings and decorations of the period called Louis XIV. Let us remember that there were two sets of ideas seeking prevalence in France. The classic idea, with all that it expresses in temperance, simplicity, consistency and sincerity, was still revered, taught and practised by a certain class of persons of education, men of letters and of the arts, while directly opposed to it was the extravagant exposition of the most radical humanistic tendencies. This accounts, in the main, for the two types of literature then prevalent and for the development of classic exterior architecture. This phase is represented by the facade of the Louvre, of Versailles, and kindred buildings of this period. These forms of French architecture more nearly expressed the Italian spirit and are more readily adapted to modern conditions than are any of the French periods, with the possible exception of the late Louis XV, when the classic impulse tended toward refinement and a reduction in scale, so that it produced the historic gem, the Little Trianon.

It is interesting to see how this classic idea, which found its reincarnation in architecture so wonderfully wrought, failed to make any decided impress on either the architecture of the interior or the objects used in its furnishing. It is true that classic decorative motifs appear in the period of Louis XIV, but so changed are they and in general so submerged in other decorative forms that they count for little, and the letter rather than the spirit is perceived.

The decorative motifs may be classed under three distinct heads:

There are the classic motifs egg-and-dart, astragal and dentil-remade in form, readapted in scale, and used as borders and mouldings to give place and form to the other types with which they are always used.

Then there is the shell, which shows rapid changes from the well-formed shell of the early days to the parted motif which in the end became the rococo or roeaille so familiar in this and the following period.

From the Italian scroll, filtered through Flemish usage and adapted by the French, comes the form which is really the controlling one in the decorative expression of the entire period. The naturalistic or humanistic influence, which never conventionalizes or considers materials, was introduced in flower, animal and human form, representing as nearly as possible that for which each object stands in nature.

The combination of these three types of motif form what is known as the Louis XIV motif style. These motifs are arranged in bisymmetric form, mingled and commingled, whether carved, cast, chiselled, or painted, so as to produce certain qualities in appearance for which the period is valuable to us, and which we may use in adapted form.

It will be seen here that there is no relationship established between the room as a background and furniture, decorative objects, persons and the other important things. Remember that the scenic effect of the thing itself is the idea for which the thing exists, rather than as a suitable background effect against which rarer and more important things may be properly exploited. Neither is there a thought in this grand period of restfulness, quietness, unassuming refinement and sincerity of expression which marks the more classic periods. It is these qualities of which we in this generation are so greatly in need.

The furniture of this period expresses two remarkably opposed ideas. In structure it is rectangular and formal, huge in scale, mixed in material. Its decorations and sometimes its upholstery appear as informal motifs, non-structurally treated, playfully arranged, and often so mixed and intermixed that the story of their application to a structural form becomes untranslatable, and one abandons the whole as a maze through which he is unable to direct his thought.

The study of the period shows the colour to be, in the early part, a readaptation of the colours of the High Renaissance in Italy. Dark red, old gold, dark green and dark blue predominate. These tones are below middle value, the textiles are rather simple, Italian motifs dominating and simplicity being the key idea. As the period progresses these colours became a little lighter, more mixed and, finally, toward the latter part of the period, more naturalistic in their motif with a larger number of colours used in each design.

Our object in looking into these influences and their results has been to awaken the reader, first, to the fact that there is a direct relationship of cause and effect between the ideal dominant in the public mind and the art expression which is the result of needs arising from this state of consciousness. Again, it has been the aim to lead the reader to see that national feeling is the expression of a national idea and that, while it expresses perfectly that idea, it may be, and probably is, useless when employed to express any other idea if copied in its original form and manner.

It is also important to know that, while all this is true, certain elements, structural facts, decorative motifs, colour combinations, furniture and ornament creations may be in themselves beautiful. If they are so, and their design qualities are realized, each and all of these are possible elements for use in expressing a new set of ideas. It is to prevent the mistake of believing that a Louis XIV room should be reproduced under modern conditions that this viewpoint has been given. We must see it as the expression of clear-cut qualities of the life which gave it birth.

The first quality of this period may be said to be that of military formality. The monarch himself, though but five feet two inches tall, is always spoken of and thought of as expressing a high type of military dignity and precision. This quality is reflected in the entire art of the period. It is heavy and dominant in its scale; it is a scenic panorama of mixed motifs with diversified treatments, gradually becoming amalgamated into one general feeling of structural and French adaptation. This military, formal, dominating manner unites with it as time goes on a growing refinement of detail in single objects which is almost lost in the dazzling brilliancy with which each thing or detail is forced to become an associate element.

The adaptation of the period of Louis XIV must be made to rooms in which the qualities just discussed are the ones to be brought out in the decoration, but the period itself is far less valuable for present use than it is as a key to the understanding of the two periods immediately following it.



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