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Decorative Periods:
Decorative Stles And Periods In The Home
General Antiquity
Pompeian Decorative Styles And Periods
Gothic Decorative Styles And Periods
The Renaissance
Decorative Styles And Periods In Italy
Decorative Styles And Periods In France
The Style Of Louis Quatorze
The Style Of Louis Quinze
The Style Of Lous Seize
Empire Decorative Styles And Periods
Elizabethan Or Tudor Styles Sixteenth Century
Jacobean Period
Queen Anne
Chippendale Middle Of Eighteenth Century
The Adams Brother
Hepplewhite Book Issued 1789
Shearton - End Of The Eighteenth Century
English And American Empire
Art Nouveau

The Style Of Louis Seize

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



REIGN OF LOUIS XVI - 1774-1793

The two styles of Louis Quinze and Louis Seize ever stand as rivals. Together they present themselves before the decorator, the home-maker, the collector; two charming beauties, they stand in bewildering attractions awaiting choice. Which will you take, the most talented of original conceptions, or the chaste adaptations of classic models?

The choice is hard to make, harder after studying a little into what produced these styles than when mere haphazard instinct regulates the decision. The modern cheap decorator`"'has spoiled for the novice half the pleasure which the style Louis Quinze should give, for with his pointed paste-bag he traces all over cheap interiors a base imitation of the carved relief which played with such wondrous touch on the walls of the French palaces and chateaux. And the furniture factories have supplemented this wedding-cake decoration with hybrid chairs and tables, which suggest, alas, while degrading, the royal styles they imitate. Just why correctness of line cannot be maintained is one of those mysteries which depend on another mystery-public taste, and on the desire of the vendor to offer something entirely new.

In its overdoing also the style Louis Quinze suffers more than any other. From its very originality it is vulnerable to the assaults of perverted taste, and its exaggeration leads to caricature. It is called a voluptuous style, but to that may be said that it is only so in the hands of coarse designers. In its purest expression it is delicate enough to excite the admiration of the most fastidious taste. Transferred to the warmer countries of Italy and Spain, unrestraint marks it for a quick exaggeration, its intellectual quality is lost, and it becomes indeed gross, offensive, decadent. From the examples shown of this we turn revolted and scoffing.

But a study of the style in its most refined development, as it proceeds from the hands of the artists of the art-encouraging State ateliers, cannot fail to win for it the achniration of those whose taste is the most sensitive. To find it typical of moral rectitude, to seek among its sinuous curves for the unswerving line of duty, to follow the tracery of its erratically balanced relations in the hope of reaching a firm foundation - is to meet disappointment. If the style means anything at all, it means the triumph of beauty; and when beauty assails, reason has no part. But the production of so much beauty by man, not Nature, means intellectual effort as well as talent.

What might be called the moral prejudice against the style lies largely in attributing its development to the taste of Mesdames de Pompadour and du Barri. It is regretted that to these depraved conscienceless bourgeoises should be given so much credit. For them the beautiful furniture was made, but drawing and execution were by men of talent and industry, and to them the honour. If in their lives appear moral irregularities incompatible with rectitude, then the corruption of the times is responsible, and their talent is their sufficient excuse for being.

Not with one sudden bound does a new style supplant its predecessor, but transition periods intervene when designers are trying new effects and people are testing the novelty. They are not always agreeable to study, for in the first gropings the old style is suffering and the new is not matured. A careful study of perfected styles gives an unconscious equipment for distinguishing the transitional, and this is in general the better way, one less likely to result in confusion. Yet a change which forecast the style Louis Seize had begun long before Louis XV and his famous favourites had ended their reign.

It is recorded that an Italian tour was taken by the brother of de Pompadour, who was now in the place occupied by Colbert, and that with him went Soufflot, the artist. It is also a fact that attention in Italy at this time was directed to the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The discovery of these buried cities was made some time previous, but owing to want of funds the work went on slowly. We are familiar with the purity of the designs unearthed, their Greek origin, their severe line, and chaste detail. Is it difficult to see the analogy between these and the rectangular forms with dainty embellishment of the style Louis Seize? Add to this a fresh study by the French of the refined ornament of the best period of the Renaissance in Italy, and we have the source of inspiration of the style which so admirably suits our modern uses.

It was at Luciennes that Louis XV established du Barri, and it was here his majesty took pleasure in forgetting duty to the State by playing the private gentleman of fortune. The command of the grisette who ruled him was to make a royal residence of the miniature palace, and it was done. Luciennes, we are told, was decorated in what we call the style Louis Seize. This, be it observed, was late in the reign of Louis XV, and interests because it shows how early the change began and how arbitrary is the apportionment of names. After all, it is the artists who make the style, and not the patron.

The same artists lived and designed through parts of two reigns, and thus turned their fertile brains and adroit hands to two widely diverging styles; indeed, to them must be given the credit of the new inventions. Unhappily the State ateliers were beginning to disintegrate, and court patronage disappeared with the Revolution.

Before the death of Louis XV the Dauphin had acquired the age of nearly twenty years, and was already married, and an applicant for some of the furniture deluxe of the celebrated makers. A change of style is noticeable in much that was made for him. The time of rectangles was coming in. And it is true that at the time Marie Antoinette appeared from Vienna as bride to the Dauphin, she found already in vogue the style which we name for her.

Possibly the temperament of the Dauphin unconsciously inspired the artists, for his nature, though weak, was not lost in a worship of the senses, nor in the profound ennui which follows their indulgence. Lacking the force of Louis XIV, he also rose superior in morals to Louis XV, and the Revolution which made him its victim drew its nourishment. from roots planted in the prodigalities, the vacillations, the criminal neglect of political functions by Louis XV.

In a general way the style of Louis Seize is familiar to all. Its type is one easily imitated, and it may also be said less offensively imitated than styles less chaste. There are those who call it impoverished, a feeble reflection of the antique, and see in it neither comfort nor elegance. It is difficult for Northern taste so to view it. It may not be inspiring, it may even be petty, but it never obtrudes. It is said of fashion that to know how ugly are its inventions they should be viewed when their hour is past. The style Louis XVI is never ugly, in the mode or out of it, and this fact alone proclaims eloquently its superiority.

In form it is rectangular. No feats of balance are attempted either in chairs or larger pieces, but everything rests on straight lines. Its beauty lies in fine outlines of rare delicacy and in the unsurpassed purity of its ornament. Its detractors say that in this is no art, that its unimaginative designers strove to make finish and lavish expenditure atone for poverty of invention. To this we cannot agree, especially as the style has inspired the most exquisite of the English cabinet-makers, Thomas Sheraton.

Let us review a few of its characteristics that we may know the reason for admiring this style, the meaning of its symbols, and the touch of the artists who invented or adapted them.

Chairs, sofas, tables, commodes, desks, all stand straight, with most engaging honesty, - the pretty, embellished honesty of children at a class of dancing, sophisticated, but none the less true. The cabriole leg of furniture has disappeared, and instead we have a slender, tapering shaft, free from underframing, poised lightly on the parquet.

With delight the designer has created these utilitarian supports, giving them the look of shafts shot to earth from some aerial archer. Invariably classic is their detail, and the most of them are fluted. How to vary this fluting was the pride of handicraft. Between the fluting was a line of threaded beads or husks or shorter flutings, or the flutes were lined with brass or tipped with metal beading, in the case of ormolu-mounted pieces. The finish at the foot was capped with a ring or an acanthus cup, or one of the vase-like terminals of Pompeian chair-legs. The finish at the top was carved into a tiny wreath of exquisite fineness, or a row of beading, or finished with torch-like effect. Indeed this effect of a torch was the one most sought.

In important pieces, the classic motif of bound arrows was employed and formed the corner of bureaus and commodes. The legs of tables were like those of chairs, elongated, excepting that as tables were usually richly mounted a departure could be made from the manner of treating wood alone, and female heads of ormolu were used to crown the shaft of wood and support the table top.

It was in the preceding style that chairs received that perfection of form which left not one part unfinished, - a shape which framed the upholstery, while not becoming subservient to it, a beautiful union of art and utility. The same system is followed in the chairs we are now considering, even though the shape has lost its curves. The decoraiotions of these pieces is a carving of such exquisite finish and design that the names of Verbeckt and Rousseau come down to us as artists in that work. Fineness of detail is one of the charms of this style which seems made expressly that persons of wealth might exhibit their good taste. The finest details of Pompeii, the most refined carvings of the Italian Renaissance are copied onto the chairs and sofas, executed with a skill which is not even attempted in these hasty days.

The arms of chairs which are fitted with this comfortable addition are worth a little close observation, to show how the decoration gives reason for the curve which rests one end on top the front leg with absolute harmony of purpose. Chair-backs are not always square, as may be seen from the plates, but their simple regular curves are never to be confounded with the sinuous lines of the preceding style.

The sofa at this time grew longer, as though not to crowd into close proximity the pair who rested on it for causerie, and no difficulties of construction were offered by this elongation as would have been in the designs of Louis XV. Wood by its very nature needs to be used according to the grain, and not weakened by the curves that make metal but stronger. A longer body for the sofa meant more straight legs set under it like little columns supporting an architrave.

Cushions for sofas and for chaises bergeyes, as well as for the ordinary armchair, were luxurious even beyond the highest invention of our own luxury producing age. Springs were unknown - were tinwanted - as long as they were superseded by plump cushions of the softest down that was ever plucked from eider-duck. These cushions, lying loose, were in use in the previous reign, but are more closely associated with this of Louis XVI.

Stuffs for covering were as rich as looms could make, but the drawing changed to suit the smaller detail of the wood carving. Delicate colours prevailed, being a necessity for that furniture which was enamelled in white. Stripes of many fine lines embellished with floral interruptions were in great favour, yet not in the exclusion of more generous designs in naturalistic flowers and foliage.

Tapestry from Beauvais, and from Aubusson, the tapestry of the basse lisse or low-warp, was rightly the preferred covering, but even kings did not have every chair and sofa fitted with this ideal fabric.

It is complained of tables of the period that the tapering leg - so light and tasteful on chairs - by elongation gave an effect of instability to the top, and a generally thin, poor look. It is true, perhaps, and the writer knows from experience that when a marble top is added to the weight, the whole acquires an instability which mutely begs for tender handling. But the life led by those of high estate in the time of Louis XVI was a dainty, delicate one of little strain, and heavy burdens were not desired by either men or tables.

The introduction of mahogany, the use of amboyna wood and tulip and rosewood, all helped to make these tables what they were, a contrast in colour to the furniture designed for holding the human frame. Chairs and sofas were rarely left in the natural wood, and when not enamelled were skilfully gilded.

The dark rich woods required different treatment. The shell inlay of Boulle had gone out of fashion, but its residuum was the bronze mount. The feeling for incrusting furniture with ornament gave way to a preference for exposing the beauty of the wood itself. But the dark background thus obtained was an ideal contrast for the gilded bronze. So tables were in general of polished wood much mounted.

The same holds true of large pieces like vitrines or cabinets, commodes, desks, and the like. Wherever possible marble was used as a top, although inlay was at a perfect state of development.

The real beauty of all these large pieces lies not in their construction, though against that not a word can be said, for since originality may be lacking, it offends no one's taste through all the changing centuries of changing fashions. But no one can look upon fine specimens of the metal work of this period without feeling a thrill of admiration for the work, and a desire to know more of the men who produced it -to say nothing of registering a resolve to become the possessor of at least one fine specimen.

The curled endive of Caffieri which strayed with luxuriant abandon, is coarse and unfeeling beside the miniature detail of Gouthiere, Thomiere and other workers for the Petit Trianon. The chiselers, engravers, artists, all concentrated their attention on minute detail, and carried their work to a perfection equalling that of the goldsmith. New effects were produced by new blending of metals, two shades introduced in one pattern, but this was hardly necessary, as the effects of varied colour were given by the perfect sculpturing of the dead gold finish.

The feet of tables and vitrines were shod with bronze ferrules, and the top of the legs finished with bronze caps, while every moulding was supplied with a line of running detail. A flat panel called for an open pattern of twisted wreaths, or for an ambitious design executed with the care now lavished only on a silver " cup " for some international contest of sports. Indeed, so fine is this old work that bits of it might almost be worn as jewelry.

Large designs of trophies changed entirely from the warlike victories and half-Roman drawing to those which reflected more the thoughtless life of the court, lived for the great part in blind ignorance of the real state of France. In place of arms and armour, there were the arrows of Love, the accessories of music, and in place of the victor's palm, the hero's bay, there were garlands of roses from my lady's bower. A reflection in art of the change in royal intent from the days of Louis XIV is what this alteration might be called. The lighter way of taking life must be reflected in the surroundings of those who led it, and artists were trucklers to royal favour-hardly to their pecuniary profit, however, for almost always the crown paid slowly, if at all, and even Gouthiere died a ruined man.

Martin Carlin is the name of the metal worker who is held responsible for what might be called a buncombe design, but which is too closely identified with this period not to be mentioned. It is the band of gilded decoration that imitates a line of drapery caught up at brief intervals with the silly effect of tiny tassels. It edges tables and is often seen as a finish to the shelves of vitrines, but in its lack of art looks like a stock ornament of last resort. Galleries around the top of tables and cabinets were a feature of the time, gracefully combining beauty and utility.

This was a time of porcelain. Vases imported from China were eagerly seized on by Gouthiere, Thomiere, and others, and were mounted in bronze with fine skill and lively imagination. Placques from the Sevres factory were taken by the furniture-makers for insertion in their work, but the effect does not appeal to the modern eye except as a curiosity.

The famous Riesener was producing his wondrous inlay all through the period, and lived to see the havoc of the Revolution. He was a master in his art, and played on a scale of colour supplied by all the choice woods of the day, amboyne, tulip, mahogany, ebony, and all others whose tones added soft richness to the work. Lacs were at their height, and were used in panels or to cover the entire surface of a piece.

In general decoration of a room, the return to architectural effect was directly due to the revived study of the antique. Fluted pilasters from floor to cove were the fundamental idea, and the spaces left between were panelled and decorated with the delicate drawing of panels of Pompeii, or the Renaissance. Doors lost their rounded tops and wavering panels, and became again rectangular except for the daintily composed decoration in attenuated scrolls, vases, animal forms and amorini.

A time of non-constructive decoration is this period, in contradistinction to the one preceding it where the lines of decoration were made to uphold - an impossible conception for any but the most certain of artists when the lines were all sinuous. And yet, even though the style Louis Seize may not have required such genius to produce, it is one which never tires the eye nor affronts the taste, and one which imitators cannot readily caricature with their ignorantly made horrors.

Whatever is said in criticism of Marie Antoinette, and of Louis XVI can never be said without kindness, because of the terrible tragedy of their death, met with a bravery that could scarcely have had its origin on that day, but must have been the result of a dormant strength which the lives of kings do not always develop.

True it is that the queen was either seeking playful retirement away from the oppressive grandeur of palaces, or else meddling inconveniently with the affairs of State. To indulge her love for mock industry the king gave to her the Petit Trianon, which he had fitted up in the perfection of the style known by her name and by his. In this place she and her ladies played dairy-maid to their hearts' satisfaction, and it is of the daintiest of the furniture of this place that a prejudiced writer says, " Pretty, elegant, irrational, and entirely useless, this costly furniture might be said to stand as a symbol of the life which the Revolution swept away."

With the Revolution came the rule of the democrat, and iconoclasm was the order of the day. The State ateliers were no more, no more was royal patronage. The wonders of Versailles, to whose production men of genius had thought it a privilege to consecrate their lives, were desecrated by the wild mob who were in possession.

Two years after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in Paris, the self-made authorities ordered everything within the palace of Versailles sold at public auction, and thus were scattered the wondrous works of the applied arts that a mere recent government has tried in vain to re-assemble. Among those at this famous auction stood Riesner, the celebrated craftsman who had served two kings. In the sadness of the tragedy, although cumbered with debt, he honoured his art and his dead patrons too much to let all go. Several of the pieces of furniture de luxe were bought in by him in reverence of dethroned art.



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