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Textiles - The French National Style

( Originally Published 1930 )



WE are now in the time of Louis XIV. That Grand Monarch, as he liked to be called, was a liberal patron of the arts. But art patrons after the decline of the Renaissance wanted display, not thought, so designs grew prodigious. Delicate drawings which so pleased the intelligent ladies of Florence, Milan, Ferrara, failed to express the spirit of the Seventeenth Century, therefore the mode changed. France was creating a style of decoration all her own. If it was more grandiose and sumptuous than intellectual, that should be overlooked because it was at least a new creation in the world of decoration, and it built a foundation for the styles that followed those of the Eighteenth Century.

Louis XIV in his maturity is a pompous and powerful figure, but in his youth he excites our interest and wonder as an individual. He was but five years old when his father's death left him to reign. That in itself is full of appeal and invests the heart with a tenderness for him—a useless waste, for he was ever able to fend for himself.

His mother, the beautiful Anne of Austria, with the astute Cardinal Mazarin, gave him his early training. Mazarin had the Italian's love for art and its true appreciation. The royal boy was early associated with the works of art of the Cardinal and learned from him his connoisseurship. We are not without at least one of the textile examples of the Mazarin collection, the rare old tapestry made for Ferdinand and Isabella and now in the collection of Mr. Joseph Widener of Philadelphia.

Foucquet had long been Minister of State when Louis began to govern. One of his greatest interests had been to acquire for himself a colossal fortune. After the showy manner of the day he displayed his wealth in Paris and in his marvelous chateau and gar-dens at Vaux. Lively ladies made beautiful the garden shades, gallant gentlemen in beauteous dress accompanied them, and the heart of Nicolas Foucquet warmed with pride. But the king although young in years suspected him of touching the coffers of France for his fortune and without hesitation had him arrested. He died after nearly twenty miserable years of imprisonment.

And thus came Colbert to the fore, and the subject of our study is somewhat concerned with this able Minister of Finance. If the king, Louis XIV, was by early training a lover of art, it was because of the wise administration of State affairs by Colbert that Louis was able to create an actual manufactory for art, maintained by the Treasury of France.

The inspiration was found, as it ever is, among social conditions. First there were the ladies of the Court, beautiful like Louise de Valliere, gifted like Madame de Montespan. For these and many others, including perhaps the Queen, Louis desired a sumptuous setting, furniture and hangings that should make appropriate background for hours of ease and intimacy. And for royal audiences, there were required things even more grandiose.

Again there were the artists. Louis XIV seemed to have in his hard ambitious nature a tenderness towards artists. They were ever a badly recompensed portion of society—with the notable exception of a flatterer in portraits—and one thinks of them as running around the Place des Voges or older streets with canvasses to sell, and of returning unsuccessful to attic chambers in the high houses of old Paris. But the king rewarded them with free quarters in the Louvre.

Louis XIV founded the Manufacture des Gobelins, and Colbert furnished the money to maintain it. Here were made the most marvelous pieces of furniture of the time, bringing into prominence such names as Riesner, Oeben, Caffieri. And in this factory we come upon the revival of tapestry weaving.

Each part of the world has its day in art. Art seems too precious and rare a matter to spread over all the world at once, so it blesses one country at a time. The valley of the Euphrates and Egypt had their day, Greece had hers, followed by Rome. Then the Mohammedan dominated. Italy awoke and aroused a lethargic civilization. Next and last to impress the entire world was France. The French Renaissance, the period is called by some, but that term not being exact turns one back to the time when Francis I imported the Italian Renaissance into his country with the enthusiasm of the true lover of beauty.

The flowering of France during the Eighteenth Century could not have occurred without preparation, and that preparation was made under the hand of Louis XIV.

It was a part of the monarch's policy and pleasure to spend vast sums on luxury. Finding no palace in Paris adequate for his pomps and ceremonies he built the palace of Versailles and laid out the adjoining city for those courtiers who should require to be near.

Peculiar and tyrannic were his methods of getting the money for such an indulgence. He extracted it from the State Treasury without asking leave, and commanded the services of peasants and military folk without pay. With great forethought for his personal indulgence he retained for himself the place of prime minister. His father, Louis XIII, had been dominated by Cardinal Richelieu, but Louis XIV rejected the example, calling his father a weakling. So with no one to stay his hand, he proceeded majestically on his pompous way.

The place of this king in France was almost that of a god. By royal decree Louis made the people feel that he and God were one; to disobey one was to offend the Other. To impart such an idea to a nation was an act of genius.

Kings are out of fashion now, and we make merry today over the prodigious wigs of Louis XIV, over the short monarch's four-inch heels, and his lack of humor which kept him ever cognizant of his own greatness—but the more serious facts of history justify his title of the Grand Monarch and the self-importance which led him to take the blazing sun as his personal emblem.

He was the first French king with complete power. The nobles of France had been at times controllers of their king. Entrenched in their fortified castles they had dared to differ with royal decrees. But now the castle was giving way to the chateau, and the fighting nobles became courtiers at Versailles.

The magnificence of pomp and ceremony at the Court was the admiration and envy of the courtiers. Wars were continued, however, and the king was ever ready to indulge in their expense of blood and gold. But through it all Louis impressed on his people his own dominant idea that kings were God-given, that they should be obeyed as the agent of God, that criticism was iniquitous.

But there was another side of a king's life, the private and more intimate life of contacts with those who came close to him. Versailles was a place where courtiers flocked, where those who had something to impart or to gain were able to reach the king, and thus came the habit of receiving in the royal bedroom when a privileged guest might hand the monarch his shoes, another might adjust his wig.

And these visitors found themselves among the most magnificent surroundings. The royal bed rivaled the throne in design and in wealth of draping. It stood upon a dais; it was sheltered with a canopy of carved and gilded wood from which depended curtains long and full, of the most gorgeous brocade or damask. The windows were hung with the same, and armchairs were for the first time stuffed firmly on their frame instead of being fitted with the capricious loose cushion of former years. Hangings on the walls which in win-ter were used to soften the asperities of the weather, flowed loose from the walls as hangings should ever do. The Gobelins factory and the city of Lyons was producing these luxuries for the monarch's use.

In the midst of all the royal elegance and pomp, one sees the figures of the court ladies, whether at great functions or in the more intimate hours. This was a time when volume was the mode in dress as in draperies. With characteristic imperiousness the king for-bade the wearing of gold brocade to all but royalty and favorites. However much the king might emphasize the value of pure living, we know that he was dominated by certain ladies who have become historic —the queen was not among them—and their lives are ever of interest. But how the king had time for sweet dalliance with ladies is difficult of understanding. He worked ardently for almost all of his waking hours. The life of a great monarch who also is his own prime minister includes little time for play.

Louis XIV is said to have had four hundred beds, but that might easily be if they were sprinkled through his various palaces and lodges. So important was the bed that picturesque names were given it. The lit de parade was the most elegant of all. It was covered with the square canopy of carving from which the heavy curtains hung, sometimes capped with a line of embroidered tabs. And its coverlid and pillows of silken stuffs gave to it the elegance of 'a throne. It stood on a dais, beyond which the ministers and nobles might stand when the king gave an audience. Princes of the blood might sit upon the bed or near it. All others save these two classes knelt upon the floor. In this imposing setting the king conserved his strength by reclining during audiences.

It is the fashion to criticize the taste of Louis XIV in styles of decoration, but it should never be forgot that they are an expression of the reign, and they were the foundation of the more exquisite styles immediately following. Louis XIV had big work to do in enlarging France, in uniting her, in reaching out to increase her possessions. Only a man of extreme self-assurance and self-concentration could so well have advanced the national unification. Understanding his pride and self-importance the artists of the time composed for him a decoration which shouted aloud that Louis XIV was the greatest of living men. They were such able men as Mansart, Le Brun, Le Pautre, Boulle, and together they made a style of magnificence and homogeneity, an expression of the nation.

Louis during middle life paraded around the palace of Versailles rejoicing in the visible evidence of his greatness, but when he grew old the weight of magnificence oppressed him and he asked of his artists that they infuse. into their works some of the spirit of child-hood. And on this was founded the lightening of style that was developed in the Regency and in the next two reigns. The incomparable Watteau was of the last years of Louis XIV.

Colbert stands side by side with the king until the former's death in 1683. He it was who ever found the money for the king's extravagance and for the nation's progress. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes cost France fifty thousand of able workers, but Colbert brought up the production of textiles by the simple expedient of prohibiting the importation of any foreign stuffs. We can see in that a reason for the concentration on French products that brought about the flowering of the styles of "the Louis'."

In the reign of Louis XIV enormous amounts of woven stuffs were consumed. They added to the sumptuousness of all rooms when hung in voluminous folds and draped in deep festoons. The entire wall was sometimes loosely hung with silk, or only certain sections of a room. Doorways were hung, and windows, both with a heaviness that we cannot well imitate in the conditions of modern living.

The bedstead had but little ornamentation, it being the fashion to conceal all wood-work with the drapery. In fact the draping of the state bed or most important bed in the house involved enormous expense. There was the canopy or tester upheld by posts, the canopy a la duchesse which was supported only from the wall, the dome bed and many other variants all demanding curtains, lambrequins, coverlets. A drapery of tapestry or embroidery which differed from the bed curtains was hung on the wall at the bed's head. This might be the sole piece of its kind in the bed's draping and handsomer than all the rest. In the bed a la duchesse it frequently matched the coverlet which swept from pillow to floor the entire length of the bed, there being no posts to interfere, nor any curtains, save those at the head to keep light from the sleeper's eyes.

Six full curtains supplied the bed of four posts, entirely hiding them. Until late in the Seventeenth Century the state bedroom was used also as a dining room by persons of the upper middle class, merchants who lived with a certain elegance. This accounts for the amplitude of curtains which made it possible to shut up the bed entirely so that it stood like an armoire or other impersonal piece of furniture. It eliminated all suggestions of use and looked overpoweringly architectural. Other days, other ways, is our comment.

One thinks always of silken stuffs as draping the beds of the time, brocades, velvets, damasks. But records show that woolen textiles also were in great favor. A peculiarly elegant woolen material was called came-lot, and this was preferred in white. Red cloth was also in vogue, and we can fancy it imported from both Flemish looms and English. An old description of a bed mentions the curtains as olive cloth lined with changeable taffeta in red and blue, with trimmings and fringe, a wall hanging of tapestry at the head. It is Moliere who writes of this bed and dresses it up still further with an old rose canopy of fine serge.

Crimson was the favorite color of the time. We find here a certain expression of the reign. Pale blue and sea-shell pink would have ill-expressed the spirit of the reign of Louis XIV.

In windows we find a novelty during the period, the amazing innovation of window curtains split up the middle and drawn to both sides instead of being drawn to one side only. Again the modern has to laugh at the small stupidities in customs of the past. Late in the Seventeenth Century muslins and prints arrived from India. They were at once adopted for bedrooms.

Of chairs there is not much to recall that is inappropriate for today. The manner of upholstery is modern. Earlier chair cushions were removable, in-deed the cushions of a room were ever carried from piece to piece of furniture to ease an aching back or add to the luxury of a sybarite. And later, in the Eighteenth Century, the squab cushion was familiar on the seats of upholstered chairs. But the square, balanced chair of Louis XIV was fitted with permanent upholstery. The fault in the modern copy lies often in over-stuffing the back which should be flat.

It was in these generous elegant chairs, covered with richest brocaded velvet that les precieuses—the fops of Moliere's time—disposed their persons in elegant attitude and meticulous manner.

The sense of dignity in the style named for Louis XIV had begun to alter before his death in 1715. The newer lighter mode seemed to presage the lighter spirit in living that the Regent introduced and that continued until the Revolution. Madame de Maintenon being in the anomalous position of wife but not queen removed her influence, and the more frivolous characters had their way.



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