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Textile Development Under Louis XV

( Originally Published 1930 )

WHEN the mind dwells on the styles that are truly French, it is always in Versailles that they have their locale. Louis XIV built the palace, but it was also the setting for the succeeding reigns and styles. As all know, the king arbitrarily settled on a marshy tract as the place where Versailles was to be built, Mansart drawing the plans and pressing the work with great loss of life among the fever-stricken workers. But to make life intimate and gracious within the great spaces of the palace was scarcely possible. It spoke of pomp and ceremony only. Even Louis XIV built a smaller palace in maturity where he and Madame de Maintenon might retire to an approximation of home life—the Trianon.

It was perhaps in the out-of-doors that life was most enjoyed in the time of Louis XIV, and that is the life depicted in the ornament of his day. The palace grounds included flower beds and fountains, bosquets of green shade and leafy privacy. Le Notre was the artist who advised, and he provided both the pompous and the secluded. The gardens included the magnificent series of terraces we see today, descending in fountains and groves to the lakes, but to right and left all through the forest he planted enchanting apartments of living green, decorating these leafy chambers with statuary or with slight architectural effects—"gardens in which art improves upon nature," Ninon de Lenclos had said.

The decorators of Louis XV seized at once on these beautiful conceits as background for playful scenes, and set within them the ladies in their elegance with much silken drapery, and the gay gallants with their apparel no less gorgeous except in volume. Fetes champetres became the diversion of the day and these picnics of the court gave inspiration to Watteau and Pater and a train of followers. The contrast of voluminous silken brocades in rich coloring displayed in the in-formality of the out-of-doors, was irresistibly piquant. Added to this was the charm of playful youth and the witchery of the greenwood, the surrounding forest. The very trees prompted gay mischief, and so we have the decorative scenes of men and maids playing at love and playing at sports. Artificiality had its part in all these games, as when it became the fashion to play at being haymakers, gardeners and the like; but it is supposable that when a crowd of very young and utterly idle people are turned out from the formal palace into limitless forest and gardens, their play becomes both genuine and reckless.

The gardens of Versailles not only furnished these scenes of fetes galantes and fetes chum petres but marvelous water parties under the full moon, with music adding to the witchery, and boats filled with the lively persons of the court, pelting other boats with roses and assailing ears with daring provocations from safe distance. All these alluring pictures were put on canvas by the masters of art, to the delight of beauty lovers then and now.

But the gardens inspired also those who drew designs for the associated arts. There grew the marvelous flowers that were taken as designs for the silks being woven at Lyons for the costumes and decorations of the day.

It was a hundred and fifty years earlier in the day of the patriotic Henri IV, the father of his people, that France had her first great public garden for the cultivation of flowers. This king obtained a wide tract of land and devoted it to advancing horticulture. When sufficiently equipped with the best flowers of France, under capable gardeners, this place was named le Jardin du Roi, but the king devoted it to the interest of the people. Here artists were invited to come to study the plants that they might make original de-signs. Thus began a greater originality in floral ornament, which replaced a copying of the Italian Renaissance.

The enormous difference between the earlier types of flower and leaf, those woven in the silks of Louis XIV, and those of his successor is due to the fact that the artists were at the earlier date still under the spell of a formal composition. Even though they drew their designs from the flowers of the king's garden, or any garden of France, they arranged them with a precision which kept them unnatural. Perfect balance in a set design, and a building up of full flower and leaf into enormous display was the dominating idea. Because of the absence of shading all designs were flat.

Was it the life of the court beauties among the greenery and the flowers of the gardens that freed the artist from convention? It seems so. Whereas the spirit of the court was majestic and conventional under Louis le Grand, the spirit of the court was gay and free under Louis le Bien-aime. And it is exactly this difference that is expressed in the textiles of the two eras. Louis XIV brocades amaze us with a recognizable command; Louis XV brocades thrill us with de-light, and unite us in sympathy to the people of that past so rich in beauty.

The big rose of the Louis XV brocade bending heavy on its stem, sparkling with metal threads, is it not the same as that with which a daring Phyllis tapped the ear of Strephon as he stepped through the dew-silvered gardens? And the sprays of big blue hyacinths, were they not gathered at the edge of the wood where a mock Diana received them from a laughing Acteon? They liked to play at the classics in the Eighteenth Century, and if you assumed a name for play's sake you might consistently carry out the part and get no shame for it, the blame being on the gods not on those who took their names.

The gardens of Versailles and elsewhere gave not only flowers to the artists to play with, but the bits of architecture near which they grew. The flowers were no less sophisticated than the gardens, and so took well their association with a balustrade, a pedestal, or some such marble accompaniment. They were lush, voluptuous flowers, full of vitality, of color, and also suggesting graceful freedom of movement under the gar-den's caressing zephyrs. Always they hinted at some-thing beyond vegetation, something human.

There was much to express in those days. The spirit of the times if thoroughly delineated would express two opposing forces, the extravagant indulgences of court and aristocracy, and the even stronger determination of thinking people to attain liberty. The Revolution was approaching, but art told little of its coming. Louis XV the king was the first in the world to be pleased, for he had an unlimited treasure with which to employ artists, and how could they satisfy him better than by depicting the joys with which he filled his time?

As for his character we all know he came to the throne too young, that he married at sixteen the Polish Princess Marie Leczinska seven years older than he, that he was shy, dull and proper in marital behavior, and that his queen was occupied for the first ten years of marriage in giving him ten children. They settled into some of the smaller rooms at Versailles where the king could live more informally.

Then came Madame de Pompadour, followed by Madame du Barry. To these two women must we attribute much of the marvelous flowering of Eighteenth Century art—art meaning all arts. The part these women played was not that. of creator, but of art patron—with the coffers of the crown as counting-house. But thereby hangs a tale as interesting as any in the history of kings. What the king himself lacked in initiative, in ambition, in art appreciation, these two women supplied. Had the king been more efficient, less bored with life, the exquisite art with which his reign was distinguished might have been attributed to him, but it was really based on the wish of the artists to please the taste of the king's famous mistresses.

Into this art crept not only great beauty but also the signs of the times, the events of history, which afforded inspiration and were thus recorded. For example, France—not the king—was turning her attention to-wards the East. That great maker of nations, the merchant marine, of England, of Holland, of France had been for some time securing coast cities in Asia and even annexing territory. The Dutch had possessed themselves of Java and the Moluccas, once called the Isles of Spice, and England starting with Madras, laid claim to the government of India, while France had taken Pondicherry.

France, on looking about for more territory she could claim without resort to war with these strong nations, remembered the peninsula of Indo-China. There she had planted her flag, at Tourane, a tiny port of Annam. Tonkin adjoined it, and China lay just beyond. Gay little sorties took place, the Annamites being haughtily surprised at those who dared intrude on their heritage of seclusion, the French being equally surprised at the resistance of the unreadable enemy to the army of a great European power. Officers reveling at late banquets were slaughtered and all sorts of unpleasant unexpecteds happened. But finally the conflict was over, and French ships sailed home trailing after them, so to speak, the little countries that compose most of Indo-China.

And the effect on the decorative arts in France was amazing. An entirely new alphabet of design grew from this importing of motives from Tonkin and Annam. Superficially thinking one attributes it to China. But great China with its ancient art and culture had she given the fundamentals of her art, would have infused a quite different spirit into French artists. Indeed Chinese art could not in its grandeur have been absorbed by the then pervading spirit of France.

But the art of Tonkin and Annam where the French flag was planted, was an adaptation of Chinese art by a neighbor far behind in seriousness and development. This art takes all its motives from the Chinese, but makes them miniature and exquisite, developing craftsmanship to an almost unbelievable perfection, but omitting great motives of profound thought.

Thus the art taken home by the victorious French was one of preciosity, of lightness. Withal it was exotic, and into this the French injected gaiety. Also they stopped not at the designs themselves but pictured with them the natural life of the Eastern land—as they saw it, not as it really was. To them the Asiatic was a humorous being almost on the plane with an amusing monkey, and the artists so depicted him, perched gaily among airy curves often in combination with that same monkey. He was above all fantastic and adapted to the light touch in decoration.

The supposed Chinese habitat, too, appeared in de-sign, especially for weaving into silk, and thus we have a series of charming little bridges, of tiny pagodas and of temples. The latter were innocently taken for houses by the designers who never having seen the usual Indo-Chinese home of bamboo poles and thatch, were unhampered by the inelegant truth. Thus we have the base of the bewitching designs called Chinoiserie, the invention of the artist multiplying details and treating all with lightness and charm.

The conspicuous invention in ornament in the style named for Louis XV was the combining of the varied irregular curve in a way to produce perfect balance. These irregular curves—does not one see in them a Chinese motive? Has not the outline of the Chinese bat very much to do with these curves. The bat of the Chinese as used in weaving is a very different design from ours. He is caught when wheeling, and dodging, not with evenly extended wings, making curves, not angles.

The factories of Lyons were not slow to produce silks after these novel patterns.

The stories of Mesdames de Pompadour and du Barry have been told so many times that I hesitate to tell them here, so merely recall the side of their lives that bears upon our subject. That the king himself was not worthy of the position of king, placed all the greater influence in the hands of those surrounding him. One could not fancy Louis XIV allowing a courtesan to rule.

The French Royal Academy of Arts formed by Colbert with Louis XIV was still operative, and the Manufacture des Gobelins. With such resources at hand almost anything could be created at command. Gathered near these were such able artists as Boucher, Lancret, Fragonard, with their delicious canvases, and Huet, Oudry, Van Loo, with their inexhaustible invention of design. To these we turn for the beauty of the style. Louis XV being but a child when taking the throne, the Regent Philippe d'Orleans had eight years in which to play with the newly attempted curves, and then occurred perhaps the loveliest moment of the style named for the king himself.

Perhaps it was the reign of La Pompadour which overdeveloped the style, for it is ever true that character expresses itself in design. This remarkable woman is either an accomplished courtesan or a minister of state, according to the part of her life one studies. The early pictures of her are poignant and bewitching. When very young her determination to charm the king led her to place herself within range of his vision in startling novelty, that he might become aware of her existence. He met the beauty in the forest driving a pair of dashing horses while seated alone in a carriage like the shell of Venus. And every day she passed before him as he went to hunt, and always she appeared in a new and amazing dress and carriage. She won the royal lover, of course, and' many books recount her life with its wanton pleasures, its licentiousness, its mad extravagance. But there was another Pompadour, a woman of force, of many gifts, of appreciation of art, and of great ability in the world of politics, of government. Without this strength she would have passed as many another king's mistress has passed, leaving a trace of interest only to those who like to peep into cupboards where naughty secrets lie hid.

We of today owe tribute to La Pompadour for the encouragement she gave to all the decorative arts. The manufactory of the crown supplied for her and for the king the most beautiful furniture that France has produced, including all the orfevrerie or gilt bronze ornament that accompanied it, as well as pretty trifles without number.

Lyons was feverishly busy in those days. The king was not satisfied to limit his living to the palace at Versailles, but built houses in the town and outside of it for his beautiful companion. The present Hotel des Reservoirs, giving on the Park, was one of these. All the new domiciles required silks to drape their windows and beds and to cover their chairs, and Lyons must supply them as better weaving was done there than even in Italy. We have a perfect reflection of the designs of the day in the patterns of the silk of Lyons.

As the reign grew older there was the tendency to throw onto the surface of the silk some of the fripperies of feminine fashions. Thus came the fancy of weaving a pattern of undulating ribbons and lace straying across a brocade, twisted here and there with a floral chain, and crossed at intervals with a stem of realistic flowers. It recalls the ancient silks where bands of ornament formed ogival shapes, but shows the world to be another planet in its new expression.

Lace shared place in these new designs with plumes and feathers. Consult the portraits of the times and see the enormous quantity of trimmings which went to ornament a woman's toilettes, and find therein the reasons why the designers drew them for the weavers. Yet after all they have not half the lusciousness of those earlier silks of the style where flowers alone sup-plied the motive and metal threads gave effect of sun-beams and moonshine, of dew and glistening water.

Just as the dresses were rich and voluminous, so were the draperies of the house. We never weary of making the comparison, for it reveals a harmony of thought. Both dress and drapery of the home are composed for women. Then is it not reasonable that a similarity should exist between the two at a given era?

The time came when walls were no longer hung with full drapings of silk. The wood carvers in the Royal factories were having their day. Not only were they carving furniture with their clever hands, but they had seized the wide spaces of the walls as well, to ornament. Thus arose the fashion of wood-work for which we like to retain the French name of boiserie. In its most monopolizing mode it covers all the walls, but often large panels are left, and these were filled with silk mounted on muslin and tacked firmly behind the wooden molding. Note what a difference in expression this gives a room, what prettiness of formality.

Curtains for the window and for the bed grew laughably like the costumes of ladies at the court of Versailles. The silks of which they are made are the same, both in coloring and design. As the skirt was voluminous so were the draperies. Lavish expenditure was the order of the day, the' king and La Pompadour setting the example, so the appalling expense of the toilettes affrighted no one.

As skirts were many yards around, it was desirable to ornament their vast spaces, so there came drapings edged with fringe, ribbons sewn on in waves, lace the same. And all these things were copied in the curtains. A window might no longer be hung with a simple breadth, it must show as many complications as the ladies' frocks. And so came lambrequins, and curtains that fell but a little way before their fulness was caught up that it might fall again. The lambrequin was made of ample lengths, several of them, and these were draped one over the other with the avoidance of repeated curves which makes the charm of the rococo. And of course no other people than the French could play on this same rococo theme without falling from good taste.

The bed was inclining to loose the heavy canopy and to lower the posts. We can almost see there the touch of La Pompadour. A becoming setting for a woman reclining in bed was of first import when women received in bed. And however much it might have suited Marie de' Medici to be half-obliterated by black velvet curtains, La Pompadour would prefer to lie in plain view, a fresh-plucked rose on a silken cushion.

Not that canopy and curtain had disappeared, but the other mode existed with it, just as it does today. The canopy followed the fashion of complex festoons with trimmings, but more tasteful were draperies of silk that by the richness of the fabric fell in swelling line and were artistically held by the posts at head and foot of the bed.

It was when the posts were gone that the most charming effects were gained. The canopy became then but a small semi-circle of gold from which depended silken stuffs distending themselves in clouds such as those that cupids loved, the rosy playful cupids of the Eighteenth Century which seemed to retain something of the infantile in spite of the sophisticated life they shared.

Such a drapery made a nest of tinted shadows around the pillows and over the face of her who reposed thereon. Add to it a coverlet of the same silks and the resting place of woman has reached its perfection of beauty. The bed was sometimes placed against the wall, and then its ends must be alike, the canopy placed in the middle with its pendent curtains flowing to right and to left over head and foot; or the bed was slipped within a niche too small to be called an alcove, and from this hung the draperies, long ones to secure privacy or warmth, and shorter ones to make a complicated lambrequin. And these are the styles that we are still carrying today.

A word about the bed-cover. In the beginning of the Louis XV period it followed the fashion of being a large flat square or oblong, split for the accommodation of bed posts at the foot, and drawn up over the pillows at the head. Later it was furnished with a flounce, all in accord with the bouffant toilettes of the ladies of the day.

This flounce was set on with galloon and was not a simple flounce at all, but had a double box-plait to contain the amplitude as well as the full gathers. Both devices were needed to dispose prettily of the mass of silk. Taffeta was the silk most liked for all bed-draperies in the second half of the Eighteenth Century as it best carried out the ideas in vogue of cloud-like lightness.

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