Textiles - Until the Revolution
( Originally Published 1930 )
IF the styles of Louis XV expressed exquisitely the voluptuousness of the court, to the period is also attributable a return to the purity of the classic. And here too we must look to the dominating personages of the court to find reasons for a new stiffening of lines, a correction of too much that was curved, too little that was simple.
For Madame de Pompadour was made the style called Louis XV that caused France to be imitated all over the world. Throughout the history of modern design in Europe none other has reached its originality. Perhaps it was the only one that was an absolute creation and not a copying of imported design.
An element that contributed to the perfection of the style was the willingness of the king to pay enormous sums to artists and artisans to relieve them from all financial worries, leaving their minds free for creation and the exercise of skill. The manufacture of all the articles that contribute to the ornament of a house had never before or since been relieved of the necessity of profit. The Royal Manufactory instituted by Colbert was continued by Louis XV and his successor.
Only the extraordinary personal power of kings could have produced such liberal spending. Conflicts between a king and his nobles had ceased, warrior lords had gradually changed from jealous rivals of the monarch into courtiers at Versailles seeking for the king's favor at fetes and levees. The common people and the bourgeois were taxed beyond their endurance, and thus came the money which supplied the coffers of the king. And this was the money spent on La Pompadour and the artistic creations for her numerous residences.
When revolt of the people came, an indignant searcher after detail counted the sums spent for the king's great mistress and found she had cost France millions of livres. But it was more than that. She was one of those who were bringing on the Revolution. She was the glaring exponent of the weakness of kings. Richelieu had ably built up the idea of a king's unassailable power and divinity. Madame de Pompadour after a hundred years was showing the people how false, licentious and oppressive a king could be.
And thus came the Encyclopedists with Diderot at their head, men of intellect who could scorn a king and his follies and who held the eternal verities as higher than a monarch. And by gradual filtration of ideas throughout the nation, the people of France questioned things; they questioned the right of Louis to over-tax the humbler classes that he might empty the money into the lap of an outrageous woman whose metier was only to amuse and tyrannize.
Thus came the demand for a change, and there followed the Revolution, which never was intended to be a bath of blood, but only a re-adjustment, a restoration of justice. But we are reaching ahead of the story. It is difficult not to do so in any Eighteenth Century review, for one reign runs into another in matters artistic. La Pompadour was finished. Madame du Barry, far younger, replaced her and was at the Court of Versailles when the king died of small-pox, that loathsome disease which was so prevalent in France at that time.
But before this a new element had come into the Royal Household. The Dauphin had taken a wife, the exquisite Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. This was in 177o, four years before the death of Louis XV.
It was but natural that such an event as the entrance of Marie Antoinette should inspire the artists of the day. It gave a new spirit to design, new motives. Looking back we cannot say that originality was ram-pant, as in the heyday of La Pompadour, but at least a simplicity appeared to prune the curving rococo be-fore it began to slip into the decadence that ruins all over growths.
The style named for Louis XVI has its base in the classic lines of Greece. Two reasons governed the creating artists. One was the correctness and purity of the young Dauphiness Marie Antoinette, whose character they wished to indicate and whose taste they wished to please; the other was the newly excavated Pompeii, which was furnishing a new Greco-Roman inspiration to artists in all countries, but especially in France.
All classes of design underwent a change. Note the difference between the floral silks called Louis XV and those named for Marie Antoinette. Both are equally naturalistic in treatment, but a striking difference is in their reactions given to the beholder. The one brings visions of a lush vegetation associated with a sensual humanity, as when a heavy-headed crimson rose curves over the golden surface of a rich brocade. The other shows the little flowers, the darlings of the wood and fields, thrown sparsely on pale taffeta, turning one's thoughts to simpler delights.
Marie Antoinette was the daughter of that notable mother, Marie Therese of Austria and Hungary, who had trained her daughter in all the virtues. Louis XV died four years after the marriage and his grandson came to the throne as Louis XVI. This made of the Dauphiness a queen, and for her were named many of the inventions of the day in a decorative way.
Louis XVI was in character just the man wanted as argument against the power of kings. Parallel with the life of court and courtier ran the life of the intellectuals who were in rebellion against the injustices committed by the crown. These latter looked- upon those products of art which the Royal Manufactories had been so prodigally producing, as souvenirs of an elegant immorality.
Voltaire was calling for free speech. He who had flattered and humored La Pompadour at court now announced himself the friend of the merchant class, declaring he liked them far better than the aristocrat. And all France was becoming educated to a new and radical thought. Louis XVI was scarcely the man to note the signs of the times or to meet political emergencies.
His was a little mind, pleased with little things, his workshop, his weaving, his gardening. And the beautiful queen also had none of the power of a leader. They therefore lived at Versailles in the midst of the Courtiers with eyes closed to all except to playing the Ancient Regime.
A taste grew for the miniature; the Petit Trianon was built for the king and queen to use as a grown-up's playhouse. The queen liked to play at dairy-maid, and had a small equipment assembled to favor the fancy, le Hameau. Small rooms were preferred to large, and the classic flavor of Pompeian motives dominated the boiserie. Tapestries grew small, were no longer ample hangings, but shrank to pettiness and were used only to fill small panels or to cover furniture.
Silks suffered also, yet because of a certain preciosity in design they are dear to us now in this day of eclectic taste. They lost their magnificence but they gained in charm. The great flower designs built up of large flower upon larger flower, the brocades of naturalistic flowers from highly cultivated gardens, gave place to a design with which we identify the time, a delicate floral spray tossed on the line of a broken stripe. How-ever endearing this design may be to us, it illustrates the weakening of design under the last king of France.
The sprays of flowers grew smaller and smaller, less and less significant, and were even replaced by little spots. This was surely the decadence of the styles that had made the decoration of France famous throughout the world and for all time. Nevertheless the infinite variety of the motive never erred in taste, and as they suit many a modern room they are freely repeated up to the present day. Another variety of design belonging to the class called pretty to distinguish it from the designs of rich beauty. The French call it croisillon, as it is founded on the idea of a background crossed diamond-wise with a line composed of stiff floral forms.
Marie Antoinette and the king lived their lives too much according to their domestic tastes. The private life was more important to them than affairs of the Nation. At times it seemed as though they felt that Versailles was the Nation and nothing mattered that developed outside of its limits. This was illustrated by the interest they took in their little home of the Petit Trianon. They made of it a gem, but the attention centered there might better have been given to the rising tide of rebellion outside the court.
To fit the palace in miniature small furniture was made, small and straight in line. And to suit this small furniture Lyons wove silks of diminutive design. The voluptuous flowers of La Pompadour would have appeared tasteless in contrast to the restraint of the chairs and beds of the new inspiration. And, coming down to the present day we can rejoice in this reduction in size of furniture and silk designs, for we have come into an era of smaller rooms—in towns at least—and furniture in small scale suits them best. One might say with truth that a greater modesty prevailed in design, and this was due to the lessened extravagance of the court under Louis XVI. No longer a lavish king and a masterful courtesan ruled royal residence and affairs of the State. La Pompadour was deposed and died in 1764. Madame du Barry's influence was nil after the king's death in 1774 although she lived on to endure the wrecking of her home, the villainy of Zamora, the theft of her prodigious casket of jewels, and finally the tumbril and the guillotine.
With the death of Louis XV the artists sought a novelty to place before his successor, and what more natural than that they should develop a style in accord with indications of a dainty taste asserted by Marie Antoinette even while she was but the Dauphiness. So to the naturalistic was added the classic Greek.
The naturalistic meant not only the use of flowers as they grow, represented in the three dimensions. Into this garden of bloom was introduced a whole world of little animals, the familiar little animals associated with man. Oudry seized on these, and Huet, and drew innumerable designs for fabrics, particularly the printed ones, which we shall consider later at greater length.
The mock farm of Marie Antoinette in which she played beside the Trianon was taken as a subject, and to this is attributed the fantastic scenes including cows and goats, carts and farming implements—as well as coquettish maids in bouffant "panniers" and youths in suspiciously graceful attire. For it was the sport of royalty that was depicted, not the life of the grubby peasant.
There is a unity about a change in styles; a new note struck, all departments must attune to it their song. So as fabrics grew more chaste in design, all draperies adopted a tasteful and appropriate diminution. Chairs being smaller and more erect, dropped the general use of the loose seat cushion, and returned to the decorum of the firm upholstery of the chairs of Louis XIV. The principle was a little different for a upholsterers had grown more adroit and inventive. Upholstery was no longer a novelty as in the Seventeenth Century.
The backs of chairs were built out from the frame, the upholstery forming an angle. In the preceding style the covering fabric was merely stretched over a slightly bulging back. Draperies disappeared from the walls as panels of painting and tapestry took its place. Even the gathered hanging behind the bed's head was rejected, for the bed itself was built high and upholstered. It became fashionable to cover the entire bed-stead with damask, concealing all the wood-work with silk drawn tightly over the wooden frame. Both head and foot-board were thus brought more into prominence and took important place, often being of equal height. The beds of languorous ease on which reclined the self-indulgent beauties of the Louis XV epoch had left off altogether the obstacle of a foot-board that the richness of the brocade coverlet might flow uninterrupted from pillow to floor "like roses heaped on the beloved's bed." But now it was restored, and shared the silken upholstery of the coverlet.
Mahogany beds had often a mere frame for head and foot-boards, and these were filled in with silk panels. Curtains for the bed must by the very nature of things be somewhat alike all through the ages when hung from a square canopy or frame of wood. Tall posts must sustain them at the foot for safety's sake and around the square the curtains must be disposed in sufficient fulness to be half drawn at night. But variety is given by the lambrequin. In the time of Louis XVI this was either a simple fall of ungathered stuff, or was of an inconspicuous festooning. In the former case it was much decorated with galloon. In-deed galloon was indispensable as a decoration on all beds. The coverlet was incomplete without it, for it headed the full flounce of the sides and formed a square or other device in the center. It made the use of taffeta more decorative than even a figured silk. Pillows on beds were deemed too mussy and replaced by the neatness of stiff artificial rolls.
Curtains for windows partook of the simplicity of the curtains for the bed. They were never very heavy, but followed consistently the lightness of the mode prevailing near the end of the Eighteenth Century. If the lambrequin was played with, it was always done in grace and suppleness of effect. The flat band was used when ornamented with galloon and more particularly favored when its lower line was shaped in shallow curves.
The window with arched top called for a treatment all its own, something that would fall straight at candle-light to shut out the shades of night, the peeping eye of passers-by and the chill of winter evenings. And thus was invented the ingenious placing of cords and rings which were capable of draping a long straight curtain into graceful festooning.
But all was exquisitely restrained and done by true artistic inspiration. Thus in its perfection the style of Louis XVI was the refinement of things decorative, and unlike most styles will bear repeating through the ages. It clashes with nothing; it is ever companionable. If this style was abused during the aberration of the Victorian era it but shared the fate of the preceding styles and suffered less.
It must not be supposed that all textiles of the time were patterned. It was an era of the strong appreciation of plain velvets. The Lyons mills were then turning out a weave adapted to the uses of the day, a lighter weave than that of the Renaissance, when pile was deep and thick. Those were meant for use on heavy furniture without other upholstery than cushions thrown upon the wood, and for hangings to soften the bare stone walls of the fortress-palace. The velvets of the Eighteenth Century had a pile both close and short and thus the fabric had lightness and pliability. All velvets prior to the beginning of the Nineteenth Century were of single width, and show by their selvedge the irregularity of the hand-worked loom.
The use of textile in the periods of decoration named for Louis XV and Louis XVI is noticeably similar with the one exception of tapestries, which declined in size as hangings and became important as furniture coverings. , Their heavy masses were even reduced to lightness by simulations. Thus came the tapestry door frame called a cantonniere, and the woven imitation of draped and fringed lambrequins for windows and for beds. Art went astray in designing these, yet they dressed many a lovely room in the second half of the Eighteenth Century. They suggest a fabric sprinkled with roses in natural colors, bordered with heavy bullion fringe and hung in a cascade, but the deception could never deceive and the irregular edge was an anomaly. They do, however, show us the preference in those days for shallow drapery with superficially looped scarfs or lambrequins.
The fabrics of Louis XV altered in design from flat formality of large pattern to sprays and masses of flowers in naturalistic presentation. These rich flowers were too lovely not to be displayed. They were like the Pompadour herself, who flaunted her beauty before the court. And so these flowers of luxuriant growth woven of many-colored silks and glistening with gold, were hung in more open folds than the straight-hung curtains of the earlier day.
The fashion being for curved lines, curtains were ballooned by means of clever looping and thus wider spaces of the fabric were displayed. This obtained for windows and for beds, or wherever a curtain was hung, but on beds the best effects were won, for the Louis XV bed is so beautiful a conception that it is no wonder the state bed-room remained long in fashion as a room where visitors were expected to enter. The fancy of the artist plays about the canopied bed, the canopy which is but a crown, and places there the playful amorini whose presence helps to make of the draperies a mass of tinted clouds, the flattering setting of a beauty of the court.
Round-topped windows were draped in two ways, either with a short-looped lambrequin, or with very long curtains with cunningly arranged rings and cords which drew up a drapery in the day and let it fall straight at night.
But call to mind the seats of the Louis XV style, including the Regency, and one realizes that it was the beauty of the silken textiles that kept the cushioning flat and unbroken by any sort of tufting. The chair seat and also that of the popular chaise-longue was often fitted with square cushions, but the foundation on which they were laid was utterly unlike that on which loose cushions were used in the time of the Renaissance. Then it was laid on wooden seats; now it was laid on a silk-covered canvas which was stretched over the frame, a manner which has not yet been changed.
The backs were in all cases stuffed, but not too obviously, the stuffing sloping easily toward the carved wood frame until it reached only the thickness of the silk which was displayed upon it. This silk—or any other covering, petit point, tapestry or leather—was secured by a row of brass-headed tacks placed close together. The seat also avoided all appearance of being over-stuffed or heaped up in the middle. Many an antique chair of modern upholstery has been robbed of all its charm by a simple disregard of the outline of the stuffing in seat and back.
Ladies' dresses were amazing in the amount of material they contained and displayed. As curtains were made to puff themselves balloon-like the dresses of the time were distended by hoops, and all this yard-age of rich silk had to be accommodated when madame sat at cards. The upholstering of the little chairs with-out arms, and with but small back supports was also simple and restrained. Chairs of the period of Louis XV changed as markedly as all other decorative matter, in this age of unreasoning beauty. Whereas the front arm support had formerly followed the line of the front leg, making a firm and symmetric design, it now slipped half way to the chairback. But this was accomplished with so much of grace and cunning that its loss of balance was lost in the line of beauty.
And what was the reason for the change? The old one of woman's dress. The wide panniers with hoops were thrown into ungovernable pranks if a lady tried to compress them within the arms of a chair. So the arms were set back that madame might be more at her ease and might better display the elegance of her silks.
Even as late as this Eighteenth Century no distinction was made between materials for dress and materials for decoration. The sharp distinction between the two which prevails in our own times was then non-existent. But those fashions for preposterous volume were of a picturesqueness that we of a practical age can never achieve. We can only revel in their beautiful display at a fancy dress ball or in the theater.
Lyons became the silk center of the world. It was she who furnished the silk for the prodigal uses of the Eighteenth Century in France. Strange it seems to us to consider that the tens of thousands of weavers in Lyons worked at home. They took from the factory the thread ready for weaving and returned with the completed textile. That was before the days of Jacquard's loom. Apropos, the selvedge of these hand-some silks has always the delightful irregularity given by the touch of the human hand, but never given by the machine.