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The Development Of Decoration In France

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



When Caesar came to Gaul he did more than see and conquer; he absorbed so thoroughly that we have almost no knowledge of how the Gauls lived, so far as household effects were concerned. The character which descended from this Gallo-Roman race to the later French nation was optimistic and beauty-loving, with a strength which has carried it through many dark days. It might be said to be responsible for the French sense of proportion and their freedom of judgment which has enabled them to hold their important place in the history of art and decoration. They have always assimilated ideas freely but have worked them over until they bore the stamp of their own individuality, often gaining greatly in the process.

One of the first authentic pieces of furniture is a bahut or chest dating from sometime in the twelfth century and belonging to the Church of Obazine. It shows how furniture followed the lines of architecture, and also shows that there was no carving used on it. Large spaces were probably covered with painted canvas, glued on. Later, when panels became smaller and the furniture designs were modifled, moldings, etc., began to be used. These bahuts or huches, from which the term huchiers came (meaning the Corporation of Carpenters), were nothing more than chests standing on four feet. From all sources of information on the subject it has been decided that they were probably the chief pieces of furniture the people had. They served as a seat by day and, with cushions spread upon them, as a bed by night. They were also used as tables with large pieces of silver dresse or arranged upon them in the daytime. From this comes our word " dresser " for the kitchen shelves. In those days of brigands and wars and sudden death, the household belongings were as few as possible so that the trouble of speedy transportation would be small, and every-thing was packed into the chests. As the idea of comfort grew a little stronger, the number of chests grew, and when a traveling party arrived at a stopping-place, out came the tapestries and hangings and cushions and silver dishes, which were arranged to make the rooms seem as cheerful as possible. The germ of the home ideal was there, at least, but it was hard work for the arras and the " ciel " to keep out the cold and cover the bare walls. When life became a little more secure and people learned something of the beauty of proportion, the rooms showed more harmony in regard to the relation of open spaces and walls, and became a decoration in themselves, with the tapestries and hangings enhancing their beauty of line. It was not until some time in the fifteenth century that the habit of traveling with all one's belongings ceased.

The year 1000 was looked forward to with abject terror, for it was firmly believed by all that the world was then coming to an end. It cast a gloom over all the people and paralyzed all ambition. When, however, the fatal year was safely passed, there was a great religious thanksgiving and everyone joined in the praise of a merciful God. The semi-circular arch of the Romanesque style gave way to the pointed arch of the Gothic, and wonderful cathedrals slowly lifted their beautiful spires to the sky. The ideal was to build for the glory of God and not only for the eyes of man, so that exquisite carving was lavished upon all parts of the work. This deeply reverent feeling lasted through the best period of Gothic architecture, and while household furniture was at a standstill church furniture became more and more beautiful, for in the midst of the religious fervor nothing seemed too much to do for the Church. Slowly it died out, and a secular attitude crept into decoration. One finds grotesque carvings appearing on the choir stalls and other parts of churches and cathedrals and the standard of excellence was lowered.

The chest, table, wooden arm-chair, bed, and bench, were as far as the imagination had gone in domestic furniture, and although we read of wonderful tapestries and leather hangings and clothes embroidered in gold and jewels, there was no comfort in our sense of the word, and those brave knights and fair ladies had need to be strong to stand the hardships of life. Glitter and show was the ideal and it was many more years before the standard of comfort and refinement gained a firm foothold.

Gothic architecture and decoration declined from the perfection of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to the over-decorated, flamboyant Gothic of the fifteenth century, and it was in the latter period that the transition began between the Gothic and the Renaissance epochs.

The Renaissance was at its height in Italy in the fifteenth century, and its influence began to make itself felt a little in France at that time.

When the French under Louis XII seized Milan, the magnificence of the court of Ludovico Sforza, the great duke of Milan, made such an impression on them that they could not rest content with the old order, and took home many beautiful things. Italian artisans were also imported, and as France was ready for the change, their lessons were learned and the French Renaissance came slowly into existence. This transition is well shown by the Chateau de Gaillon, built by Cardinal d'Amboise. Gothic and Renaissance decoration were placed side by side in panels and furniture, and we also find some pure Gothic decoration as late as the early part of the sixteenth century, but they were in parts of France where tradition changed slowly. Styles overlap in every transition period, so it is often difficult to place the exact date on a piece of furniture; but the old dies out at last and gives way to the new.

With the accession of Frances I in 1515 the Renaissance came into its own in France. He was a great patron of art and letters, and under his fostering care the people knew new luxuries, new beauties, and new comforts. He invited Andrea del Sarto and Leonardo da Vinci to come to France. The word Renaissance means simply revival and it is not correctly used when we mean a distinct style led or inspired by one person. It was a great epoch, with individuality as its leading spirit, led by the inspiration of the Italian artists brought from Italy and molded by the genius of France. This renewal of classic feeling came at the psychological moment, for the true spirit of the great Gothic period had died. The Renaissance movements in Italy, France, England and Germany all drew their inspiration from the same source, but in each case the national characteristics entered into the treatment. The Italians and Germans both used the grotesque a great deal, but the Germans used it in a coarser and heavier way than the Italians, who used it esthetically. The French used more especially conventional and beautiful floral forms, and the inborn French sense of the fitness of things gave the treatment a wonderful charm and beauty. If one studies the French chateaux one will feel the true beauty and spirit of the times— Blois with its history of many centuries, and then some of the purely Renaissance chateaux, like Chambord. Although great numbers of Italian artists came to France, one must not think they did all the beautiful work of the time. The French learned quickly and adapted what they learned to their own needs, so that the delicate and graceful decorations brought from Italy became more and more individualized until in the reign of Henry II the Renaissance reached its high-water mark.

The furniture of the time did not show much change or become more varied or comfortable. It was large and solid and the chairs had the satisfactory effect of good proportion, while the general squareness of outline added to the feeling of solidity. Oak was used, and later walnut. The chair legs were straight, and often elaborately turned, and usually had strainers or under framing. Cushions were simply tied on at first, but the knowledge of upholstering was gaining ground, and by the time of Louis XIII was well understood. Cabinets had an architectural effect in their design. The style of the decorative motive changed, but it is chiefly in architecture and the decorative treatment of it that one sees the true spirit of the Renaissance. Two men who had great influence on the style of furniture of the time were Androuet du Cerceau and Hugues Sambin. They published books of plates that were eagerly copied in all parts of France. Sambin's influence can be traced in the later style of Louis XIV.

The marriage of Henry II and Catherine de Medici naturally continued the strong Italian influence. The portion of the Renaissance called after Henry II lasted about seventy-five years, and corresponds with the Elizabethan period in England.

During the regency of Marie de Medici, Flemish influence became very strong, as she invited Rubens to Paris to decorate the Luxembourg. There were also many Italians called to do the work, and as Rubens had studied in Italy, Italian influence was not lacking.

Degeneracy began during the reign of Henry IV, as ornament became meaningless and consistency of decoration was lost in a maze of superfluous design.

It was in the reign of Louis XIII that furniture for the first time became really comfortable, and if one examines the engravings of Abraham Bosse one will see that the rooms have an air of homelikeness as well as richness. The characteristic chair of the period was short in the back and square in shape — it was usually covered with leather or tapestry, fastened to the chair with large brass nails, and the back and seat often had a fringe. A set of chairs usually consisted of arm-chairs, plain chairs, folding stools and a lit-de-repos. Many of the arm-chairs were entirely covered with velvet or tapestry, or, if the woodwork showed, it was stained to harmonize with the covering on the seat and back.

The twisted columns used in chairs, bedposts, etc., were borrowed from Italy and were very popular. Another shape often used for chair legs was the X that shows Flemish influence. The lit-de-repos, or chaise-longue, was a seat about six feet long, sometimes with arms and sometimes not, and with a mattress and bolster. The beds were very elaborate and very important in the scheme of decoration, as the ladies of the time held receptions in their bedrooms and the king and nobles gave audiences to their subjects while in bed. These latter were therefore necessarily furnished with splendor. The woodwork was usually covered with the same material as the curtains, or stained to harmonize. The canopy never reached to the ceiling but was, from floor to top, about 7 ft. 3 in. high, and the bed was 61 ft. square. The curtains were arranged on rods and pulleys, and when closed this "lit en housse" looked like a huge square box. The counterpane, or "coverture de parade," was of the curtain material. The four corners of the canopy were decorated with bunches of plumes or panache, or with a carved wooden ornament called pomme, or with a " bouquet" of silk. The beds were covered with rich stuffs, like tapestry, silk, satin, velvet, cloth-of-gold and silver, etc., all of which were embroidered or trimmed with gold or silver lace. One of the features of a Louis XIII room was the tapestry and hangings. A certain look of dignity was given to the rooms by the general square and heavy outlines of the furniture and the huge chimney-pieces.

The taste for cabinets kept up and the cabinets and presses were large, sometimes divided into two parts, sometimes with doors, sometimes with open frame undereath. The tables were richly carved and gilded, often ornamented with bronze and copper. The cartouche was used a great deal in decoration, with a curved surface. This rounded form appears in the posts used in various kinds of furniture. When rectangles were used they were always broader than high. The garlands of fruit were heavy, the cornucopias were slender, with an astonishing amount of fruit pouring from them, and the work was done in rather low relief. Carved and gilded mirrors were introduced by the Italians as were also sconces and glass chandeliers. It was a time of great magnificence, and shadowed forth the coming glory of Louis XIV. It seems a style well suited to large dining-rooms and libraries in modern houses of importance.



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