Decoration And Design Under Louis XIV
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
It is often a really difficult matter to decide the exact boundary lines between one period and another, for the new style shows its beginnings before the old one is passed, and the old style still appears during the early years of the new one. It is an overlapping process and the years of transition are ones of great interest. As one period follows another it usually shows a reaction from the previous one; a somber period is followed by a gay one; the excess of ornament in one is followed by restraint in the next. It is the same law that makes us want cake when we have had too much bread and butter.
The world has changed so much since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it seems almost impossible that we should ever again have great periods of decoration like those of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. Then the monarch was supreme. " L'etat c'est moi," said Louis XIV, and it was true. He established the great Gobelin works on a basis that made France the authority of the world and firmly imposed his taste and his will on the country. Now that this absolute power of one man is a thing of the past, we have the influence of many men forming and molding something that may turn into a beautiful epoch of decoration, one that will have in it some of the feeling that brought the French Renaissance to its height, though not like it, for we have the same respect for individuality working within the laws of beauty that they had.
The style that takes its name from Louis XIV was one of great magnificence and beauty with dignity and a certain solidity in its splendor. It was really the foundation of the styles that followed, and a great many people look upon the periods of Louis XIV, the Regency, Louis XV and Louis XVI as one great period with variations, or ups and downs — the complete swing and return of the pendulum.
Louis XIV was a man with a will of iron and made it absolute law during his long reign of seventy-two years. His ideal was splendor, and he encouraged great men in the intellectual and artistic world to do their work, and shed their glory on the time. Conde, Turenne, Colbert, Moliere, Corneille, La Fontaine, Racine, Fenelon, Boulle, Le Brun, are a few among the long and wonderful list. He was in-deed Louis the Magnificent, the Sun King.
One of the great elements toward achieving the stupendous results of this reign was the establishment of the " Manufacture des Meubles de la Couronne," or, as it is usually called, " Manufacture des Gobelins." Artists of all kinds were gathered together and given apartments in the Louvre and the wonderfully gifted and versatile Le Brun was put at the head. Tapestry, goldsmiths' work, furniture, jewelry, etc., were made, and with the royal protection and interest France rose to the position of world-wide supremacy in the arts. Le Brun had the same taste and love of magnificence as Louis, and had also extraordinary executive ability and an almost unlimited capacity for work, combined with the power of gathering about him the most eminent artists of the time. Andre Charles Boulle was one, and his beautiful cabinets, commodes, tables, clocks, etc., are now almost priceless. He carried the inlay of metals, tortoise-shell, ivory and beautiful woods to its highest expression, and the mingling of colors with the exquisite workmanship gave most wonderful effects. Sheets of white metal or brass were glued together and the pattern was then cut out. When taken apart the brass scrolls could be fitted exactly into the shell background, and the shell scrolls into the brass background, thus making two decorations. The shell background was the more highly prized. The designs usually had a Renaissance feeling. The metal was softened in outline by engraving, and then ormolu mounts were added. Ormolu or gilt bronze mounts, formed one of the great decorations of furniture. The most exquisite workmanship was lavished on them, and after they had been cast they were cut and carved and polished until they became worthy ornaments for beautiful inlaid tables and cabinets. The taste for elaborately carved and gilded frames to chairs, tables, mirrors, etc., developed rapidly. Mirrors were made by the Gobelins works and were much less ex-pensive than the Venetian ones of the previous reign. Walls were painted and covered with gold with a lavish hand. Tapestries were truly magnificent with gold and silver threads adding richness to their beauty of color, and were used purely as a decoration as well as in the old utilitarian way of keeping out the cold. The Gobelins works made at this time some of the most beautiful tapestries the world has known. The massive chimney-pieces were superseded by the "petite-cheminee," and had great mirrors over them or elaborate over-mantels. The whole air of furnishing and decoration changed to one of greater lightness and brilliancy. The ideal was that everything, no matter how small, must be beautiful, and we find the most exquisite workmanship lavished on window-locks and door-knobs.
In the early style of Louis XIV, we find many trophies of war and mythological subjects used in the decorative schemes. The second style of this period was a softening and refining of the earlier one, becoming more and more delicate until it merged into the time of the Regency. It was during the reign of Louis XIV that the craze for Chinese decoration first appeared. La Chinoiserie it was called, and it has daintiness and a curious fascination about it, but many inappropriate things were done in its name. The furniture of the time was firmly placed upon the ground, the arm-chairs had strong straining-rails, square or curved backs, scroll arms carved and partly upholstered and stuffed seats and backs. The legs of chairs were usually tapering in form and ornamented with gilding, or marquetry, or richly carved, and later the feet ended in a carved leaf de-sign. Some of the straining-rails were in the shape of the letter X, with an ornament at the intersection, and often there was a wooden molding below the seat in place of fringe. Many carved and gilded chairs had gold fringe and braid and were covered with velvet, tapestry or damask.
There were many new and elaborate styles of beds that came into fashion at this time. There was the lit d'ange, which had a canopy that did not extend over the entire bed, and had no pillars at the foot, the curtains were drawn back at the head and the counterpane went over the foot of the bed. There was the lit d'alcove, the lit de bout, lit dos, lit de glace, with a mirror framed in the ceiling, and many others. A lit de parade was like the great bed of Louis XIV at Versailles.
Both the tall and bracket clocks showed this same love of ornament and they were carved and gilded and enriched with chased brass and wonderful inlay by Boulle. The dials also were beautifully designed. Consoles, tables, cabinets, etc., were all treated in this elaborate way. Many of the ceilings were painted by great artists, and those at Versailles, painted by Le Brun and others, are good examples. There was always a combination of the straight line and the curve, a strong feeling of balance, and a profusion of ornament in the way of scrolls, garlands, shells, the acanthus, anthemion, etc. The moldings were wide and sometimes a torus of laurel leaves was used, but in spite of the great amount of ornament lavished on everything, there is the feeling of balance and symmetry and strength that gives dignity and beauty.
Louis was indeed fortunate in having the great Colbert for one of his ministers. He was a man of gigantic intellect, capable of originating and executing vast schemes. It was to his policy of state patronage, wisely directed, and energetically and lavishly carried out, that we owe the magnificent achievements of this period.
Everywhere the impression is given of brilliancy and splendor — gold on the walls, gold on the furniture, rich velvets and damasks and tapestries, marbles and marquetry and painting, furniture worth a king's ransom. It all formed a beautiful and fitting background for the proud king, who could do no wrong, and the dazzling, care-free people who played their brilliant, selfish parts in the midst of its splendor. They never gave a thought to the great mass of the common people who were over-burdened with taxation; they never heard the first faint mutterings of discontent which were to grow, ever louder and louder, until the blood and horror of the Revolution paid the debt.