The Regency And Louis XV
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
When Louis XIV died in 1715, his great-grandson, Louis XV, was but five years old, so Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, became Regent. During the last years of Louis XIV's life the court had resented more or less the gloom cast over it by the influence of Madame de Maintenon, and turned with avidity to the new ruler. He was a vain and selfish man, feeling none of the responsibilities of his position, and living chiefly for pleasure. The change in decoration had been foreshadowed in the closing years of the previous reign, and it is often hard to say whether a piece of furniture is late Louis XIV or Regency.
The new gained rapidly over the old, and the magnificent and stately extravagance of Louis XIV turned into the daintier but no less extravagant and rich decoration of the Regency and Louis XV. One of the noticeable changes was that rooms were smaller, and the reign of the boudoir began. It has been truly said that after the death of Louis XIV " came the substitution of the finery of coquetry for the worship of the great in style." There was greater variety in the designs of furniture and a greater use of carved metal ornament and gilt bronze, beautifully chased. The ornaments took many shapes, such as shells, shaped foliage, roses, seaweed, strings of pearls, etc., and at its best there was great beauty in the treatment.
It was during the Regency that the great artist and sculptor in metal, Charles Cressant, flourished. He was made ebeniste of the Regent, and his influence was always to keep up the traditions when the reaction against the severe might easily have led to degeneration. There are beautiful examples of his work in many of the great collections of furniture, notably the wonderful commode in the Wallace collection. The dragon mounts of ormolu on it show the strong influence the Orient had at the time. He often used the figures of women with great delicacy on the corners of his furniture, and he also used tortoise-shell and many colored woods in marquetry, but his most wonderful work was done in brass and gilded bronze.
In 1723, when Louis was thirteen years old, he was declared of age and became king. The influence of the Re-gent was, naturally, still strong, and unfortunately did much to form the character of the young king. Selfishness, pleasure, and low ideals, were the order of court life, and paved the way for the debased taste for rococo ornament which was one marked phase of the style of Louis XV.
The great influence of the Orient at this time is very noticeable. There had been a beginning of it in the previous reign, but during the Regency and the reign of Louis XV it became very marked. " Singerie " and "Chinoiserie" were the rage, and gay little monkeys clambered and climbed over walls and furniture with a careless abandon that had a certain fascination and charm in spite of their being monkeys. The " Salon des Singes" in the Chateau de Chantilly gives one a good idea of this. The style was easily over-done and did not last a great while.
During this time of Oriental influence lacquer was much used and beautiful lacquer panels became one of the great features of French furniture. Pieces of furniture were sent to China and Japan to be lacquered and this, combined with the expense of importing it, led many men in France to try to find out the Oriental secret. Le Sieur Dagly was supposed to have imported the secret and was established at the Gobelins works where he made what was called " vernis de Gobelins."
The Martin family evolved a most characteristically French style of decoration from the Chiese and Japanese lacquers. The varnish they made, called " vernis Martin," gave its name to the furniture decorated by them, which was well suited to the dainty boudoirs of the day. All kinds of furniture were decorated in this way — sedan chairs and even snuff-boxes, until at last the supply became so great that the fashion died. There are many charming examples of it to be seen in museums and private collections, but the mod-ern garish copies of it in many shops give no idea of the charm of the original. Watteau's delightful decorations also give the true spirit of the time, with their gayety and frivolity showing the Arcadian affectations the fad of the moment.
As the time passed decoration grew more and more ornate, and the followers of Cressant exaggerated his traits. One of these was Jules Aurčle Meissonier, an Italian by birth, who brought with him to France the decadent Italian taste. He had a most marvelous power of invention and lavished ornament on everything, carrying the rocaille style to its utmost limit. He broke up all straight lines, put curves and convolutions everywhere, and rarely had two sides alike, for symmetry had no charms for him. The curved endive decoration was used in architraves, in the panels of overdoors and panel moldings, everywhere it possibly could be used, in fact. His work was in great demand by the king and nobility. He designed furniture of all kinds, altars, sledges, candelabra and a great amount of silversmith's work, and also published a book of designs. Unfortunately it is this rococo style which is meant by many people when they speak of the style of Louis XV.
Louis XV furniture and decoration at its best period is extremely beautiful, and the foremost architects of the day were undisturbed by the demand for rococo, knowing it was a vulgarism of taste which would pass. In France, bad as it was, it never went to such lengths as it did in Italy and Spain.
The easy generalization of the girl who said the difference between the styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI was like the difference in hair, one was curly and one was straight, has more than a grain of truth in it. The curved line was used persistently until the last years of Louis XV's time, but it was a beautiful, gracious curve, elaborate, and in furniture, richly carved, which was used during the best period. The decline came when good taste was lost in the craze for rococo.
Chairs were carved and gilded, or painted, or lacquered, and also beautiful natural woods were used. The sofas and chairs had a general square appearance, but the framework was much curved and carved and gilded. They were up-holstered in silks, brocades, velvets, damasks in flowered de-signs, edged with braid. Gobelin, Aubusson and Beauvais tapestry, with Watteau designs, were also used. Nothing more dainty or charming could be found than the tapestry seats and chair backs and screens which were woven especially to fit certain pieces of furniture. The tapestry weavers now used thousands of colors in place of the nine-teen used in the early days, and this enabled them to copy with great exactess the charming pictures of Watteau and Boucher. The idea of sitting on beautiful ladies and gentle-men airily playing at country life, does not appeal to our modern taste, but it seems to be in accord with those days.
Desks were much used and were conveniently arranged with drawers, pigeon-holes and shelves, and roll-top desks were made at this time. Commodes were painted, or richly ornamented with lacquer panels, or panels of rosewood or violet wood, and all were embellished with wonderful bronze or ormolu. Many pieces of furniture were inlaid with lovely Sevres plaques, a manner which is not always pleasing in effect. There were many different and elaborate kinds of beds, taking their names from their form and draping. "Lit d'anglaise" had a back, head-board and foot-board, and could be used as a sofa. " Lit a Romaine" had a canopy and four festooned curtains, and so on.
The most common form of salon was rectangular, with proportions of 4 to 3, or 2 to 1. There were also many square, round, octagonal and oval salons, these last being among the most beautiful. They all were decorated with great richness, the walls being paneled with carved and gilded — or partially gilded — wood. Tapestry and brocade and painted panels were used. Large mirrors with elaborate frames were placed over the mantels, with panels above reaching to the cornice or cove of the ceiling, and large mirrors were also used over console tables and as panels. The paneled overdoors reached to the cornice, and windows were also treated in this way. Windows and doors were not looked upon merely as openings to admit air and light and human beings, but formed a part of the scheme of decoration of the room. There were beautiful brackets and candelabra of ormolu to light the rooms, and the boudoirs and salons, with their white and gold and beautifully decorated walls and gilded furniture, gave an air of gayety and richness, extravagance and beauty.
An apartment in the time of Louis XV usually had a vestibule, rather severely decorated with columns or pilasters and often statues in niches. The first ante-room was a waiting-room for servants and was plainly treated, the wood-work being the chief decoration. The second ante-room had mirrors, console tables, carved and gilded woodwork, and sometimes tapestry was used above a wainscot. Dining-rooms were elaborate, often having fountains and plants in the niches near the buffet. Bedrooms usually had an alcove, and the room, not counting the alcove, was an exact square. The bed faced the windows and a large mirror over a con-sole table was just opposite it. The chimney faced the principal entrance.
A " chambre en niche" was a room where the bed space was not so large as an alcove. The designs for sides of rooms by Meissonier, Blondel, Briseux Cuilles and others give a good idea of the arrangement and proportions of the different rooms. The cabinets or studies, and the garde robes, were entered usually from doors near the alcove. The ceilings were painted by Boucher and others in soft and charming colors, with cupids playing in the clouds, and other subjects of the kind. Great attention was given to clocks and they formed an important and beautiful part of the decoration.
The natural consequence of the period of excessive rococo with its superabundance of curves and ornament, was that, during the last years of Louis's reign, the reaction slowly began to make itself felt. There was no sudden change to the use of the straight line, but people were tired of so much lavishness and motion in their decoration. There were other influences also at work, for Robert Adam had, in England, established the classic taste, and the excavations at Pompeii were causing widespread interest and admiration. The fact is proved that what we call Louis XVI decoration was well known before the death of Louis XV, by his furnishing Luciennes for Madam Du Barri in almost pure Louis XVI style.