Decoration And Design Under Louis XVI
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774, and reigned for nineteen years, until that fatal year of '93. He was kind, benign, and simple, and had no sympathy with the life of the court during the preceding reign. Marie Antoinette disliked the great pomp of court functions and liked to play at the simple life, so shepherdesses, shepherd's crooks, hats, wreaths of roses, watering-pots and many other rustic symbols became the fashion.
Marie Antionette was but fifteen years old when in 1770 she came to France as a bride, and it is hardly reasonable to think that the taste of a young girl would have originated a great period of decoration, although the idea is firmly fixed in many minds. It is known that the transition period was well advanced before she became queen, but there is no doubt that her simpler taste and that of Louis led them to accept with joy the classical ideas of beauty which were slowly gaining ground. As dauphin and dauphiness they naturally had a great following, and as king and queen their taste was paramount, and the style became established.
Architecture became more simple and interior decoration followed suit. The restfulness and beauty of the straight line appeared again, and ornament took its proper place as a decoration of the construction, and was subordinate to its design. During the period of Louis XVI the rooms had rectangular panels formed by simpler moldings than in the previous reign, with pilasters of delicate design between the panels. The overdoors and mantels were carried to the cornice and the paneling was usually of oak, painted in soft colors or white and gilded. Walls were also covered with tapestry and brocade. Some of the most characteristic marks of the style are the straight tapering legs of the furniture, usually fluted, with some carving. Fluted columns and pilasters often had metal quills filling them for a part of the distance at top and bottom, leaving a plain channel between. The laurel leaf was used in wreath form, and bell flowers were used on the legs of furniture. Oval medallions, surmounted by a wreath of flowers and a bow-knot, appear very often, and in about 1780 round medallions were used. Furniture was covered with brocade or tapestry, with shepherds and shepherdesses or pastoral scenes for the design. The gayest kinds of designs were used in the silks and brocades; ribbons and bow-knots and interlacing stripes with flowers and rustic symbols scattered over them. Curtains were less festooned and cut with great exactness. The canopies of beds became smaller, until often only a ring or crown held the draperies, and it became the fashion to place the bed side-ways, " vu de face."
There was a great deal of beautiful ornament in gilded bronze and ormolu on the furniture, and many colored woods were used in marquetry. The fashion of using Sevres plaques in inlay was continued. There was a great deal of white and colored marble used and very fine ironwork was made. Riesener, Roentgen, Gouthiere, Fragonard and Boucher are some of the names that stand out most distinctly as authors of the beautiful decorations of the time. Marie Antoinette's boudoir at Fontainebleau is a perfect example of the style and many of the other rooms both there and at the Petit Trianon show its great beauty, gayety and dignity combined with its richness and magnificence.
The influence of Pompeii must not be overlooked in studying the style of Louis XVI, for it appeared in much of the decoration of the time. The beautiful little boudoir of the Marquise de Serilly is a charming example of its adaptation. The problem of bad proportion is also most interestingly over-come. The room was too high for its size, so it was divided into four arched openings separated by carved pilasters, and the walls covered with paintings. The ceiling was darker than the walls, which made it seem lower, and the whole color scheme was so arranged that the feeling of extreme height was lessened. The mantel is a beautiful example of the period. This room was furnished about 1780-82.
Compared to the lavish curves of the style of Louis XV, the fine outlines and the beautiful ornament of Louis XVI appear to some people cold, but if they look carefully at the matter, they will find them not really so. The warmth of the Gallic temperament still shows through the new garb, giving life and beauty to the dainty but strong furniture.
If one studies the examples of the styles of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI that one finds in the great palaces, collections, museums and books of prints and photographs, one will see that the wonderful foundation laid by Louis XIV was still there in the other two reigns. During the time of Louis XVI the pose of rustic simplicity was a very sophisticated pose indeed, but the reaction from the rocaille style of Louis XV led to one of the most beautiful styles of decoration that the world has seen. It had dignity, true beauty and the joy of life expressed in it.