Louis XII. And Louis XIV Furniture
At the commencement of the reign of Louis XIII. the furniture was sound, and the armchairs were generally upholstered in tapestry from the Beauvais looms. There was a distinct onward movement. Art was entering into the lives of the people, and there was a desire to possess more than strength in the furniture they purchased. New purposes were discovered for domestic furniture, and cabinets with doorsócabinets d porteówere made ; in their ornamentation some marqueterie was introduced, and the panelled doors were frequently decorated with flowers and baskets of fruit.
To understand the rough and even gaudy carving and decoration of Louis XIII. furniture, the architectural ornamentation of the rooms in which such furniture was used should be examined. Fortunately English collectors have such an opportunity at South Kensington, for in the Victoria and Albert Museum one of the greatest treasures in French wood-work is the late sixteenth-century panelling of a room, principally of oak, painted in oil colours and richly gilt, taken from a farmhouse near Alencon. This wonderful room, so gaudy and grand, may scarcely be considered a typical example of French decoration at that period. Its style and design, however, are those in vogue at that time, although in a few instances, perhaps, supplemented by the paintings and ornaments introduced into this room, which is supposed to have been used by Henry IV. either as a hunting lodge or during the siege of Alencon. The panels on the walls are of old Spanish leather painted in rich colours, contrasting with the painted scenes on the panels, which are for the most part on a chequered ground of red and gold. The ceiling is covered with the same magnificent ornament, and many cupids and painted vases are shown in relief, over the mantelpiece being a paintings of the Nativity.
The furniture used in conjunction with such decoration was not always as decorative as might have been expected, for the age of gold had not then come about, although there were indications in the architectural ornament of the coming style. Among the early pieces of French furniture is a remarkable cabinet or dressoir de salle-d-manger (circa 1560). Of the same period there is a rather light coloured walnut wood cabinet from Lyons, and a small chair, the latter being much injured by the ravages of time. Perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of sixteenth - century carving is a French sideboard of walnut wood, executed in the middle of the century, the figures standing out in deep relief. In the centre there are representations of Mars, Venus, and Cupid, and on the door panels are Mars and Mercury. The front rails are inlaid with other woods ; not only are the supports magnificent examples of carving, but the under portion is richly decorated. In the same gallery there are also many sixteenth - century walnut wood chairs from the South of France. In the Wallace Collection, too, there is a fine dressoir of carved walnut wood enriched with bold carving of foliated scroll work. Cabinet-makers appear to have shown more than unusual activity ; and although the wood - carvers were still pursuing their art, and giving forth to futurity examples which can never be surpassed, there were indications on every side of that coming change, when Louis XIV., the Grand Monarch as he has been styled, would sit upon the throne of France, and a new order of things would come about.
The richness of the Renaissance decoration seems to have made its last stand in the achievements of the carver and perforator of ivory. All the grandeur of the larger pieces of Renaissance work in cabinet art seems concentrated in the miniature ivories introduced in ebony furniture. French artists excelled in the work, and in seeking for still further enrichment joined with the Florentine artists in using choice mosaics in stone and gems. In the reign of Louis XIII. of France the prevailing taste was for gilded furniture with real mosaics, but in that development many of the characteristics of the carved ebony which had been hitherto enriched with ivory were retained. The introduction of stones and gilding marked a change in style, and seemed to open up a new departure, which was eventually to become the more decorative style of the so-called Louis periods.
The accession of Louis XIV. was the signal for more decorative art to be introduced. This was fostered, no doubt, by the Palace of Versailles, which was such a pretty place in which to assemble glittering wood-work adorned by gold, polished brass, and elaborate inlay's. Louis XIV. was himself a lover of art, and liked to surround himself with artists and craftsmen. He was seconded in his efforts to improve artistic tastes by Colbert, the French Minister of Finance, who gave fresh impetus to the ebenistes' (cabinet-makers') art.. With the King's approval and support he founded the Gobelins' works, where he hoped to encourage the manufacture and sale of art treasures. He secured the services of a celebrated artist, M. Le Brun, who became the director of the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne.
In the royal factories furniture was made for the Palace of Versailles and other royal residences, as well as for those of the nobles of France, gradually becoming more luxuriant and brilliant in its decoration.
The magnificence of Versailles when in the height of its glory can now be only dimly realised. The connoisseur today is not concerned with the army of attendants who waited upon the King, but rather with the relics of the furnishings of that palace, which cost in its equipment 13,000,000 francs, exclusive of pictures. The furniture which was once housed there is for the most part beyond the ordinary collector's reach, but it serves to typify the style and taste which actuated the makers of the less gorgeous pieces, some of which are found in private houses, belonging to those whose ancestors were, although perhaps in a humble way, patrons of French art in the reign of Louis XIV.
The artists, so many of whom worked in the royal workshops, gained their inspiration from classic art, Le Brun making free use in ornament of the mask, the sun, and the lion's skin. Among the strongly marked characteristics of the style were the dead or burnished gold, the trellis - work closely interlaced and filled with paterw. In many different ways the Royal cipher was introduced ; the double L was generally inset upon a true oval, marking the difference between the cipher of Louis XIV. and that of Louis XVI., which was generally shown upon an egg-shaped ground.
As in previous reigns architectural wood-work of the period typifies, as well as in its day influenced, the ornament of interior furnishings. The collection of art treasures at Hertford House, better known as the Wallace Collection, includes the grand staircase of magnificent balustrades of the Louis XIV. period. There is in that collection a very fine transitional piece showing the lingering influence of the Renaissance, even in the reign of Louis XIV.. It is a high-backed dressoir of carved oak, with the central panel of pierced and foliated ornamentation, distinctly transitional. Some of the carved oak wardrobes of the earlier days of Louis XIV. were very large, their lofty doors being richly carved, the pediment or arched frame of the wardrobe being ornamented with carved masks. It has, however, been well said that the reign of Louis XIV. is best remembered as the " triumph of gilded wood." It was then that the chairs, settees, and gorgeously upholstered furniture were made the more brilliant by overlays of gold. It was the age of Florentine mosaics and marble tops and costly consoles, with frames of the pier glasses gilded, and festoons of flowers painted and enriched in colours and gold, ornamented with festoons. The state bed was perhaps the most important feature in the ceremonials of the French Court of Louis XIV. That luxurious monarch possessed upwards of four hundred beds, about half of them being distinctly decorative, and some only used for State ceremonial when the King received his chief officers and members of the Court reclining on his couch. The varieties of beds at that time are described as the lit de parade, a state bed on a platform ; the lit clos, a recessed bed in a cupboard ; the lit d'alcove, a bed in a recess, semi - privacy being obtained by balustrades or columns ; the lit d'ange, a canopied bed ; and the lit de camp, a by no means unimportant piece of furniture.
Finer and more minute ornament was introduced in French furniture in every grade, but it was the bedroom furniture that received so much attention. The application of gold ornament was applied in every way, and we find numerous screens in gilded frames filled in with needlework panels and figures in petit point, against a background of coarser weave. Chinese influence was also seen in the days of Louis XIV., the style being known as la chinoiserie.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )