Marie Antoinette And Louis XVI. Furniture
Louis XVI. is said to have been weak of will and constantly under the influence of his wife or his brother, his reign ending in his compulsory flight from Versailles in 1789, and in 1793 his trial and execution. Queen Marie Antoinette, however, exercised considerable influence over French art, and a plainer and somewhat severer style came into vogue, the style which she adopted in dress being reflected in the furniture of the period. It was then that the cabriole leg was superseded by plain tapered legs, and instead of so much gilt the furniture was frequently painted white, gilt ornament being used as a relief rather than the base of the decoration.
One of the best known artists who left his mark on the cabinet work and decorative ornament of the period was Jean Henri Riesener, although many of the examples retained in museums and art galleries may be regarded as connecting links between the Louis XV. and the Louis XVI. periods. In the Louvre Museum there is an earlier piece dated 1769. It is a cylindrical desk ornamented with marqueterie of flowers and trophies indicative of Poetry and of War ; the bronze ornaments on the bureau are said to be the work of Philippe Caffieri, but were designed by Duplessis and Winant. There are also many fine pieces by Martin Carlin in the Louvre Museum, 'showing the peculiar delicacy of style for which this artist is remarkable. Another famous artist, by name Ranson, was noted for his floral and pastoral trophies, looped garlands of roses and love-birds, quivers of arrows and shepherds' crooks hidden amidst the foliage. G. Benneman made two buffets for Marie Antoinette, which are now in the Louvre.
In the Victoria and Albert Museum among the famous Jones' Bequest there is an escritoire a toilette, which is believed to have been made for the ill-fated queen. Its style, however, indicates the transitional period between the rococo and that which prevailed in the reign of Louis XVI. Its workmanship is generally assigned to Claude Saunier. There is a wealth of ornament about this piece, the central panels of which are so beautifully inlaid. Under the middle panel is a mirror, and at either side divisions lined with silk. On one side there are pin-cushions, powder - puffs, and boxes, and on the other side compartments fitted with scent bottles and numerous toilet accessories used in heightening the charms of female beauty. Perhaps one of the most magnificent relics of that period when Queen Marie Antoinette ruled that gay throng at Fontainbleau is her gilt state bed and the chambre d coacher in that palace ; the bed hangings of Lyonnais silk were designed by Philippe de Lassale. Among the minor relics of the Court is a jewel cabinet in the Palace of Versailles, formerly belonging to the Queen. It is of mahogany, and inlaid with painted plaques of the Wedgwood - Flaxman type, gilt figures representing the Seasons.
Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum can form a very good idea of the splendour of French boudoirs during the reign of Louis XVI. There is a reconstructed sitting-room, removed from a house in Paris. Originally it is said to have been erected under the superintendence of Marie Antoinette and her friend and lady of honour, Madame de Serilly, during the temporary absence of that lady's husband, who was Paymaster of the Forces under Louis XVI. The measurements of the room are 14 ft. 6 in. by 10 ft. 6 in., and the total height 16 ft. The sides are formed into four arched recesses, the pilasters of which are decorated with paintings in panels, as are the lunettes within the sweep of each arch. These last - named spaces are filled with subjects of Grecian mythology. The side on the left of the entrance doorway shows a representation of Juno, reclining on the clouds, and attended by her favourite peacock. Opposite the entrance the lunette is filled with a nude water god seated on a precipitous rock, down which a stream pours from his arm. A rudder in his hand is emblematic of a navigable river, and is probably meant for the genius of the Seine. Above the fireplace in this remarkable room Pomona is seen, and over the door there is Vulcan with his anvil and hammer. Lastly, a medallion figure of Jupiter rides upon the clouds in the centre of the low domed ceiling. These paintings, together with the small figure subjects on the pilasters, were executed by Jean Simeon Rousseau de la Rottiere. The chimney-piece is of grey marble, the work of Claude Michel Clodion, a celebrated sculptor of the period ; the gilt metal ornaments are by Gouthiere, one of the best metal workers of his day. The beautiful gold ornaments and decoration of the room form an appropriate setting for gilt furniture of the Louis XVI. period. The furniture suitable for such a room is represented by several pieces in the museum, including a settee, the framework of which is of gilt wood ; the covering is of Beauvais tapestry, of the same period, 1774-1793.
In the Wallace Collection there are some fine examples of furniture upholstered in Beauvais tapestry, including several carved chairs made in the reign of Louis XVI., but upholstered in tapestry which had been woven at an earlier date, such, for instance, as a set of chairs, armchairs and sofa upholstered in tapestry designed by Jean - Baptiste. Upholstered in the same material there is a very charming causeuse or small cushioned sofa, of wood carved and gilt, the tapestry being of the period of Louis XV., but the framework is of the time of Louis XVI. This little sofa is part of a suite which includes large sofas and armchairs. In the Wallace Galleries may also be seen an armoire of carved walnut wood in two sections, crowned with a broken pediment, adorned with fine figures, and an inlay of green veined marble. The subjects, which are in low relief, represent Venus and Diana, and the arms are those of Leon - Castille-Sicily.
An important historical piece in the Wallace Collection is an armchair of carved and gilt wood, covered with silk brocade, bearing a monogram composed of the letters M and T, interlaced, It belonged to the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, mother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, and is of French design of the Louis XVI. period. In the same museum may be seen a secrdtaire of amboyna wood, decorated with plaques of Sevres porcelain bearing the monogram of the Queen, a beautiful piece of work by Adam Weisweiller. There are also several work - tables — one an especially fine piece of marqueterie work with mounts of bronze, cast, chased, and gilt. The top is formed of a decorative plaque of Sevres porcelain, with turquoise blue borders, enriched with scroll and diaper work in gold ; in the centre is painted a fanciful subject with foxes and exotic birds in a landscape.
Of the late ornament used towards the close of Louis XVI.'s career, the slender ovals in wood, porcelain, and ormolu are specially noticeable ; in conjunction with these are bows of ribbons and flowers. At this time finer and more minute ornament was introduced. Classic characteristics are also to be observed. The woods employed were mahogany, rosewood, tulip, amboyna, amaranth, kingwood, ebony, pear, and holly. The painted and gilded ornament which eventually became so extravagant was well suited to the introduction of magnificent upholstery enriched by beautifully worked scenic pictures in silk. The bedsteads were hung with silk damask or flowered calicoes.
Many dainty pieces were made for reception rooms. In the furniture of such rooms the decoration became lighter, too, and the chairs included some novelties to provide for the exigencies of popular fashion. Most notable among those special features was the voyeuse chair, with its stuffed top rail and lyre-shaped back, an invention which permitted the dandies of that day to sit astride, and when resting their arms upon the chair back to display their handsome coats. Such were the fashions which prevailed at the end of the period when the Monarchy was suspended, and the career of the King and his unfortunate Queen cut short.
Fig. 45 represents a Louis XVI. secretaire, with finely chased and gilt ormolu enrichments, the cylinder fall being inlaid with various woods, in the centre a beautiful group of flowers. On the cabinet are shown suitable contemporary ornaments ; there is a Louis XVI. clock by Lelievre a Paris, of exquisitely chased workmanship, the ornaments being of gilt ormolu, standing on a white statuary marble base. There are also two Louis XVI. candelabra formed of bronze cupids, holding ormolu branches, standing on circular pedestals of dove-coloured marble with ormolu enrichments. This very beautiful secretaire, so typical of the workmanship of Louis XVI. period, was lately in the possession of Mr Albert Amor, of St James's Street, London.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )