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Interior Decorating - The Rococo

( Originally Published 1919 )


SOME usually careful writers refer to Baroque and Rococo almost as if the terms were interchangeable. Both are the fruit of the great Romantic impulse, and the latter is directly successive to the former, one drifting into the other. The present writers wish, however, to make clear that the difference between them is more radical than has yet been pointed out. It is a bit startling—is it not ?—to say that there is a larger divergence between these two Romantic developments than there is between the Classic Renaissance and the Romantic Baroque; and yet is it not so? "By their fruits ye shall know them" —do not pieces of Renaissance and Baroque furniture accompany each other better than pieces of Baroque and Rococo? Try the experiment and see: for we are seeking practical results.

We have already found that notwithstanding the difference in spirit and contour, likeness in size and weight, material and its colour, finish and upholstery, may all unite properly chosen pieces of Renaissance and Baroque furniture. On the other hand, the Rococo in its full development is slender, smaller, lighter, graceful, spirited and gay; walnut was generally used and sometimes oak, but, frequently, these pieces were painted or enamelled and sometimes gilt: to its upholstery may for the first time be applied the word exquisite. Furthermore, and for much the same reason, Rococo mobiliary forms do not well accompany those of the preceding reign, though during it there was so great a departure from usual Baroque forms—they also are widely different in spirit and effect. In the story of the period we see why this was so.


The Grand Monarch had at last departed this life. His rule had been long and it was his great grandson, Louis XV, the "Well Beloved," who succeeded him. The Duke of Orleans acted as Regent during the minority of the King (1715–1723) and an immediate reaction against the pompous splendour of the previous regime ensued, resulting in an entire change in feeling and in mode of life. Freed from the burdensome control of that supreme egoist Louis Quatorze, the luxurious and pleasure-loving court found no restraint in the dissolute Regent nor in the young King, who only eight years later succeeded him. Tiresome functions in the great halls of Versailles gave way to the intimate meetings of the petit cabinet. It was an age of extreme politeness and of "manners," but also of familiar intercourse; smaller rooms came into vogue and, appropriately to them, smaller pieces of furniture and new forms suited to the new social life. Luxury, comfort, new sensations and beauty were the things sought for, and in the seeking was felt an absolute freedom from all restrictions in choice of form, material and colour and the sources from which they came. Is it too undignified to say that when freed from its heavy-handed ruler France arose and kicked its heels?

The young King (only thirteen years old when he took the throne in 1723) put the wise Cardinal Fleury at the head of affairs and this minister did his utmost for the welfare of France. Louis was amiable, but weak and inefficient. As he grew older he fell under the influence of his dissolute noblemen and the people who had rejoiced at his accession found as little consideration at his hands as they had experienced under his predecessor. Not many years ago contempt for the "public" was expressed in terse and vigorous language by the late Commodore Vanderbilt, and the ancestry of that attitude is a long one. It was never more manifest than in the reigns of the three successive Louis and it was not wonderful that it finally found its aftermath in the Revolution.

But meanwhile the exorbitant taxes were yielded by a suffering people and spent in luxury. The supreme selfishness and profligacy of the era are sufficiently well known : less popularly appreciated are its refinement, sincere appreciation of beauty, freedom from vulgarity and its intellectuality. If it was the age of the boudoir it was also that of the salon. If the Pompadour ruled King and State for the nineteen years from 1745 to her death in 1764, and if her draughts on the treasury amounted to hundreds of mil-lions of livres, ,her taste at least was impeccable and much of the money, was spent on an architecture and decoration rendering France famous for all time.

Because of her rule and that of her successor, Madame du Barry, and because of the great influence of the feminine sex in general upon the social life of the times, we constantly hear (and have grown somewhat wearied in the hearing) the half truth that the style of Louis Quinze was the result of the Reign of Woman. The present writers would prefer to say that it was the effect of the Reign of Freedom and Irresponsibility. The gaiety, brilliance of life, the expression of its revolt from control, its desire for elegance, its undisguised and irregulated search for beauty from whatever source, found relief in many frivolous phases, but the style as a whole was not only a perfect rendering of the Gallic spirit but an amazing exhibition of fertility and quality in design and consummate workmanship. The ebenistes, weavers of tapestries and carpets, and art-workers of all descriptions, still under the patronage of the crown, naturally breathed the pervading and exciting atmosphere and responded to the spirit and demands of the time. Nevertheless, it is to be remembered that these men had received their training under the old regime and did not abandon their traditions of craftsmanship, but gradually adapted them to the changed conditions and new requirements. The Regence style of decoration is an admirable one, retaining much of the dignity of the previous age but modified by the easier feeling characteristic of the newer time. Indications of the Rococo had appeared even during the reign of Louis Quatorze, but it was not until his successor sat upon the throne that its full flowering came.

Le Style Louis Quinze was the complete triumph of the Romantic. It was revolutionary, it was something the world had never previously seen. As the outstanding motif of the Baroque was the broken curve, those of the new movement were the flowing double curve, or line of beauty, and the C scroll; and in these there was nothing cumbersome nor tight; they were instinct with spring and swing and ease.

Neither of these were new, but their employment was very new indeed. Never before had decoration known a style in which curves so completely became construction, in which the rectilinear was to such an extent banished. Furthermore, even the usual symmetry of the opposing sides of a design was finally abolished, and balance was sustained by asymmetrical arrangement.

The name of this decoration is composed of the first syllables of Rocaille and Coquille and hence signifies rock and shell. The shell remained over from Baroque times, but it was now more than ever simply a motif which might be treated in any artistic direction regard-less of a close adherence to its original form. The rock form was similarly handled and Chippendale made of it extraordinary use in the French mirrors appearing in his book.

It is France alone which has so far been considered, and to France belongs the premiership in this style, though Italy is generally credited with its origin and Mr. Thomson has discovered some of its characteristics in Spain much earlier than they appeared in France. We do not yet know everything and some such points still remain to be traced. Through political misfortune Italy had lost its driving power, and from the time of Louis XIV the influence of France was supreme. Not realising perhaps that the outward glory of France was secured by the ruin of its people, Italy remained under its glamour, followed as nearly as circumstances permitted its social life in an at-tempted but poverty-oppressed gaiety and, in a measure to be taken up later, adopted its decorative styles. This now long distracted country was disposed of by foreign powers and divided as suited their policy, and, though after 1748 peace ruled for a season, the largest part of her territory was under the despotism of the Bourbons. Tuscany was well governed by Peter Leopold, and Venice remained a Republic till 1797—but her glory was rapidly departing.

Under such conditions Italian craftsmanship had lost its virility and verve; national traditions were partially neglected and work was less thorough ; cheap materials were used, and the cheapness disguised by imitative or decorated surfaces; yet, notwithstanding all this, the contribution of Italy to eighteenth century furniture was a distinct gain.

Both in Italy and on the Peninsula, where also the Rococo influence naturally had its day, there was, how-ever, an occasional tendency to excess. How degenerate the Rococo could sometimes become outside of France is shown by the Portuguese furniture in Plate 151 B and the Venetian chair in Plate 155 B. Is not the "inspiration" for the furniture of the Victoria-General Grant period now perfectly evident? It is to the eternal credit of France that its keen intellectuality and logical level-headedness sustained it through a style that might easily have run into utter lawlessness. At its height the contrary Classic spirit was already growing, and this tendency appealed to the discriminating taste and judgment of Madame de Pompadour and met her encouragement. Of this woman Voltaire said: "She was an artist in everything."

During the last years of the reign, when the King, now sunk in the deepest profligacy, was as well hated by his subjects as once he had been well beloved; and when the unconscionable du Barry occupied the position once held by Madame de Pompadour, decorative art was kept free from license and degradation by this counter-movement, to be described in the next chapter. Even this last mistress of the King, though lacking the refinement and taste of her predecessor, had a vital interest in art and continued its encouragement.

In England there was no Rococo movement properly to be so called. Its social life might be sufficiently worldly, but the Anglo-Saxon race has never been so light-heartedly frivolous as the Latin, and certainly was not so under its Hanoverian sovereigns.

Interior architecture there remained unaffected by the foreign influence and indeed grew still more classical, for the Adam Brothers began their work about the middle of the century and will be considered in the next chapter. Much Louis Quinze furniture crossed the Channel into English mansions, for French fashion was always powerful, but otherwise the Rococo found there but an echo—the "French" furniture of Thomas Chippendale and the occasional divagations of other de-signers. Yet Chippendale's chairs, commodes and mirrors in this manner are of the greatest importance. That remarkable man, with his love of the flowing line and carved ornament, took the Rococo and made it his own. In this phase his work was French and yet it remained triumphantly Thomas Chippendale.


France: As has already been intimated, the style of Louis XIV merged into that known by the name of his successor—for in the arts such transitions are gradual. Neither do styles wait upon the death of kings, and in the later days of le Grand Monarque there had been decided indications of the coming of the Rococo.

The excellent qualities of the Regence style are seen in the wall-treatment illustrated in Plate 37. The dignity and decorum of Louis XIV are retained in the main panelling, while it is accompanied by the readily recognised surmounting ornament of the Rococo, which also makes itself manifest in the cornice.

Illustrations of the architectural background of the Rococo itself are given in Plates 38 14. Some of these are redolent of ornament and others examples of the beautiful restraint that could be shown by France even in one of the most ornate of periods. As the details of these backgrounds are there given in the accompanying text it is unnecessary to repeat them here.

The motifs were endless, natural forms being largely employed and often with fantasy as we may realise when apes were among the decorations used (Plate 42). Chinoiserie was particularly welcomed and piquantly used.

Many of the pictorial decorations were not of high artistic quality, but to these elaborate interiors such artists as Watteau, Fragonard, Lancret and Boucher often added panel inserts of the greatest charm (Plate 38 B), and it is to be said for this pictorial decoration of the period that while it might sometimes be indiscreet it was never vulgar. In an age of such freedom other ornamental walls were naturally employed, particularly those covered with fabrics.

Italy: In circles where the example of France was likely to be followed there was some considerable adoption of the Rococo background with only national differences (Plate 21). Elsewhere there were no great changes. Fabric-covered walls were here also used.

Spain : Interior architecture remained largely as before, the Rococo influence mainly making itself felt in movable furniture.


Notwithstandinng the disparities of style in the period of Louis XIV, exterior architecture had reached under J. H. Mansart, the king's architect, a Classic dignity which in exterior work was well preserved under the following regime. We therefore have in the reign of Louis Quinze the felt incongruity of a Classic exterior with often a madly Romantic interior and furniture, and a wealth of beautiful but artistically frivolous accessories. The more deeply we look into the past the more thoroughly we realise that it was not so logical as enthusiasm sometimes leads innocence to think.

It may not be good practice to argue from a bad example, but where necessity knows no law it is human to take such comfort as we may. If, therefore, the modern conditions to which the writers have previously referred preclude the ,elaborate panelling of walls, surely a classically plain interior is not more incongruous with Louis XV furnishings than a Romantic interior in a Classic building. We are not left wholly to this reasoning, however, for there were some plain-wall backgrounds in this period. It was not the prevailing style, but they were sufficient in number to justify us in using this method.

But if an entire house or apartment may not be panelled in a fairly ornate phase of the period, it may in some cases at least be possible to treat the drawing-room or boudoir in a simplified manner. Preserving the rectangular base and tall panels, decorators, by the use of a very few characteristic curves at their tops, frequently supply an entirely simple but perfectly correct rendering of the style, such as was doubtless seen in the modest houses of this period.

Where panelling is entirely precluded, a perfectly plain painted or papered wall could be used, its tone being one of the soft, warm French greys, fawn, or an ivory-white. Especially in a boudoir, a grey-blue or soft rose or a greyed blue-green or pale sage green might be employed.

A paper-panelled wall would be permissible, provided the divisions were strictly architectural and not irregular and floral. Two shades of soft grey, or pale grey and blue, or pale grey and rose would be excellent.

French colour-prints (or their reproductions, if good) in the correct frames of the period, afford admirable wall decorations.

Tapestries appropriate in spirit are a great addition to the plain-wall treatment.

In such interiors plain or simply bordered rugs in soft greys, fawns, or such tones as the above could be used, or finely patterned Orientals in similar shades to the Aubusson or Savonnerie carpets. These were colourful but refined—no strident hues nor harsh contrasts have place in this decoration.


In such a, brief and necessarily inadequate review of epochs (each of which is a field for study) as can be given in the compass of a few chapters, it is plainly impossible to cover all phases or to illustrate more than a guiding selection of furniture : but in any case it has been felt that a broad view, sufficient to evolve principles and indicate the way, is better for the purpose in view than to obscure the subject with details, however interesting in themselves.

In illustration of the merging of the Baroque into the Rococo we have an excellent example in the two outside chairs of the three shown in one cut (Plate 152 B), the remaining, central chair being a more complete assimilation of the later style but still heavier and stiffer in its lines than subsequent manifestations. The Baroque broken-curve persists in the legs of the pair of chairs, but lengthened and straightened on its way to the formation of the flowing double-curve or line of beauty evident in the Louis XV chairs appearing in Plate 160. A survival of the Baroque will also be seen in the sumptuous Venetian arm-chair (Plate 155 C).

The Portuguese chair (Plate 151 A) is at once noticeable by the broad swelling of the leg, its individual ornament, and the claw-and-ball feet—a distinct variety indeed in the Rococo chair! Not even so apparent in the cut as in the piece itself is the severe rake of the back and the lines of the uprights of the arms which parallel it.

The Italian early Rococo chairs in Plate 157 G are also of great interest and the Spanish chairs (Plate 158 B) show an excellent restraint which we could wish might always have been employed in the furniture of the country. Such variations, in form and detail, from the usual French types as these foreign chairs afford are indeed to be appreciated in the assembling of furniture. Forcibly brought home to us is the curvilinear basis of the Rococo style when we realise that in all these chairs there is hardly a straight line.

A typical example of the French sofa appears in the modern interior illustrated in Plate 114, and with this we may compare the unusual Venetian specimen shown in Plate 155 A. The boldly swelling front of the latter, the peculiar feet and the ornament of the legs at once proclaim its interesting differences. It will be noted that this and the sumptuous chair adjoining it below are covered with the same fabric.

The textiles of the period were of great beauty (see "Decorative Textiles" by George Leland Hunter). Tapestry and the heavy brocades were appropriately employed upon seating furniture of the natural woods, while enamelled and gilt pieces were covered with the materials of lighter weight. The tones of the painting or enamelling of the framework were usually soft greys, fawns or deep ivory, often in two, shades.

The Rococo style could not be better illustrated than by the console in wrought iron with brass mounts (Plate 152 C) and the cabinet and commode (Plate 153 A and B). In view of the now renewed commerce between France and China it was but natural that the always fascinating Chinese influence should be marked in this age, and it is exemplified in the cabinet in black and gold lacquer. The chased metal mounts of such furniture formed one of the most beautiful mobiliary developments in France.

Let us place with these the Venetian console table (Plate 155 D) and the English console cabinet veritably by Thomas Chippendale, owned by the late Mr. Canfield (Plate 154 B). In the latter the constructive material is the mahogany so beloved of that master and so adapted to the marvellous carving that was his decorative metier. We may consider the interest of the variety shown by such pieces as this and the above, all so illustrative of le style Rocaille yet so different in the means and material chosen for its embodiment. It is also to be noted that in this work of Chippendale, England, for the first time, has something to show comparable to the fine furniture of France.

In actual practice it will be found that this strictly Rococo furniture is not the only furniture of Chippendale's which will accompany Louis XV pieces. His lighter, more elegant and ornamental chairs and tables with their cabriole legs and handsome carving are well adapted to such association, and some of his upholstered chairs were quite in the vein of the French bergeres.

In the Venetian console table the manner in which the semi-naturalistic leaves and stems are disposed to form the Rococo lower edge of the table is particularly arresting. This console is painted in golden yellow, banded in green with multicolour, and with touches of rose in the flowers, thus making an altogether engaging piece. Even the rather halting curves of the legs and their proportions add a "difference" and quaintness far from unpleasing. A carved and gilt Spanish con-sole table is also shown (Plate 158 B). Consoles were usually gilded in order that they might properly ac-company the frames of the mirrors above them. One of the madly Rococo but marvellously designed mirrors of Chippendale is seen in Plate 154 A.

There are touches of both the pathetic and courageous in the Italian furniture of this period. If penury often forbade the use of expensive woods, the cheaper ones employed were rendered cheerfully gay by painting and decoration. This treatment, though not of great moment in the naturalistic design commonly used, was nevertheless of much charm and elegant though homelike feeling. Economy in labour may also have been responsible for hasty workmanship; for certain it is that carving did not usually display the impeccable quality of the furniture of France, and the painting grounds were often ill-prepared, so that some pieces have not withstood the test of time. Examples of this Italian decorated furniture appear in the set of three pieces (Plate 156) and the Venetian console table already referred to (Plate 155 D).

In international furnishing the Italian pieces shown on Plate 157 and the Spanish furniture on Plate 158 have particular interest. They have affinities both with the usual Rococo forms and with the English vein of Chippendale and even of Queen Anne. It will be seen that they might harmoniously be employed with furniture of either style.

The little cupboard (Plate 158 C) is an engaging and almost amusing mixture of metier—decidedly Classic upon its front, but as decidedly buttressed at the sides by the Rococo.

The carpets employed in this period were the Aubussons and Savonneries. These and the delightful tapestries then made are described and pictured in Mr. Hunter's "Decorative Textiles."

The tapestries were usually employed in the stately rooms, either hung upon the panelling or forming the panel inserts. Where plaster walls occurred they were either hung upon the wall or inset in a plaster decoration. In the Murat Mansion a tapestry is suspended in an arched panel, a rectangular frame below the arch enclosing the tapestry. Beneath it is a long console table.

The accessories of the period were numerous and elaborate—side lights, candlesticks, clocks, vases and mantel-ornaments, caskets, attractive boxes and objects of art of all descriptions.


If furniture of this period is to be used, an excellent degree of variety will be secured by supplementing French pieces by those of other nations under the same influence. In a preceding section it was noted that in general the very distinct spirit and characteristics of Rococo furniture unfit it for association with that of other periods. In a distinctly French interior there is some reason for such a combination, and this and a method of procedure which secures sufficient unity will be discussed in the next chapter. For other interiors a superior alternative will there also be given.

By the eclectic system of furnishing—a choosing from here, there and everywhere—Louis. Quinze furniture is constantly used with all sorts of other mobiliary forms, and sometimes with very unfortunate results. The writers have seen an illustration of an otherwise admirable and very dignified room in the style of the Italian Renaissance where in the immediate fore-ground is one Louis XV chair, its framework light in hue (so that it is probably either painted or gilded) and covered with a light figured fabric, probably damask. It falls out woefully with the rest of the interior, and the want of discrimination shown in its introduction is decidedly to be deprecated.

Other instances are less disastrous, but the employment of a mixture of styles that have no real homogeneity gives such an interior the aspect of a museum. This may be unobjectionable in a studio or in the private palace, but elsewhere we may do better.

That good judgment, however, may surmount general difficulties is shown in the room so excellently arranged by Mr. Platt (Plate 56). The effect is stamped as Italian by the tapestry and bust which at once meet the eye. The cabinet and the chair in the right fore-ground are also Italian and of an earlier period than that of the furniture on the left, which is Louis Quinze. It is, however, a restrained and chastened form of the period: It is slender, but so is the Italian chair, and though the latter is generally rectangular the long sweeping scroll of the arm closely echoes the general lines of the French pieces. Both are also alike in hue. Here, then, we have a sufficient degree of unity with a pleasant variety, and examples such as this may be of the greatest value to salesmen advising their customers as to purchases as well as to professional decorators and buyers of their own furniture.


Admiration or dislike of this style is perhaps more than with any other a matter of temperament and personal character. In reaching a decision we should not fail to discriminate—one may grow very impatient of such wall decoration as that at Hotel de Matignon and appreciate to as great a degree the beautiful reserve of that of Hotel Delisle: one may not greatly care for apes or too florid mantels with clocks and ornaments more florid still, and may yet very much like such pieces of furniture as the Chinese commode or the beautiful settees and chairs.

It is undoubtedly in many phases a feminine and frivolous style and yet it contains elements that, with due selection, present an interior of beauty, sufficient dignity and permanent value.

Whether or no the decoration and furniture of this age entirely meet one's own personal preference—and the writers make no bones in saying that they do not meet theirs as do those of the succeeding period—a catholic spirit appreciative of beauty cannot fail to be filled with admiration for the invention, versatility, grace, lightness and cleverness of this amazing movement and the quality of its craftsmanship.

For the house largely devoted to the life of fashion it is therefore particularly well adapted, and for a woman's apartment its chaster forms will create a home of comfort, charm and great refinement (a mod-ern interior in this style is illustrated in Plates 55 and 114). But what would be thought of a bachelor who decorated and furnished his rooms a la Rocaille !

The capabilities of the period were among the first to be appreciated by decorators and the allied trades, and, as usually treated, it naturally therefore no longer possesses the element of novelty desired by some clients. A broader rendering of this style, combining Italian, Spanish and French-Chippendale elements with the French, opens out a new and delightful field for their endeavours.

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