Undoubtedly the greatest of all periods for French furniture, the King Louis XV period was one of extraordinary creativity, influenced by the royal mistresses: Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry, and other ladies and courtesans of the time. Grand suites were replaced by smaller more intimate rooms. Furnished with unfailing attentiveness to elegance, refinement, comfort and well being, curved lines and asymmetry became the rule. Furniture became practical and readily transportable without losing any of its elegance. Foreign masters came to Paris to work at the Court: Bernard van Risen Burgh or B.V.R.B., Vandercruse known as Lacroix whose stamp was P.V.L.C.
A stamped epoque Louis XV Cabinet created by master ebeniste Bernard Van Risenburgh.
The French furniture style we call Louis XV flourished during the period of 1730-1775. If the Louis XIV furniture style was designed with the glorification of the Sun King in mind and all in massive, masculine, square form, the Louis XV furniture style is the complete opposite. Designed for the comfort and glorification of beautiful women, it has a romantic, sensuous and feminine look. A flowing abstraction of unbroken curves is the guiding principle of the Louis XV furniture style; the legs are curved, the back is curved and the seat is curved. Even the Louis XV architecture also adheres to this principle. It abhorred straight lines. In typical Louis XV architecture everything is curved – the ceiling, the panel-designs on the walls, the panel designs in the doors and even the corners of a room are curved.
As Louis XV was not old enough to become king when his great-grandfather died, a régent ruled France in the interim. This transitional phase between Louis XIV and Louis XV style is named accordingly. Through Régence style is outside the scope of this blog, it’s important to note how this style holds elements of both Louis XIV and Louis XV style.
Rococo painter Francois Boucher typified the look of the Rococo period and it’s love of beautiful women.
Madame Marguerite Bergeret was the wife and sister of two of the eighteenth century’s most ardent art patrons. Her brother, the Abbé Jean Claude de Saint-Non traveled to Italy with Hubert Robert and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Her husband, Jacques Onésime Bergeret, a wealthy financier, became a celebrated connoisseur and collector. Painted by Francois Boucher C.1761
There were no straight lines anywhere in these designs. Everything was curved from the legs, and backs of chairs to the seats themselves. The look became so popular that the designs were reproduced for hundreds of years and the look is still popular even today. Wherever elegance and refinement is required you can count on the classic look of the Louis XV style to fullfill the need.
There were three very distinctive styles of furniture during the time of King Louis XV. The Regence style dated from 1715 – 1723
The Rococo style which started around 1720 – 1760. The the pure Louis XV style which was a less exaggerated look than the Rococo started around 1750.
Louis XV as a child
Following the death of Louis XIV, his 5 year old great grandson (and heir to the throne) became Louis XV. Since he was too young to take the throne, his uncle Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, was appointed as Regent. The transition between the monarchs became known as the French Regency. Offended by the spectacle of Versailles during the Sun King’s reign, the Duke moved the royal court to Paris, where courtiers lived in less extravagant hotel particuliers or private residences.
The Duc D’ Orleans. Phillipe II
In French contexts, an hôtel particulier is a townhouse of a grand sort. (In mediaeval English, hôtel was rendered as “inn”, the townhouse of a nobleman, now surviving only as used in Inns of Court. Particulier meant “personal” or “private”). Whereas an ordinary maison (house) was built as part of a row, sharing party walls with the houses on either side and directly fronting on a street, an hôtel particulier was often free-standing, and by the 18th century it would always be located entre cour et jardin, between the entrance court, the cour d’honneur, and the garden behind. There are hôtels particuliers in many large cities, such as Paris, Bordeaux, Albi, Aix en Provence, Avignon, Caen, Lyon, Montpellier, Nancy, Rouen, Rennes, Toulouse and Troyes.
It was in this period that the apartment came into being. An apartment of this time, although lavish by today’s standards, would have been a much more intimate setting than the fortress and cathedral like homes of the prior periods. The smaller scale of these homes introduced an era of lighter, more graceful furniture. Asymmetrical curved lines replaced symmetrical straight lines and simple wood veneer replaced extravagant marquetry.
By 1730, France was the most powerful kingdom in Europe. As France grew accustomed to its wealth, a fantasy style was produced in keeping with its achievements, aspirations, and prestige. Furniture design emphasized and aggrandized the interior decoration of paneled walls that were integrated into the large architectural setting.
The typical Louis XV/Rococo style of a French apartment.
Flowers were the favorite motif usde in decoration of marquetry, in carvings and on wall panels. Overall, bright colors were used, a change from the more somber colors of the Louis XIV.
Cabriole legs are shared from Louis XIV style, but other constrained elements of Louis XIV were discarded, like stretchers and symmetry of lines. Curves were more accentuated, and design elements were no longer held in by the design borders of the piece.
Flowing curves are found throughout Régence furniture. The “bombé” style commode was developed with plump sides and a convex curved front. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the period was the introduction of the cabriole leg. This carved ‘S’ shaped leg was used in armoires, bookcases, desks, sofas, and chairs.
The Regence period ‘bombe commode’ was introduced during the Louis XV period. This design has laster well into our modern day world and copied even today.
An important furniture maker of the time, Charles Cressent, trained as a cabinetmaker and sculptor, was ideally qualified to create the soaring grandeur of the Louis XV period. He used the commode as a sensual style to draw design away from the conservative elements of the Louis XIV style.
A Charles Cressent (1685 – 1768) Commode from the Rococo period
Out of the Régence there was to develop the most imaginative style of all, known as Rocaille, or Rococo, which differs essentially from baroque in its lightness and avoidance of symmetry. Rocaille, with its indulgence in caprice and fancy, was extensively employed by French craftsmen from around 1720 to 1755-60.
The Rococo design was elaborate and exagerated with swags, floral motifs and more – Louis XV
Imagination is the basis of this decorative style, in which rocks and shells, with flowers and foliage, provide the dominant theme. Contrast and asymmetry are its essential features. From around 1730 the movement was expanded and accelerated by the work of such ornamentists as Gilles Marie Oppenord and Jules Aurèle Meissonnier, who were among the principal designers of these more extravagant forms. Fervent in his devotion to the rocaille is such a craftsman as Gaudreaux, who was one of the leading ébénistes in the employ of the Crown at this period.
Commode designed by Antoine Gaudreau in the Rococo period – Louis XV
In the perfected or pure Louis XV style, dating from about 1750, the rocaille was subdued and simplifed, as the early harshness and agitation of its sinuous curves yielded to a more ample and tranquil rhythm. Freed from the exaggerations of the rocaille, the perfected Louis XV style featured a more moderate use of curved lines and less fanciful ornament. Craftsen working in this pure Louis XV style have given us perfect examples of French furniture at its finest. The most well-known ébéniste of the time is Oeben, whose apprentice was Riesener, perhaps the greatest craftsman working in the later Louis XVI style. Other famous names are Baumhauer, Lacroix, Dubois, Saunier, Leleu and B.V.R.B.
Secrétaire à cylindre à rideau, stamped by Jean-François Oeben, master ebeniste in 1761
A French Louis XV Bureau Plat is evidence to the less exaggerated look of the Rococo period.
The art of lodging people comfortably and privately, heretofore unknown, became of primary importance in the eighteenth century. The rooms were reduced to a more reasonable size, while the furniture became smaller, perfectly adapted to the human needs and, above all, more comfortable. Thanks to the improvement in mechanical devices, combination pieces came more and more into use. Multiple-function furniture, such as tables that could be transformed by complicated locking devices into toilet, writing, reading and sewing tables, is a notable feature.
In chair design, each member seems to flow or melt into one another without any feeling of separation. The molded chair frames are often enhanced with rich floral, foliage and shell carvings. The most typical Louis XV chair is the bergère, a wide, low, and deep armchair.
The typical French Bergere chair is popular and a timeless classic in today’s modern interiors. Comfortable and elegant the original design was produced during the Louis XV period around 1750.
Canapés developed into a variety of types. One form, often called a marquise, is merely an enlarged armchair. The majority of canapés were made to accommodate three persons. In high fashion was the basket-shaped canapé, called canapé corbeille. The daybed was also given a variety of novel forms. Of these, the duchesse, distinguished by its gondola-shaped back, is most typical. In terms of beds, the lit à colonnes disappered. The shapes in high fashion were the lit à la duchess and the lit à la polonaise.
The ‘Lit Polonaise’ was introduced during the pure Louis XV style. Shown here is a Lit Polonaise dated around 1750.
Tables, which became simpler and lighter, have one characteristic in common, that is, cabriole legs. Medium-sized and small tables reveal all those brilliant and versatile qualities which marked the achievements of Parisian craftsmen of the golden age. Of infinite variety and with a legion to names, these elegant tables began to multiply from around 1750 onward. For the bedroom there were tables such as the vide-poche (pocket-emptier), the serre-bijoux (jewel-box tables) and chevets (bedside tables). For the boudoirs and the salons, there were small tables à ouvrages or work tables, called tricoteuses or chiffonnières.
The Louis XV ‘chevet’ or nightstand was introduced during the period starting 1750. The french produced vintage tables are very popular in modern day homes.
In writing furniture the ébénistes embodied with extraordinary felicity the temper and taste of France. The simplest kind of Louis XV writing table is the large bureau plat. But the crowning glory was the bureau à cylindre introduced around the middle of the century and probably created by Oeben. Side by side with these large masculine bureaux, the craftsmen produced a variety of bureaux of the utmost refinement, with delicate marquetry and bronzes, for feminine use, such as the bonheur du jour. The tall and upright secrétaire with a drop front (abattant) and interior fitted with drawers was introduced around 1750.
The French Secretaire Abattant (sold recently at our own Antique Warehouse) style Louis XV was introduced in 1750.
At the same time, a greatly increased variety of native and exotic woods were available to craftsmen. Thanks to this wide range of woods, pictorial marquetry began to flourish. It was most often in the form of floral decoration, but sometimes trophies, landscapes and realistic representations of domestic utensils. The enthusiasm for oriental lacquer inspired the ébénistes to adapt it to the decoration of furniture, by incorporating either imported panels or European copies into a bronze framework. The eighteenth century is the golden age for furniture mounted in chased and gilded bronze.
From the middle of the eighteenth century, the craftsmen stamped their furniture – or at least were supposed to do so – under the marble top of commodes, on the underframing of chairs and tables or some similar place which would not mar the appearance.
Already from the beginning of rocaille there was an undercurrent of protest in certain circles against asymmetry and the lavish use of sinuous curves, for it was felt they did not express the finer artistic instincts of the French, which were always inclined to moderation and restraint. Finally owing to the discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii, which resulted in an overwhelming enthusiasm for the antique, an evolution began around 1755-60, leading from the Louis XV style to the neo-classical Louis XVI style, which was established before the accession of that king in 1774.
Louis XV pieces grew smaller and less formal. Makers of Louis XV pieces discovered marketing to women, and pieces created for their size, work, and lifestyle became very popular.
Singerie (motif of a gathering of monkeys), Chinoiserie (scenes that imitated Chinese art), Rocaille (motif of a shell or irregular pattern of a rock garden) were all natural elements that were incorporated. These motifs signaled a natural and relaxed impression of the world, but were also depicting these ideas in more elaborate and expensive materials.
A period Louis XV Chinoiserie commode.
Pictorial decoration characterized by extravagantly swirling scrolls and whorls, casually strewn shell, flower motifs, and asymmetrical composition were significant elements of design. The rejection of the classical world and the asymmetry of growing flowers reflected an upper-class culture that felt completely in control, and perhaps represented concentrated wealth in the hands of few as the world had never seen. The ruling class in France at this time was confident of its rule over the church, the French people, a growing world empire, and even nature itself.
It was this unfettered exuberance that made this furniture the most elaborate of the Louis styles. However, this style helped create social unrest among French people, laying the way for more conservative design style developed during Louis XVI.
In one of my upcoming blogs we will study the elegant look of the Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI period.
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