If the word commode brings nothing to mind but toilet bowls, and you don’t know Louis le Bien-Aimé from Louis Armstrong, fret not! For what follows, a light hearted lesson on three major periods of French furniture making, will help you muddle through the fog.
It’s more than just fancily carved drawer knobs and heavy-handed gilding. While sometimes overlooked for splashier subjects, objects like chairs and tables, writing desks and corner cabinets produced during the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI are in fact material evidence of the link between the tumultuous state of European politics and aesthetics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Louis XIV (r.1654-1715)
After limping through a series grisly religious wars the century before, France began to regain prominence on the world’s stage under the strict absolutism with which Louis XIV chose to rule. The king was a builder and a hoarder of power, and he was able to exercise both his hobbies freely upon the grounds of his splendid new château at Versailles. The Sun King began to commission furnishings to match the never before seen opulence of the Salon of Mars, the Hall of Mirrors, and Le Nôtre’s sprawling gardens; and encouraged his large band of courtiers (forced to live directly under their monarch’s nose within the castle) to do the same.
Furniture crafted during this time is most easily recognisable by its monumental stature. Europe was swayed by Italian fashions and images of Antiquity, and such imperious decor was well-suited to Louis XIV’s newfound dominance. The sturdy, symmetrical line ran through the era, commanding attention and awe. The bodies and corners of walnut, chestnut and oak pieces were piled up with thick gilt bronze sculpted into symbols of the king— brilliant suns, the fleur-de-lis, bearded fauns, regal lion’s paws, broad all-seeing faces and masques. The most celebrated ébéniste, or cabinet maker, of the day, André-Charles Boulle, satiated the king’s lust for exquisite abundance with furnishings intricately inlaid with costly horn, tortoise shell and mother of pearl.
In a utilitarian turn of events, the commode, or chest of drawers, was invented during this period. This new style of furnishing, elegant but pragmatic, became wildly popular for its vertical space in which clothing could easily be stored.
Throughout his reign, Louis relished fighting costly wars, particularly against the Dutch and Spanish. Coalitions of European powers moved to check French authority on several occasions. As the king’s life force began to fade in his golden years, so did popularity for his gory campaigns and the rigid, imposing interiors which epitomised the king’s puissance.
A new modus operandi began to emerge— the Régence style— as the general mood in Paris began to yearn for lightness and fantasy over blood-stained war banners and stoic, bulky taste. Further technological advances allowed artisans to carve lighter, more sinuous structures. The line of the Régence is identifiable by a gentle curve, a mildly twisting whisper of what was to come.
Louis XV (r. 1715-1774)
When Louis XV ascended to his great-grandfather’s throne (good heirs were hard to keep alive back then) aesthetic development accelerated. The meek convex line of the Régence period became very ornate very quickly. Full-blown rococo imagery usurped the scene at French court, bringing densely carved flora and fauna, wild asymmetry and exotic drama along for the ride. Rare woods, like tulipwood, lemonwood and kingwood, came into use, and richly-veined marble for tabletops was eagerly imported from afar.
This time, a relatively peaceful and prosperous one for France, represents a creative pinnacle of design, with the flamboyant Louis XV and his gaggle royal mistresses, including Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, acting as tastemakers-in-chief. New items such as ladies’ dressing tables and roll-top desks appeared, no longer filling grand suites but more intimate and immaculately decorated entertaining spaces. It became à la mode to own separate sets of furnishings for the winter and summer months, and despite the elaborate nature of popular taste, comfort became key.
Oriental themes came into overwhelming popularity during the 1740s, influences carried over from Louis XIV’s warring days. Chemical copies of bright Chinese lacquers were frantically researched, and whittled sultans, dervishes, pagodas and monkeys began to blend gracefully into whimsical landscapes of the imagined Far East.
Although once lauded as Louis le Bien-Aimé (the well-liked) for his intelligence, hunting prowess and dashing looks, Louis XV is often regarded as a disappointment to his people. Despite his massive elevation of the decorative arts, the king became a scapegoat for several economic, diplomatic and militaristic missteps, and artisans began to distance themselves from the fantastic, wonderland aesthetic cultivated by Louis XV.
Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792)
Louis XVI was a serene and timid man who did not particularly delight in his status as a sovereign head of state, much unlike his predecessor. Sober rationality came to rule furniture making under the last Bourbon king, who was partial to soft pastel hues and well-varnished fruitwoods.
The ruins of Pompeii were rediscovered during Louis XVI’s reign, and the wonderfully preserved paintings, furnishings and other accoutrements pulled from the ashes caused a sensation across Europe. Ushered in was an era of Neoclassicism, and its straight lines and serious logic of design invaded grand town homes and rustic country escapes alike. Queen Marie-Antoinette gussied up stark motifs somewhat with floral garlands and trailing ribbons, lending the style a certain dainty charm which is not at all out of place in homes today. Although the unfortunate Louis XVI met an abrupt end atop a scaffold, his rule’s influence on the decorative arts lingers steadily on.
It’s best to end with a couple of friendly tips for any of you lucky enough to be in the position to purchase a piece of French antique furniture. First, know that during the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, the unseen surfaces of furnishings were considered utterly unimportant, even on pieces of royal provenance. Feel the hidden corners under armchair seats, brush the underside of a writing desk with your hand. If met with the bristling of unfinished wood, you might very well be looking at an authentic piece and not a Victorian copy. Secondly, keep in mind that the mechanical saw wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century; if that elaborately carved Louis XV console boasts enviably smooth and regular surfaces, chances are it’s phony.
Sources: Sylvie Chadenet, French Furniture // Desmond Seward, The Bourbon Kings of France