How often does one hear of French furniture referred generically as being in the ‘Louis’ in style?
The mention of the word ‘Louis’ conjures images of ‘S’-shaped legs and curvaceous forms, but in fact the use of such a generalised appellation does little justice to the many variations and subtle differences between the various historical ‘Louis’ styles.
For many years Italy – and particularly the City of Florence – had set the pace in the Arts throughout Europe. The Florentine re-birth of Roman and Greek classicism in architecture, painting and sculpture set a new standard and increased the popularity of neoclassical furniture. It was during the gradual demise of the Italian Renaissance in the 1500s, however, that saw the rise of the cultural splendour and pre-eminence of France.
In the early 1600s, under the reign of Louis XIII, France was already a large and powerful country.
Richer, more elaborate versions of Italian Renaissance furniture emerged as France took the lead and began to dictate standards in the decorative arts throughout Europe. By the time Louis XIV ascended the throne in the mid 1600s, the rest of Europe was already looking to France for guidance in terms of what was fashionable in architecture, landscaping, cuisine, dress and furniture design.
The extravagant lifestyle of Louis XIV earned him the moniker ‘The Sun King’, and his was the creation of the Chateau of Versailles, a political centre close to Paris, where his aristocratic court enjoyed the finest France could offer.
The Louis XIV armchair was of monumental proportions; a carry-on from the earlier, Italian-inspired styles. It was formal and perfectly symmetrical, with a large, almost vertical back-rest, curved and sweeping arms, and carved, neoclassical legs joined by a sturdy stretcher.
During the late Louis XIV period the armchair developed softer lines, and a ‘lean’ was assigned to the back-rest.
The most typical example of an armchair of this period is the os de mouton (mutton bone) design.
Given the curvaceous forms of these armchairs, we can guess the trend of the next style: the Regence armchair.
The Regence, or early Louis XV style, is attributed to the French Regent Philippe d’Orleans, who succeeded Louis XIV and governed for eight short years until his nephew, Louis XV, was old enough to ascend the throne.
The 1700s loomed, and curved lines progressively became the focus of all parts of the armchair: the top of the back-rest now boasted a ‘Camel’ back, the front rail was shaped into ‘S’ curves, as were the legs, which were still joined by ‘X’-shaped stretchers. Arm rests now began to recede in order to comfortably accommodate ladies in elaborate hoop dresses.
This penchant for exceptionally curved lines reached its peak during the reign of Louis XV. The continuous ‘C’ and ‘S’ contour lines of the armchairs were accentuated by rounded and deep mouldings, which were festooned with foliate and floral carvings.
The term ‘Rococo’, which is often heard in conjunction with the Louis XV style, was a posthumous and somewhat derogatory term coined during the reign of Louis XVI, upon the gradual resurgence of neoclassicism.
Here is an example of a transitional style armchair. Note the gradual straightening of the lines.
It was no coincidence that the neoclassicism of the reignof Louis XVI coincided with the discovery of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the latter part of the 1700s. These two Roman cities were unearthed from the ash and lava to reveal a wealth of un-spoilt Roman paintings, mosaic work and decorative arts. It was certainly a discovery that inspired a culturally-aware France to revert to Classic Roman and Greek styles: the upright elements of armchairs were crafted in the shape of fluted columns, lines were straight, and curves were designed geometrically.
Decorations included paterae, wreaths, ribbons and many other elements taken from classic Roman architecture.
The fall of the monarchy at the end of the 18th century launched France into a series of terrible and tumultuous years, a fact reflected in the resulting austerity of French furniture and the Louis XVI style.
Armchairs of this period – often referred to as ‘Directoire’ – assumed a Spartan elegance in the absence of ornaments and decorations.
The Directoire tendency for “masculine”design heralded the next French style, ‘Napoleonic Empire,’ which featured almost exact replicas of Roman furniture.
The 19th century saw a re-visitation of these Grand Styles of France, often with no interpretation at all. For most of the 19th century and particularly around the 1860s there were copies made of furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries, all items that were available to look at, and copy, in local museum collections.
All photos taken from stock in trade at Miguel Meirelles Antiques
03 9822 6886 www.meirelles.com.au