THE classic periods in French furniture were those known as Francis I, Henry II and the three Louis,XIV, XV, and XVI. One can get an idea of all French periods in furnishing by visiting the collection in Paris belonging to the government, “Mobilier National,” in the new wing of the Louvre.
It is always necessary to consult political history in order to understand artistic invasions. Turn to it now and you will find that Charles VIII of France held Naples for two years (1495-6), and when he went home took with him Italian artists to decorate his palaces. Read on and find that later Henry II married Catherine de Medici and loved Diane de Poitiers, and that, fortunately for France, both his queen and his mistress were patronesses of the arts. So France bloomed in the sunshine of royal favor and Greek influence, as few countries ever had.
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Fontainebleau (begun by Francis I) was the first of a chain of French royal palaces, all monuments without and within, to a picturesque system of monarchy, Kings who could do no wrong, wafting scepters over powerless subjects, whose toil produced Art in the form of architecture, cabinetmaking, tapestry weaving, mural decoration, unrivalled porcelain, exquisitely wrought silver and gold plate, silks, lovely as flower gardens (showing the “pomegranate” and “vase” patterns) and velvets like the skies! And for what? Did these things represent the wise planning of wise monarchs for dependent subjects?
We know better, for it is only in modern times that simple living and small incomes have achieved surroundings of artistic beauty and comfort. The marvels of interior decoration during the classic French periods were created for kings and their queens, mistresses and favored courtiers.
Diane de Poitiers wished perhaps only dreamed and an epoch-making art project was born. Madame du Barry admired and made her own the since famous du Barry rose color, and the Sevres porcelain factories reproduced it for her. But how to produce this particular illusive shade of deep, purplish-pink became a forgotten art, when the seductive person of the king’s mistress was no more.
If you would learn all there is to know concerning the sixteenth century furnishings in France read Edmund Bonneffe’s “Sixteenth Century Furniture.”
It was the Henry II interior decoration and architecture which first showed the Renaissance of pure line and classic proportion, followed by the never-failing reaction from the simple line to the undulating over-ornate when decoration repeated the elaboration of the most luxurious, licentious periods of the past.
One has but to walk through the royal palaces of France to see French history beguilingly illustrated, in a series of volumes open to all, the pages of which are vibrant with the names and personalities of men and women who will always live in history as products of an age of great culture and art.
The Louis XIV, XV and XVI periods in furniture are all related. Rare brocades, flowered and in stripes, bronze mounts as garlands, bow-
Knots and rosettes, on intricate inlaying, mark their common relationship. The story of these periods is that gradually decoration becomes over-elaborated and in the end dominates the Greek outline,
The three Louis mark a succession of great periods. Louis XIV, though beautiful at its best, is of the three the most ornate and is characterized in its worst stage by the extremely bowed (cabriole) legs of the furniture, ludicrously suggestive of certain debauched courtiers who surrounded the Grande Monarch.
Louis XV legs show a curve, also, but no longer the stodgy, squat cabriole of the overfed gallant. Instead we are entranced by an ethereal grace and lightness of movement in every line and decoration. Here cabriole means but a courtly knee swiftly bending to salute some beauty’s hand. So subtly waving is the curving outline of this furniture that one scarcely knows where it begins or ends, and it is the same with the decorations exquisitely delicate waving traceries of vines and flora, gold on gold, inlay, or paint in delicate tones.
All this gives to the Louis XV period supremacy over Louis XVI, whose round, grooved, tapering straight legs, one tires of more quickly, although fine gold and lovely paint make this type winning and beloved.
From Louis XVI we pass to the Directoire, when, following the Revolution, the voice of the populace decried all ostentation and everything savoring of the superfluous. The Great Napoleon in his first period affected simplicity and there were no longer bronze mounts, in rosettes, garlands and bow-knots, elaborate inlaying, nor painted furniture with lovely flowering surfaces; in the most severe examples not even fluted legs! Instead, simple but delicately proportioned furniture with slender, squarely cut, chastely tapering legs, arms and backs, was the fashion.
In fact, the Directoire type is one of ideal proportions, graceful outlines with a flowing movement and the decoration when present, kept well within bounds, entirely subservient to the main structural material. One feels an almost Quaker-like quality about the Directoire, whether of natural wood or plain painted surface.
With Napoleon’s assumption of regal power and habits, we get the Empire (he had been to Rome and Egypt), pseudo-classic in outline and richly ornamented with mounts in ormoulu characteristic of the Louis.
The Empire period in furniture was dethroned by the succeeding regime.
When we see old French chairs with leather seats and backs, sometimes embossed, in the Portuguese style, with small regular design, put on with heavy nails and twisted or straight stretchers (pieces of wood extending between legs of chairs), we know that they belong to the time of Henry IV or Louis XIII. Some of the large chairs show the shell design in their broad, elaborate stretchers.
The beautiful small side tables of the Louis and First Empire called consoles, were made for the display of their marvelously wrought pieces of silver, hammered and chiseled by hand, “museum pieces,” indeed, and lucky is the collector who chances upon any specimen adrift.