Pocket CEU: Understanding Louis XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI Furniture

By John Kroger

Louis XIV (1643-1715)

'Louis XIV of France' by Hyacinthe Rigaud

If Louis XIII-style furniture still acknowledged the church in its monumental design, then the Louis XIV-style furniture acknowledged the king as having absolute power in its flurry of materials and design motifs.

World trade and the beginnings of empire were bringing a new level of wealth to the crown, and Louis XIV used furnishings and grandness of the royal palace at Versailles as an expression of wealth and power. The resources he used to create the 17th-century version of visual shock-and-awe in a grand castle are also reflected in the more elaborate materials incorporated into the Louis XIV style. Solid-silver furniture was made, and other materials included ivory, tortoise-shell, brass, horn, and imported Japanese lacquer. These materials were used to advertise the power of the king.

Louis XIV set up a furniture industry on the outskirts of Paris for the sole purpose of creating political dominance through artifact. Design motifs backed the king as all powerful, and furniture was interlaced "L," fleur-de-lis, and the sunburst-Louis XIV was known as the Sun King. The French king was not only advertising his power over the church in these furniture designs, he was also positioning himself as a semi-deity to his people.

Louis XIV style borrowed from the Italian Baroque movement, using the sweeping S-curve as well as bold composition that emphasized dynamic movement, and dramatic sculptural elements that were symmetrically arranged. Exaggerated fullness, dramatic juxtaposition of color, and fondness for the exotic are also strong themes that distinguish Louis XIV furnishings from Louis XIII. Gilded carvings of fruit, beasts, flowers, and grotesque masks added visual and emotional excitement to pieces from this time, but figures tended to be less haunted than similar carvings from Louis XIII.

Classical motifs such as the pediment, columns, and capitals were also used in Louis XIV style, but were utilized in new and unusual ways. Furniture artisans made changes to classical shapes and dimension of these architectural elements. This was a bold departure because up to this point, the classical world was developing into a strong competitor of the church in influencing the minds and hearts of Europe, and now both-symbolically at least-would be bested by the crown.

While this was a dramatic departure from Louis XIII style, there were restrained elements to the new Louis style. Decorative motifs fell within clear borders. The use of dark colors and some severity held over from the Louis XIII style, help differentiate Louis XIV from the more elaborate Louis XV style to come. Curves were also not as flourished as they would become in Louis XV's reign, and there was an element of restraint even as the style moved away from Louis XIII.

The fauteuil or open-arm chair became popular with its more casual dimensions and was typically carved with popular motifs of flora and fauna. During the Louis XIV reign, the bureau and the commode came into wide use.

This CEU was created with the help and expertise of Dan Garfink, co-owner of French Accents Fine Continental Antiques in Baltimore MD. It was published in the July/August 2006 edition of Fine Furnishings International Magazine and is presented here with the permission of the publisher.