Pocket CEU: Understanding Louis XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI Furniture
By John Kroger
Identifying the differences among the Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI can be challenging for anyone. However, the influence of these styles, knowing and understanding what makes them different, can be a great benefit to clients.
Recognizing the differences among Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI and understanding their historic context can help match a client's desires to the aspirations and visions of the culture from which the different Louis styles originated. These styles can help drive design, and create something that both understands the past but also looks forward - just as French culture of the time helped create the American Revolution and contribute ultimately to how we live today.
Europe, during this time (1610-1792), was sharing influences and styles across national boundaries. Though we have created four distinct categories, the designs tended to evolve slowly and borrow from each other. These factors help blur the differences between the styles that coincide with the reign of the French kings between 1610 and 1792 and, therefore, make it difficult to establish hard and fast rules of distinction. Illustrations of furnishings from the different eras will be an important part of this lesson.
In general, the evolution of the four Louis reigns followed a simple pattern. Louis XIII furnishings were a push to create more elaborate furniture than that fo the Renaissance Era. After Louis XIII, in the Louis XIV reign, furniture grew more elaborate and even more intricate in the Louis XV reign. The designs finally moderated during the Louis XVI reign when style tempered and grew more conservative. While this general pattern helps apply a simple model of understanding to the four styles, it's important to note that even though style is less excessive in the Louis XVI reign, furniture was still produced by a handful of artisans, with expensive materials, for the very rich.
Louis XIII (1610-1643)
Louis XIII style is best understood as the product of a more conservative (and less wealthy) time. Religious wars had consumed resources of France until the beginning of the Louis XIII era. Furniture was still characterized by heavy carvings, and was monumental in scale. Pieces like the bureau and sideboard featured molded paneling in geometric patterns. The cabinet placed on a stand was a new design for the period. Storage pieces wer typical and reflected the need for a utilitarian function, even in the pieces made for the king and his court. Other typical design themes were the diamond point, pyramid patterns, and large-bunned feet on cabinetry.
Louis XIII style drew on mannerist and arabesque; the rolling scrolling lines of arabesque were usually two-dimensional and tended to lay flat as a decorative element. Mannerist strange figures echoed the Dark Age's connection to a world explained by superstition.
Chairs became more comfortable during the Louis XIII, as the concept of a comfortable place to sit and relax was just emerging. Louis XIII introduced turnery, a style feature new to the time. Turnery might be used for legs or stretchers, and these simple shapes created on a lathe can help identify pieces as Louis XIII style. Ebony and walnut were popular construction materials.
There is an organic quality to the Louis XIII style that the later styles lack. By reaching back to the 1500s for design elements, Louis XIII pieces are brooding and atmospheric. Their monumental design philosophy echoes the dominance of the church at this time. Soaring humanist ideas and energy had really not taken hold, as it would in later reigns. Louis XIII style drew heavily from the furniture styles of Spain, Flanders, and most importantly, Italy at this time.
Compared to the other three Louis periods, this style is more blunt and primal, and less bold. It probably has less in common with the other three later Louis styles that were styles until themselves versus an amalgamation of styles that had occurred since the beginning of the Renaissance.
Louis XIV (1643-1715)
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 fo 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 tot he 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 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.
Louis XV (1723-1774)
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 lesson, it's important to note how this style holds elements of both Louis XIV and Louis XV style.
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.
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 share 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.
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.
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.
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.
Louis XVI (1774-1792)
The rich and influential, in an attempt to show their understanding of the resentment of the common French people, began to encourage furniture that was more sober. Instead of swirling curly cues that reached higher and higher amid 25-foot ceilings, Louis XVI furniture emphasizes symmetry, and a return to classical decorative motifs. Owing to the popularity of executing the rich who flaunted their wealth, the emergence of the Louis XVI style started before the king's reign, which began in 1774. By the end of the reign of Louis XVI the curve was rejected. This offers the bigegst visual clue that a piece is Louis XVI: most structural lines are straight. If a curve is used instead of the flowing S curve, Louis XVI incorporates the succinct serpentine curve.
Louis XVI used the natural grain of the woods to create pattern and design on casegoods. It was almost as if the ruling class were saying to the starving Parisians, "Look, I can be natural and humble just like you." And it was much like the peasant hat worn by Louis XVI in a portrait that tried to express the same sentiment. He was guillotined in 1793 despite this effort.
However, expensive materials were still the rule, and very skilled artisans whom only the wealthy could employ made the furniture as they had in Louis XV reign. Pictorial designs were favored over the loose unsymmetrical arrangement of floral decorations. Marquetry pictorials depicted landscapes or architectural themes. Porcelain plaques become popular in this era as a uniquely French design material.
Chairs, which had grown round and inviting looking--perhaps to be sat on by a party of cake eaters--changed to rectilinear in shape. Since the average citizen's living condition tended toward the squalid, they became resentful of titled aristocrats that lived in palaces Taking the hint, the rich started to move into more modest digs, and as a result the furniture scale became smaller.
This era is also known as Neoclassical as furniture returned to themes and dimensions of Greek and Roman times. Neoclassicism arrived at a time when Pompeii was discovered and excavated, and France's ruling class aspires to connect to a long-reigning and influential world power.
Hardware grew less elaborate but of a higher quality as conspicuous ornamentation became something that might elicit a visit with the guillotine.
Powerful ideas that would create the American and French Revolutions were changing the ideas of absolute rule and a king's powers. Just before the American War for Independence was when the decline of the extravagant Louis XV style began. This change to a less frivolous style was a precursor to the American War of Independence and reflected a dramatic shifting of powers. In France, the common people felt the rich had not sacrificed enough by sitting in less opulent furniture, thus bringing on the French Revolution and ending the Louis XVI style by 1792.
Louis styles continue to play a role in designing North American interiors as these influential styles were created at a time that at once reflects who we are, and our political system. As American is mostly a product of Western European civilization, these Louis Styles still resonate and are important to us.
Today it may be more common to see a chair described as Louis XV "style," meaning it is not a true replica. However, it is less significant that these styles are modified to suit today's needs, than that they are still influencing design 400 years later.
This CEU was created with the help and expertise of Dan Garfink, co-owner of French Accents Fine Continental Antiques in Baltimore MD.
The above article was published in the July/August 2006 edition of Fine Furnishings International Magazine and is presented here with the permission of the publisher: