Monday, September 23, 2013

History of Furniture: The Three Louis and How To Spot Them

For anyone not versed in antiques, historical French furniture can be a daunting blur. A Louis-this-number chair or a Louis-that-number settee... to some it all ends up sounding like the numbing "wah-wah" of adults talking in "Peanuts" cartoons.

But there is an easy way to tell the difference between the three Louis (yes, the plural of Louis is... Louis!) and it has to do with reading the silhouette and details. Once you know these simple flags to look for, you too will be spotting Louis XIV chairs and Louis XVI settees.

First, we want to talk about the Kings themselves and the personality of their respective reigns. Then this will help you understand why the furniture looks the way it does, and how these political--and therefore cultural--qualities at the time manifested themselves in the furniture.

1) Louis XIV, or Louis Quatorze (kah-TORZ, which is the number fourteen in French) was also known as "The Sun King." He believed in "divine right" which put forth the idea that God alone is responsible for putting a King in power. He reigned from 1661 to 1715, the longest continuing reign of any monarch in a major continental European country. He turned Versailles from a hunting lodge into a stunning palace and moved his court there, thus centralizing his rule and bringing the aristocracy to live with him at the newly renovated and monstrously sized palace. He managed to gain complete control of France and eliminate feudalism. For this reason (and many others), he was seen as extremely powerful. All architecture, art, and furnishings for Versailles (which became the de rigeur style of the day) were meant to reflect his might. So chairs are rigid, heavy, masculine with a very strong presence, nearly throne-like. Identifiable details include os du mouton (OH-duh-moo-TON, or "lamb's leg" in French) legs and stretchers so named because of their curved shape reminiscent of a lamb's hind leg, upholstered seat backs, legs set in a straight line with the seat, and a general boxy shape. This sturdy style was the last of Medieval furnishings.

2) Louis XV, or Louis Quinze (kanz, fifteen in French) was the great-grandson of Louis XIV and ruled from 1743 to 1774. It is argued that his reign was a success or a failure, depending upon which historian you believe. What is clear is that he was quite a womanizer, which is not at all unusual since monarchs had official and unofficial mistresses, but beyond that, he apparently led a decadent, debauched life full of idle pastimes (he is remembered as a "do-nothing" King). As with any period in history, whether cultural, political, societal, or artistic, the pendulum swings back and forth: periods of austerity or conservative periods are always followed by periods of excess, followed again by a societal and cultural tightening. As we just learned, the style of Louis XIV was heavy, large, masculine. So it makes sense that the style of Louis XV would be softer, more elegant, more feminine, more refined...and considering the lifestyle of the King, more exaggerated, more extravagant, and indulgent. Identifiable details include the absence of the stretchers we saw in the Louis XIV pieces, cabriole legs (a delicate serpentine shaped leg that curves out at the top and in at the bottom) also known as an S-scroll leg, short arm rests that end before the seat edge, a gently angled upholstered back framed by a wood moulded frame, and details of shells, ribbons, and baskets or bouquets of flowers.

3) And now we come to our third Louis: King Louis XVI, or Louis Seize (sez, sixteen in French) who reigned from 1774, when his grandfather Louis XV died, to 1793. We all know him as the husband of Queen Marie-Antoinette whose life ended, along with her husband's, during the French Revolution. When Louis XVI took over as King of France at nineteen years of age, the monarchy was in serious trouble, plagued by crippling debt, and a growing hostility from both the aristocracy (who blocked his reform efforts which would have made life more fair for those less fortunate) and by the general population who came to mistrust and eventually despise any form of monarchy. Louis XVI was an inept and indecisive ruler so the style at Versailles and the silhouette that grew up around his reign was compensatory and harkened back to the classical days of ancient Rome (the ruins of Pompeii had been discovered a few decades prior and were under excavation) and especially ancient Greece. This connection to a sense of lofty, glorious history was camouflage for a weak monarchy in peril. As I mentioned previously, the pendulum swings, and in this case the sinuous ornamentation of the previous Louis was toned down and restrained. The sense of Louis XVI furnishings is one of cool restraint, logic, and reason. Identifiable details include mostly straight lines with a near-total lack of any curves, straight legs with fluting that deliberately look like Classical Greek columns topped by square capitals which often contain a rosette, simple square or oval backs, repeated geometric motifs in the carvings, and Greek-style wreaths, garlands, drapery, lyres, and urns.

Now that you know a bit more about the reign of each King and therefore the sense of style associated with each one, I hope you will be able to spot a Louis XIV, XV, or XVI piece pretty easily. Start by identifying the characteristics of the silhouette and you should be on your way!

Happy designing!

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