By Karen Parr-Moody
France has long been a leader in the decorative arts, and one look around GasLamp makes one realizes its glory days are far from over. During the last few hundred years, the furniture of France has been shaped by various events and political regimes, resulting in a variety of popular styles.
The French commode in the photo, right, is a piece of furniture that has its origins in the early 1700s, just before Louis XV became king ($650; Booth B-134). In the French language "commode" means "convenient" or "suitable," and this piece with multiple drawers certainly fits that bill. True to French form, it is far from utilitarian in looks, however. The original versions were ornate, usually finished with a marble top that was made to match the marble of the fireplace mantel.
The more modern version at GasLamp, well priced at $650, includes three drawers and is decorated with brass ormolu. The marquetry of various woods only heightens the decorative nature of this piece, which features a charming garden picture at its center, complete with sheaves of wheat, birds and a summer hat. Most striking are the beautiful brass figurals mounted at its corners; at the left there is a lovely woman and at the right there is a handsome man. This piece is elegant and timeless, with many possibilities; imagine the lavish powder room piece it would make if supporting a vessel sink.
Much of the credit for the styles of the mid-1700s goes to Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of France’s King Louis XV, who was the virtual stylist of her era. Not only was she the dynamic force behind the founding of the Sèvres porcelain factory, she also revived the public's interest in many of the decorative arts. (Meanwhile, the king, a man more enamored of hunting than of decor, let Pompadour run the artistic show).
In 1748, when the the ruins of Pompeii were discovered, Pompadour sent a mission to Italy to study the beauty of its ancient art, with the expectation that it would discover a new furniture style. It did. The style, called Classical Revival or Neo-Classical (1750-1815), later came to be known as Louis XVI, even though it began years before that monarch took the throne. This style included carved details such as acanthus leaves, rose of laurel leaves, and egg-and-dart molding. The Louis XVI barrel-back chair in the photo, left, is influenced by this era ($95; Booth B-324). Note the acanthus leaves that drape across the hand rests. The cabriole legs of the Louis XV era were replaced with straight, tapered legs meant to imitate the columns of ancient Rome.
When Louis XVI came of age, he married a young Viennese woman, Marie Antoinette, who would become queen four years later upon the coronation of the prince as king. While not as extravagant as legend would have us believe, Marie Antoinette certainly was over-the-top when it came to hairstyles, inventing the "pouf," which is seen on this figurine in the photo, right, which captures the figure of a high-toned French woman of the period ($28; Booth B-106).
Marie Antoinette first wore a pouf at her husband's coronation, and the tone was set; it quickly became popular among noble and upper-class women. It was a hairstyle requiring hours to create, beginning with a thin metal frame that would structure the shape. It was padded with false hair that was woven into a woman's real hair, achieving varying heights. Some were subtle, while others rose to three feet; Marie Antoinette reportedly once wore hers six feet tall.
The late 17th century in France saw regal designs, and the same excessive tone stretched on into the 18th century. Classic designs typified the period, including bows, swags, ribbons, tassels, wreaths and floral motifs. Such designs were a whimsical marriage of Neo-Classical and the more recent art movement of Rococo. The undulating, dramatic bow that tops this sconce at left (it is one of a pair) is born of this artistic era (pair, $340; Booth B-324).
French furniture and items of decor display beauty and a hint of romance. Beginning in the early 18th century, Louis XIV of France flaunted his wealth with over-the-top furnishings, marking France as a leader in the decorative arts and leading a march of beauty that lasted for 200 years. Today, we can still infuse our own homes with French antiques and reproductions, giving the rooms a whiff of that historic style.