The Three Kings

By Terry Quillen  

 

America's oldest friends, the French, will celebrate their own independence day – Bastille Day – on July 14. On that day in 1789, the infamous Bastille prison was stormed by revolutionaries, marking the symbolic end (for several decades, at least) of the Bourbon monarchy.

 

The French Revolution also ended what is considered the golden age of French furniture design, in which distinct design categories were named after three successive kings, Louis XIV, Louis XV and XVI. Today, trying to tell one from the other can be confusing, but don't lose your head over it. There are signature details for each style, and each can be differentiated from the other by understanding these details that are as unique as each royal.

 

Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) declared himself the Sun King, claiming absolute power and dominating 17th-century Europe. He built his palace – Versailles – outside of Paris and away from enemies who might overthrow him. The Baroque furniture style that bears his name is the epitome of pomp and grandeur. Illustrations, top right and near left: Engravings of the period show the opulence of an elaborately carved console, at top, and a console du salon with mirror.

 

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s archives, Louis XIV “favored carved and gilded wood furniture and commissioned a broad range of objects in solid silver that included tall candle stands, massive tables, benches and stools, chandeliers and mirror frames.” Some of his favorite pieces “displayed combinations of precious materials such as lapis lazuli, agate, marble, silver and ivory.”

 

Photo, right: This piece, in GasLamp Booth T-267, recalls the elaborate styling of Louis XIV furniture.

 

With his great grandson, Louis XV, came the more feminine Rococo style of furnishings. That is not surprising, considering the influence that Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry commanded during their respective reigns as official royal mistress.

 

"Grand suites were replaced by smaller, more intimate rooms and were furnished with unfailing attentiveness to elegance, refinement, comfort and well-being," writes renowned interior designer Timothy Corrigan. "Curved lines and asymmetry became the rule.

 

A couple of the most recognizable Louis XV pieces are the rounded bombé chest, or commode, and the bergère chair, with curvaceous lines from its top edge down to its well-turned legs. Photo, left: The pair of commodes at top are in Booth T-504 at GasLamp Too. The silver-leafed bombé commode at lower left is one of a pair of original Louis XV pieces from Maison Jansen. The bergère, probably a reproduction, is from The Little Antique Shop.

 

Photo, right: A trio of Louis XV styles: a painted chest in Booth T275 at GasLamp Too; a needlepoint-upholstered chair in Booth T101 at GasLamp Too; a chair with old cane detailing in Booth B210 at GasLamp.

 

 

 

When Louis XV's ill-fated and awkward grandson, Louis XIV, assumed the throne with his young Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, design took a Neoclassical turn. Ornament gave way to finely fluted, straight lines. It was more moderate, almost geometric, but elegant.

 

Photo, below left: At top is a period illustration of a Louis XIV settee. Below left is an original Louis XVI fauteuil chair, offered online by Milord Antiques in Montréal, $16,500. In the same photo vignette, below right, is a demi-lune (half-moon) table of the period, offered online by Portuondo of Madrid, $37,903.

 

Characteristic of the era are small, sophisticated settees and fauteuil chairs, with their signature oval back and fine fabric upholstery. While there was a lot of Asian influence in the Louis XV style, Louis XVI design often celebrated the classical lines of ancient Greece and Rome. The discovery, at the time, of the ruins at Pompeii captured the popular imagination.

 

Photo, right: Pictured is an 18th century Louis XVI settee, from Booth T-134 at GasLamp Too. Fauteuil in the inset, also dated from the 18th century, is one of a pair in the Trouvailles booth (T-108) at GasLamp Too.

 

Design may have become more subtle, more subdued. But not so, the court of Versailles under Marie Antoinette. While her naïve king whiled away his time with his life-long hobby of locksmithing, the excesses of his queen and her cronies burned white hot. So did the fires of revolution that could not be contained in Paris.

 

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