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French Furniture

Palace of Versailles: "Grand" and "Petit Trianon"—the three Styles of Louis XIV., XV. and XVI.—Colbert and Lebrun—André Charles Boule and his Work—Carved and Gilt Furniture—The Regency and its Influence—Alteration in Condition of French Society—Watteau, Lancret, and Boucher. Louis XV. Furniture: Famous Ebenistes—Vernis Martin Furniture—Caffieri and Gouthière Mountings—Sêvres Porcelain introduced into Cabinets—Gobelins Tapestry—The "Bureau du Roi." Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette: The Queen's Influence—The Painters Chardin and Greuze—More simple Designs—Characteristic Ornaments of Louis XVI. Furniture—Riesener's Work—Gouthière's Mountings—Specimens in the Louvre—The Hamilton Palace Sale—French influence upon the design of Furniture in other countries—The Jones Collection—Extract from the "Times."

Home Furniturehere is something so distinct in the development of taste in furniture, marked out by the three styles to which the three monarchs have given the names of "Louis Quatorze," "Louis Quinze," and "Louis Seize," that it affords a fitting point for a new departure.

This will be evident to anyone who will visit, first the Palace of Versailles,13 then the Grand Trianon, and afterwards the Petit Trianon. By the help of a few illustrations, such a visit in the order given would greatly interest anyone having a smattering of knowledge of the characteristic ornaments of these different periods. A careful examination would demonstrate how the one style gradually merged into that of its successor. Thus the massiveness and grandeur of the best Louis Quatorze meubles de luxe, became, in its later development, too ornate and effeminate, with an elaboration of enrichment, culminating in the rococo style of Louis Quinze.

Then we find, in the "Petit Trianon," and also in the Chateau of Fontainebleau, the purer taste of Marie Antoinette dominating the Art productions of her time, which reached their zenith, with regard to furniture, in the production of such elegant and costly examples as have been preserved to us in the beautiful work-table and secretaire—sold some years since at the dispersion of the Hamilton Palace collection—and in some other specimens, which may be seen in the Musée du Louvre, in the Jones Collection in the South Kensington Museum, and in other public and private collections: of these several illustrations are given.

We have to recollect that the reign of Louis XIV. was the time of the artists Berain, Lebrun, and, later in the reign, of Watteau, also of André Charles Boule, ciseleur et doreur du roi, and of Colbert, that admirable Minister of Finance, who knew so well how to second his royal master's taste for grandeur and magnificence. The Palace of Versailles bears throughout the stamp and impress of the majesty of le Grande Monarque; and the rich architectural ornament of the interior, with moulded, gilded, and painted ceilings, required the furnishing to be carried to an extent which had never been attempted previously.

Louis XIV. had judgment in his taste, and he knew that, to carry out his ideas of a royal palace, he must not only select suitable artists capable of control, but he must centralize their efforts. In 1664 Colbert founded the Royal Academy of Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture, to which designs of furniture were admitted. The celebrated Gobelins tapestry factory was also established; and it was here the King collected together and suitably housed the different skilled producers of his furniture, placing them all under the control of his favourite artist, Lebrun, who was appointed director in 1667.

The most remarkable furniture artist of this time, for surely he merits such title, was André Charles Boule, of whom but little is known. He was born in 1642, and, therefore, was 25 years of age when Lebrun was appointed Art-director. He appears to have originated the method of ornamenting furniture which has since been associated with his name. This was to veneer his cabinets, pedestals, armoires, encoignures, clocks, and brackets with tortoiseshell, into which a cutting of brass was laid, the latter being cut out from a design, in which were harmoniously arranged scrolls, vases of flowers, satyrs, animals, cupids, swags of fruit and draperies; fantastic compositions of a free Renaissance character constituted the panels; to which bold scrolls in ormolu formed fitting frames; while handsome mouldings of the same material gave a finish to the extremities. These ormolu mountings were gilt by an old-fashioned process,14 which left upon the metal a thick deposit of gold, and were cunningly chiselled by the skilful hands of Caffieri or his contemporaries.

Boule Armoire, In the "Jones" Collection, S. Kensington Museum. Louis XIV. Period.

Boule subsequently learned to economise labour by adopting a similar process to that used by the marqueterie cutter; and by glueing together two sheets of brass, or white metal, and two of shell, and placing over them his design, he was then able to pierce the four layers by one cut of the handsaw; this gave four exact copies of the design. The same process would be repeated for the reverse side, if, as with an armoire or a large cabinet, two panels, one for each door, right and left, were required; and then, when the brass, or white metal cutting was fitted into the shell so that the joins were imperceptible, he would have two right and two left panels. These would be positive and negative: in the former pair the metal would represent the figured design with the shell as groundwork, and the latter would have the shell as a design, with a ground of metal. The terms positive and negative are the writer's to explain the difference, but the technical terms are "first part" and "second part," or "Boule" and "counter." The former would be selected for the best part of the cabinet, for instance, the panels of the front doors, while the latter would be used for the ends or sides. An illustration of this plan of using all four cuttings of one design occurs in the armoire No. 1026 in the Jones Collection, and in a great many other excellent specimens. The brass, or the white metal in the design, was then carefully and most artistically engraved; and the beauty of the engraving of Boule's finest productions is a great point of excellence, giving, as it does, a character to the design, and emphasizing its details. The mounting of the furniture in ormolu of a rich and highly-finished character, completed the design. The Museé du Louvre is rich in examples of Boule's work; and there are some very good pieces in the Jones Collection, at Hertford House, and at Windsor Castle.

The illustration on p. 144 is the representation of an armoire, which was, undoubtedly, executed by Boule from a design by Lebrun: it is one of a pair which was sold in 1882, at the Hamilton Palace sale, by Messrs. Christie, for £12,075. Another small cabinet, in the same collection, realised £2,310. The pedestal cabinet illustrated on p. 148, from the Jones Collection, is very similar to the latter, and cost Mr. Jones £3,000. When specimens, of the genuineness of which there is no doubt, are offered for sale, they are sure to realize very high prices. The armoire in the Jones Collection, already alluded to (No. 1026), of which there is an illustration, cost between £4,000 and £5,000.

In some of the best of Boule's cabinets, as, for instance, in the Hamilton Palace armoire (illustrated), the bronze gilt ornaments stand out in bold relief from the surface. In the Louvre there is one which has a figure of Le Grand Monarque, clad in armour, with a Roman toga, and wearing the full bottomed wig of the time, which scarcely accords with the costume of a Roman general. The absurd combination which characterises this affectation of the classic costume is also found in portraits of our George II.

Pedestal Cabinet, By Boule, formerly in Mr. Baring's Collection. Purchased by Mr. Jones for £3,000. (South Kensington Museum)

The masks, satyrs, and ram's heads, the scrolls and the foliage, are also very bold in specimens of this class of Boule's work; and the "sun" (that is, a mask surrounded with rays of light) is a very favourite ornament of this period.

Boule had four sons and several pupils; and he may be said to have founded a school of decorative furniture, which has its votaries and imitators now, as it had in his own time. The word one frequently finds misspelt "Buhl," and this has come to represent any similar mode of decorations on furniture, no matter how meretricious or common it may be.

A Concert during the Reign of Louis XIV. (From a Miniature, dated 1696.)

Later in the reign, as other influences were brought to bear upon the taste and fashion of the day, this style of furniture became more ornate and showy. Instead of the natural colour of the shell, either vermilion or gold leaf was placed underneath the transparent shell; the gilt mounts became less severe, and abounded with the curled endive ornament, which afterwards became thoroughly characteristic of the fashion of the succeeding reign; and the forms of the furniture itself conformed to a taste for a more free and flowing treatment; and it should be mentioned, in justice to Lebrun, that from the time of his death and the appointment of his successor, Mignard, a distinct decline in merit can be traced.

Contemporary with Boule's work, were the richly-mounted tables, having slabs of Egyptian porphyry, or Florentine marble mosaic; and marqueterie cabinets, with beautiful mountings of ormolu, or gilt bronze. Commodes and screens were ornamented with Chinese lacquer, which had been imported by the Dutch and taken to Paris, after the French invasion of the Netherlands.

Panel for a Screen. Painted by Watteau. Louis XIV. Period.

About this time—that is, towards the end of the seventeenth century—the resources of designers and makers of decorative furniture were reinforced by the introduction of glass in larger plates than had been possible previously. Mirrors of considerable size were first made in Venice; these were engraved with figures and scrolls, and mounted in richly carved and gilt wood frames; and soon afterwards manufactories of mirrors, and of glass, in larger plates than before, were set up in England, near Battersea, and in France at Tour la Ville, near Paris. This novelty not only gave a new departure to the design of suitable frames in carved wood (generally gilt), but also to that of Boule work and marqueterie. It also led to a greater variety of the design for cabinets; and from this time we may date the first appearance of the "Vitrine," or cabinet with glass panels in the doors and sides, for the display of smaller objets d'art.

Decoration of a Salon in Louis XIV. Style.

The chairs and sofas of the latter half of the reign of Louis Quatorze are exceedingly grand and rich. The suite of furniture for the state apartment of a prince or wealthy nobleman comprised a canapé, or sofa, and six fauteils, or arm chairs, the frames carved with much spirit, or with "feeling," as it is technically termed, and richly gilt. The backs and seats were upholstered and covered with the already famous tapestry of Gobelins or Beauvais.15

Such a suite of furniture, in bad condition and requiring careful and very expensive restoration, was sold at Christie's some time ago for about £1,400, and it is no exaggeration to say that a really perfect suite, with carving and gilding of the best, and the tapestry not too much worn, if offered for public competition, would probably realise between £3,000 and £4,000.

In the appendix will be found the names of many artists in furniture of this time, and in the Jones Collection we have several very excellent specimens which can easily be referred to, and compared with others of the two succeeding reigns, whose furniture we are now going to consider.

As an example of the difference in both outline and detail which took place in design, let the reader notice the form of the Louis Quatorze commode vignetted for the initial letter of this chapter, and then turn to the lighter and more fanciful cabinets of somewhat similar shape which will be found illustrated in the "Louis Quinze" section which follows this. In the Louis Quatorze cabinets the decorative effect, so far as the woodwork was concerned, was obtained first by the careful choice of suitable veneers, and then, by joining four pieces in a panel, so that the natural figure of the wood runs from the centre, and then a banding of a darker wood forms a frame. An instance of this will also be found in the above-mentioned illustration.

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