French Decorative Arts (c.1640-1792)
This article is a short guide to the history and characteristics of French interior and exterior decorative art during the 17th/18th centuries.
From time to time in the history of art, a moment arises when the emergence of great craftsmen coincides with a creative mood and an abundance of money, to produce a series of masterpieces of fine art and design. The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (2680-2180 BCE) gaves us the amazing architecture of the Pyramids; the Greek Classical era (480-323 BCE) gave us the Parthenon and a range of astounding marble and bronze statues; the Italian Renaissance (1400-1530) produced exquisite painting and sculpture; the Baroque era of the Catholic Counter-Reformation (1540-1700) gave us unbelievable quadratura and trompe l'oeil architecture, as well as intensely spiritual art. In addition, it also gave birth to the Fontainebleau School in France, which was an important precursor of things to come at Versailles.
Likewise, the 17th and 18th centuries in France witnessed a unique flowering of many different types of art, involving exterior and interior design and encompassing furniture, tapestry (in particular Gobelins tapestry), small-scale sculpture, ceramics and a range of metalwork, furnishings, carvings, moldings and other crafts. At the great Palace of Versailles, in the royal chateaux, in the houses of noblemen and in the great churches and public buildings, the craftsmen, cabinet-makers, and a hundred other types of artist laboured to produce the greatest ever masterpieces of decorative art. They had the skills; the King had the money; the Royal Court needed decorating and the aristocracy needed new fashions. It was another moment of supreme achievement in history. This is why French applied art from this period is so important.
The decorative arts in France during the period 1640-1792 are traditionally classified into relatively self-contained compartments, corresponding to the reigns of the three Kings of Versailles:
- Louis Quatorze (XIV) (ruled 1643-1715)
There is also a fourth style known as Regency. The latter describes the period of the Duc d'Orleans' Regency, which occupied the years (1715-23) between the accession of Louis XV and his majority. This 4-part classification is useful, but only in a very broad sense, and if we examine it closely we find that it does not entirely accord with observations.
The style termed 'Louis Quatorze' may be divided into three fairly distinct parts. The earliest, in which the styles of the preceding reign of Louis Treize were largely followed, begins in 1640 and ends about 1655 or a little later. The middle period lasts almost to the end of the century, and the final period, beginning about 1700, foreshadows developments which were much more marked during the Regency, and which came to fruition in the early years of the reign of Louis Quinze. Strictly, the Regency is a period during which the late Louis Quatorze style begins to merge with the earliest manifestations of that associated with Louis Quinze. It is late Baroque art turning into rococo - a process which was a continuous evolution without any clear lines of demarcation. (See also: French Baroque Artists.)
The Regency period marks a stage in the struggle between two opposing schools in Baroque architecture which had been going on since the early years of the 16th century; between the followers of Vitruvius (Roman architect and author of De Architectura) and the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80) on the one hand, and those who were carried along by the stream of which Michelangelo was the source on the other. One of the reasons why rococo never secured a foothold in England to the extent that it did in France (where for more than two decades classical disciplines were largely discarded, inside if not out) was the strength of the hold which, following the decline of Sir Christopher Wren, the adherents of Palladio (led by the Earl of Burlington) secured on architectural design. But even the eminent English architect William Kent (1685-1748), an uncompromising Palladian in his architectural and furniture designs, turned to rococo when he functioned as a landscape gardener, an aspect of his work too often neglected. The French were convinced classicists by tradition, but we observe a gradual weakening of classical disciplines after 1700, and the mainstream of classical tradition was not rejoined until after 1750 with the beginning of the neoclassical style.
Louis Quatorze (1638-1715) had a passion for symmetry which amounted almost to an obsession. He loved, above all, long symmetrical lines and receding vistas, and he could not bear them to be interrupted by so much as a draught-screen (paravent). Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719, Louis XIV's second wife), however, had no strong convictions on the necessity for symmetry, but she detested draughts. When the King was present she had to dispense even with the comfort of a screen, and, shivering with cold, she protested that she would 'die from symmetry'.
The idea of symmetry is, in fact, so important to our subject that it is appropriate to discuss it at this point before proceeding to consider the styles associated with Louis Quatorze in more detail.
Symmetry in ornament, the notion that one half of an object, or even of a decorative scheme, should be the mirror-image of the other half, is a well-established phenomenon. It is also world-wide, and lack of symmetry has always been unusual in the past. But its opposite notion, that of asymmetry, prevailed in French interior decoration and ornament for about a quarter of a century, beginning about 1730. Curiously enough, at a time when symmetry had become unfashionable in ornament especially, we find a particular insistence on the agreement of the various components making up the interior scene. The woodwork of chairs and sofas, for instance, was curved and carved to match the ornament of the panelling, and the soft furnishings - curtains, portieres (door curtains), seat covers, bedspreads, and so forth - were selected to match each other. To some extent, therefore, the idea of symmetry emerged, even in an age of asymmetry, but in a different form.
Asymmetry is the principal determining feature of the Louis Quinze style, which is usually called rococo or rocaille, and is also known, in France especially, as 'Le style Pompadour' or even 'Le style Boucher', neither of which is accurate, although, of the two, the latter has more to commend it. Rococo was also termed, at the time, the 'new taste' (gout nouveau) and the genre pittoresque (literally, the 'picturesque style'), and the latter concept requires closer examination.
Chinese porcelain, then extremely popular, was generally symmetrical in its ornament, and the making of vases in matching and symmetrical garnitures was no mere European innovation. Altar vases were being made in sets almost as far back as our knowledge takes us, the earliest in bronze. Japanese porcelain, on the other hand, especially the varieties from Arita (Hizen Province) which were painted by the decorator Sakaida Kakiemon and his followers, was noted for asymmetricality in the disposition of much of the ornament, and it is worth recalling that, although it was imported into Europe in smaller quantities than porcelain from China, it was undoubtedly more highly valued, perhaps for this reason. It is the premiere qualite du japon of 18th century French inventories and sale catalogues.
A few 17th century design-books had occasionally included more or less isolated examples of asymmetrical ornament, principally cartouches, and designs of this kind came from the Dutch silversmith Adam van Vianen (1569-1627), as well as the Nuremberg designer, Christoph Jamnitzer (1563-1618). Design-books of the end of the 17th century, notably those of Paul Decker (1677-1713) and Jean Berain the Elder (1637-1711), had made use of a space-saving device whereby two halves of a design were printed side by side, either side needing its mirror-image to complete it. As they appeared on the page, however, neither side matched the other, giving an impression of asymmetricality if the design were regarded as complete - which may have influenced rococo designers.
The term genre pittoresque cannot today be translated by the English 'picturesque', although the two concepts were at first related. It is usual now to regard a picturesque scene as one suggesting a subject for a painting, but in 18th century England (the hey-day of the landscape gardener) it meant the imitation of a painting, the creation of a landscape in the manner of Claude Lorraine or Salvator Rosa for example, both among the most admired of painters at the time.
Garden design is especially interesting not least because it had a much greater impact on the course of art in the 18th century than is generally supposed. Andre Le Notre (1613-1700), the French landscape architect to Louis XIV, had laid out the magnificent formal gardens at Versailles, the 'green geometries' that inspired those of Hampton Court accompanying Wren's additions. The asymmetrical and informal garden - the 'studied disorder' which is a feature of French rococo - began early in the 18th century with such designs as that of the Serpentine as part of the gardens of Kensington Palace by Charles Bridgeman (16901738), and by the creation of an informal garden at Twickenham by Alexander Pope. These two inspired William Kent, who, in turn, influenced Lancelot Brown (1716-1783), the English landscape architect known as Capability Brown. That English gardens such as these owe something to the peculiar genius of the Chinese as landscape gardeners is certain. Much had been sent back to Europe on this and kindred subjects by the Jesuit missionaries, and Walpole wrote in his Essay on Modern Gardening that they are 'as whimsically irregular as European gardens are formal and unvaried'. Eighteenth century England even borrowed a word from the Far East for this irregularity - Sharawadgi - although it seems to be neither Chinese nor Japanese. The English picturesque garden, fashionable in France before mid century, came to be called the 'jardin chinois' there, and the English taste in garden design 'le gout anglo-chinois'.
In a climate of this kind the growth of rococo is less surprising. The beginning of asymmetry in French interior decoration - the genre pittoresque - may be dated fairly precisely to about 1725, although the word itself was not admitted by the French Academy until 1732. It can be seen, for instance, in the bronze mounts of commodes of the period.
In its broadest aspects the style of Louis Quatorze is notable for symmetry and spaciousness. The 18th century saw a reduction in scale in the size of rooms, which became smaller and more intimate, the salon being increasingly reserved for State occasions. With this reduction in scale came the multiplication in the number of rooms set apart for specific purposes, so that the whole air of the century changes from that of the preceding one. The predominant architectural style of the 17th century is a classicism not as uncompromising as that of Palladio, Inigo Jones (1573-1652), and the disciples of Vitruvius, but nevertheless based fairly rigidly on the Five Orders, and on the proportional system laid down by the most respected authorities with suitable modifications. (See also: Architecture glossary.) Externally the lines of great buildings were inclined to be simple, and integrally sculptured ornament was reduced almost to a minimum.
The period of decoration of Versailles marks the introduction of the Grand Manner in French interior decoration. Ornament was extremely diverse in subject and treatment and based on the great classical repertory inherited from Imperial Rome. It had a richness of quality rare at any period, sumptuous in its effect and masculine in its strength. The salons of Versailles with their profusion of marbles and gilded bronze, their silver furniture and tapestries, attained a perfection never since equalled. If, today, it is sometimes considered pompous this is, perhaps, because in the intervening three centuries we have lowered our sights.
Among the motifs of the period we recognize easily the mask surrounded by radiating shafts of light - the symbol of le roi soleil (the Sun King), and the intertwined Ls, the King's monogram, both to be seen again in the 18th century. Trophies of arms, often in the form of chutes, were also popular as a decorative motif, frequently in bronze with added acanthus foliage and that of the laurel and the oak, as well as garlands of flowers. The chimney-piece, always the principal feature of the room, was usually comparatively plain in design, the richness concentrated in the materials. It was surmounted by a painting or a bas-relief sculpture of some classical subject, the latter sometimes imitated en grisaille. Painted ceilings adorned the more important rooms, and tapestries and paintings covered large areas of the walls.
Above all there was colour, rich colour of a kind which, from what few guides we have, we must assume also decorated the interior scene in Imperial Rome. The notion that Greek and Roman interiors were predominantly white, or coloured in pale pastel shades like the later neo-classical colour-schemes, did not exist before the last decades of the 18th century. It was, perhaps, the product of a rash assumption that because excavated antique marbles were always white when found they had always been in that state. In Greek and Roman times, however, marble sculpture was stained and painted, and often gilded as well, not statuary only but also structural marble. The kind of statuary the Greeks valued most was not white marble but chryselephantine sculpture, such as the Olympian Zeus, one of the wonders of the ancient world, made of gold and ivory with eyes inlaid with semi-precious jewellery or enamel. In Roman times bronze, most of it gilded, decorated interiors, forming the capitals of columns and pilasters, and gilded copper was often used for roofing. Bernini looted the Pantheon to make his baldachin for Saint Peter's, the surplus metal going to the cannon-founders. The practice of covering structural timbers with copper, often gilded, is mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey, and Nero sheathed the interior of a theatre with gold, although only for a single day. The name given to his palace - the Domus Aurea or Golden House - refers to the profusion of gold and silver which ornamented it. Whiteness, in fact, belongs not to classical but to neoclassical art.
Among the classical forms taken over by the sculptors of the 17th century may be numbered the term or gaine, the head and torso of a figure ending in a tapering pedestal. Statues and portrait busts decorated exteriors as they had done in Imperial Rome, and Le Notre's splendid formal gardens laid out at Versailles needed figures and groups to decorate them. The water-gardens, especially elaborate, called for vast fountains of bronze, lead, and marble. Fountains are a sure touchstone to the splendour of a city or a palace.
The changes which characterize the next period were partly a natural response to the social and economic evolution of the century, and partly a product of the financial difficulties of the time. Gilded wood and bronze began to replace silver and silver-gilt for the larger objects, and we are inclined to overlook the fact that style is always, to some extent, dictated by the available materials as well as by their connotation. A lavish display of the precious metals inevitably sets the scale for the rest of the decorative scheme, because their intrinsic worth is recognized and accepted. The popularity of gilding was not merely because those who commissioned such work liked the colour, or appreciated the fact that gold lent an untarnishable surface to the underlying material, but because work of this kind looked opulent. But gilded wood especially cannot be made to simulate cast and chiselled metal and its employment led to subtle changes in style because of its different texture and the difference in the tools needed to shape it.
Particularly after 1700, the last years of the King's reign, we begin to notice a fresh grace and lightness in the ornamental motifs and the introduction of new kinds of decoration which developed at an increasing pace during the Regency, eventually to culminate in the genre pittoresque of Louis Quinze.
If the political events of Louis' reign were unpleasant realities, at least one's surroundings could express the gaiety it was difficult to feel otherwise. But in this new development we find several elements which are complete novelties. Far Eastern art had been particularly sought in Northern Europe since the beginning of the 17th century, when the Dutch looted Spanish and Portuguese ships returning from the Far East. Cardinal Mazarin had a not inconsiderable collection, principally silks, porcelain, and lacquer, and both Louis Treize and James I of England bought porcelain from the Dutch.
In both 17th- and 18th century records it is sometimes difficult to separate, from their description, objects imported from China, Japan, Siam, and Persia. These things were brought to Europe in the ships of the various East India Companies, often trans-shipped in Indian entrepots, or at Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Thus we sometimes find mention of 'Indian' porcelain, although it was never made in India, and Chinese silks are often called 'Indian'. The Coromandel screen (so-called) was made from incised and coloured Chinese lacquer panels, which received the name from the fact that they were trans-shipped on India's Coromandel coast. On the other hand 18th century records are sometimes specific. The best Japanese porcelain for instance was clearly described as premiere qualite du japon, from which we may deduce the fact that the origin was important in this case.
Louis Quatorze was very fond of these exotic extravagances, and porcelain vases, lacquer, and other objects from the Far East decorated the salons of Versailles. In Chinese pottery, especially popular were vases made in the last years of the era of Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644) and the first part of the reign of the Ch'ing Emperor K'ang Hsi (1666-1726). These, in sets of three, five, or seven, formed the garniture de cheminee, placed on the mantelshelf, which continued to be popular throughout the first quarter of the 18th century. At first in the Chinese taste, these were later decorated, usually at Canton, with designs which included armorial bearings specially commissioned by European purchasers.
But the demand for Chinese porcelain, with its novel decoration, far outran the supply, even though a fairly usual cargo amounted to a hundred thousand pieces of all kinds, and European craftsmen and designers imitated Chinese decoration without understanding, sometimes blending it with European motifs often of unbroken classical descent. These mixtures are termed chinoiseries. They first appeared in the second half of the 17th century, the product of numerous travel-books, and continued to be popular until well beyond the middle of the 18th century. One of the first designers to adopt the chinoiserie style in France was Jean Berain the Elder (1637-1711), who was succeeded as 'dessinateur du cabinet du Roi' by his son, Jean Berain the Younger (1678-1726). (See also the later fashion for Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints and the 19th century style of Japonism.)
At first more or less confined to tapestries and faience, the fashion for chinoiseries began to sweep Europe, forming perhaps the most outstanding decorative theme of the early years of the great Meissen porcelain factory of Augustus the Strong, inspiring such painters as Francois Boucher (1703-70), and, with the invention of a varnish suitable for imitating Chinese lacquer by the Brothers Martin (vernis Martin), providing the means for decorating some of the most colourful furniture of the reign of Louis Quinze.
An important influence on this emerging style was the establishment of a factory for the manufacturing of mirror-glass at Saint-Gobain in Picardy. Until this time mirrors, apart from such exceptions as those to be found in the Hall of Mirrors - Galerie des Glaces - (which were imported at enormous cost from Venice), had often been extremely small in size. The cost was high, and it was to remain high for a good many years, but the large scale of the new manufactory brought the price down to a point where at least most of the wealthier people could afford them. Large mirrors were still usually made in sections, but they began to decorate the space above the chimney-piece and the piers between windows (pier-glasses or trumeaux), and even above the door (the over-door mirror - dessus de porte). The multiple reflections of several such mirrors more or less opposite to each other influenced the decoration of the room itself, as well as adding to its brightness, and they took the place of the carvings and paintings which had formerly been fashionable. The elaborately carved frames provided a new element in room-decoration of which craftsmen took full advantage.
The distinction often drawn between the final years of Louis Quatorze and the period of the Regency is largely artificial, and the term 'Regency' cannot, for the most part, be regarded as much more than an indication of date. One or two characteristics which place an object in this period rather than in that of the former King include the smiling female mask and the occurrence of such fabulous animals as the chimera or griffin, and the dragon. Furniture-mounts were used in a manner not be seen earlier, especially those of the ebeniste Charles Cressent (1685-1768) who was also a skilled bronzeworker. They anticipate in their variety and position the dispositions to become popular under Louis Quinze, but they lack the rococo asymmetry. The voluminous skirts of the period (a paniers, i.e. hooped) demanded, and got, the accommodation of an armchair (fauteuil) with a wider seat and, for the same reason, the front supports carrying the arm-rests (accotoirs) were set back by about one-third of the depth of the seat instead of continuing the line of the front legs.
Rococo art, it has been said, began when the scrolls stopped being symmetrical, and for practical purposes this definition, despite its superficiality, could hardly be bettered. It is a far more important phase in the development of art generally than is often supposed. It swept Europe in a manner which had few precedents.
Among the earliest instances of the use of asymmetry may be cited the designs of early rococo artists like Juste-Aurele Meissonnier (1695-1750), a goldsmith and ornemaniste who succeeded Jean II Berain as designer to the King. The first of his designs to reveal the new tendencies, which became well marked soon afterwards, was a weather-vane for the Duc de Mortemart done in 1724, which had as part of its decoration a shell and a jet of water. Water and attendant rockwork (rocaille) was a principal keynote of the new style, especially in its early stages. Numerous suggestions have been advanced to account for the emphasis on rockwork, which is thought to have been inspired by that decorating the grottos and gardens of Versailles (the Grotte d'Apollon, for instance), but remembering the close association of rococo with the fashion for Chinese art one speculates on the possibility of inspiration from the fantastic and distorted rocks so much sought by the Chinese for the decoration of their own gardens, and so often depicted in porcelain painting especially. Rocaille is a customary French term for the style as a whole.
The addition of shell-work is a natural extension of the subject of rocks and water, but it must be remembered that almost throughout the 18th century shells of all kinds were a passion among collectors, and large quantities of exotic shells were assembled and displayed in cabinets.
Another feature of the rococo style is the numerous graceful curves of the ornament, to be seen in decorative carvings such as those adorning the boiseries, as part of table-supports and chairs, and in the outlines of chimney-pieces and table-tops of marble. Moldings in the case of door-panels were often given a double curve at the top which rose to a high point at the centre of the door with two leaves, and these replaced earlier rectangular panels. Arches of all kinds rose from their springers to a central point embellished with carved ornament, known as an agrafe (literally, a clasp), which was framed with asymmetrical scrollwork, and the outlines of chenets (andirons) were contained within a scalene triangle. The cartouche was also used as a point of emphasis to which moldings tended, and this was framed in similar style with asymmetrical scrolls. The acanthus leaf continued to be widely employed, but, unlike that of earlier periods, its tip was often twisted to one side.
Nevertheless we find, here and there, decoration undoubtedly belonging to this period which is far more restrained in its use of curves, and not every designer of the period was seduced by the new asymmetry -although they did not reject the other elements of the style. But these were exceptional, and pronounced asymmetry in ornament was the rule.
At first the reaction from asymmetry which began during the reign of Louis Quinze soon after mid century, with which the name of Louis Seize is associated, represented to some extent a return to the classicism of Louis Quatorze, and some of the decoration of this time is almost perplexing in its resemblance to the older period. But the new classicism was fundamentally different, with characteristics which were the product of the events which had intervened between the two versions.
In 1719 the town of Herculaneum, buried by the same eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE as the one which overwhelmed Pompeii, was found accidentally by Prince Elbeuf who was looking for a source of ready-cut building stone. About the middle of the 18th century the first serious excavations were started at Pompeii itself, although the site had been known since 1594. In consequence of these discoveries interest in both Roman art and Greek art and institutions began to make headway, especially among a section of French society which was dissatisfied with the luxury and frivolity of the Court of Louis Quinze and the intervention of Madame de Pompadour (born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to her death in 1764). The principal exponents of this early phase of neo-classicism were Johann Joachim Winckelmann, art-historian and one-time librarian to count von Bunau at Dresden, who was appointed librarian to Cardinal Albani in Rome, and Anne-Claude-Philippe de Tubieres, Comte de Caylus, a collector of antiquities whose important work on classical and Egyptian art was published in five volumes between 1752 and 1755. To the work of these two men must be added the slightly later catalogue of the collection of the English Ambassador at Naples, Sir William Hamilton, which was much consulted by designers in France and England.
The name of Madame de Pompadour is so firmly associated with rococo that it is easy to overlook the fact that she was one of the first to adopt the new style of neoclassicism in her private apartments, although the King remained faithful to rococo and the Marquise perforce had to do the same in public. In 1746 she secured for her brother, later the Marquis de Marigny, the office of Directeur des Batiments, and in 1748 a mission comprising the Marquis, the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713-80), and the engraver and designer Cochin, went to Italy to study Roman art, called by some 'the true beauty'. To this must be added the influence of Piranesi, whose engravings depicting Roman antiquities were extremely popular.
The neoclassical style falls into two fairly distinct parts. The first is best termed 'transitional' because it represents the transition from rococo to the revival of classical symmetry. Work of this period sometimes contains elements of both styles, although rococo diminishes in strength and influence the more closely we approach the accession of Louis Seize in 1774. The second phase beginning a little before 1780 might well be termed the Marie-Antoinette style, since it was fostered and largely inspired by her influence. (For details, see: Neoclassical Architecture and Neoclassical Painting.)
Curves began to disappear almost at once. Chair-legs for instance became straight and tapering instead of curved, and the same kind of changes are to be observed in furniture generally. The new style at first drew more heavily on Greek art than had the decoration of Louis Quatorze, for example in the employment of the Greek wave pattern as a frieze ornament, but the principal source of ornament was still largely Roman. In its general aspect revived classical ornament was lighter and with perhaps a more conscious striving after elegance than is to be seen in the 17th century; it is feminine rather than masculine.
About 1770 we notice also a new kind of ornament altogether, based on rustic joys and the simple life. In the park of the Petit Trianon at Versailles Marie-Antoinette had a hameau, designed by Hubert Robert, of rustic houses, occupied by real peasants engaged in agricultural pursuits with the usual domestic animals. Milk from the cows was taken to the Queen's dairy, where she amused herself by making butter and cheese as a relaxation from the sophistication of Court life, and it is to this that we owe new kinds of ornament, such as beehives, baskets of osier, and agricultural implements. Another innovation was the use of sentimental attributes: hearts pierced with arrows, quivers, flaming torches, and garlands of roses. Sentiment degenerated into sentimentality, a vice, first appearing soon after the ending of the Seven Years' War, which was inherited by the 19th century. It was also widespread. It is as evident in the biscuit porcelain figures of Sevres as in the bourgeois family groups of Acier at Meissen. Its appeal to the taste and aesthetics of the time may be deduced from the academic art of the painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) and from the fantastic success of Goethe's immature novel, The Sorrows of Werther, which was known and read far beyond the frontiers of Germany. The Man of Feeling emerged, and Diderot attacked the sensuality of Boucher and his followers, saying: 'To show virtue charming and vice hateful should be the aim of every honest man who employs pen, brush, and the sculptor's chisel', thus linking art and morality for the first time. Greuze enjoyed wide popularity with paintings which foreshadowed the worst excesses of the Victorians. He was, it has been said, 'a moralist with a passion for lovely shoulders: a preacher who reveals the bosom of young girls'.
Such affinities as the neoclassical style possessed with the classicism of Louis Quatorze are principally to be found in the design of permanent and semi-permanent interior installations, and these soon withered away as the new style took hold. Neoclassical artists detested the Renaissance, and on the few occasions when Renaissance paintings were sold by auction, prices were generally low. This is partly because Renaissance classicism, although it was much nearer to that of Greece and Rome than their own version, did not accord with the current notions of antiquity which were culled from the villas of Pompeii rather than from the great palaces of the ancient metropolis. Thus, the arabesques which were so popular a part of decoration under Louis Seize owed much more to Pompeii than to the grotesques of Nero's Golden House and Raphael's loggia.
A curious survival, however, was the furniture made by the great Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) - the most remarkable of all French cabinetmakers and the preeminent artist in the field of marquetry - more often than not indebted to Berain's designs. It was not only avidly collected but freely imitated throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century, probably reaching the height of its popularity in the 1770s. A 19th-century table by the Edgware Road inheritor of the Boulle tradition, Louis Le Gaigneur, is in the Queen's Presence Chamber at Windsor Castle, and a mid-17th century writing-desk with the arms of the de Retz family is in the Queen's drawing-room. At the same time there was also a demand for 17th century sculpture, especially the work of Pierre Puget (1622-1694), Francois Girardon (1628-1715), and Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720), although little for excavated Greek and Roman marbles.
The difference between the old classicism and the new was more than the product of a mere shift in emphasis from Imperial Rome to Pompeii. Neoclassicism, the fag-end of a long tradition, was also a deliberately contrived reaction from rococo, as much literary and political in inspiration as artistic. It was not merely a case of fashionable people seeking something new to be fashionable about.
If the promoters of the new style disliked rococo, their political bias made them almost equally antipathetic to Louis Quatorze and Louis Quinze. The intellectual climate of France had been changing steadily since the end of the 17th century. Administration was not so much tyrannical as intolerably lax. The Treasury was identified with the King's private purse, and when he needed money Louis Quinze took it from public funds, scribbling a receipt for the Treasurer. The tax-farmers reaped a rich harvest because machinery for the public collection of taxes hardly existed, and in exchange for their privileges they rewarded the members of the Court handsomely, and sometimes the King himself.
In this atmosphere literary talent began to flourish as never before, and writers particularly invaded the political sphere. The most influential of the thinkers of the period were perhaps Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, and Diderot, the latter editor of the Encyclopedie which advanced radical views.
Neoclassicism was, to some extent at least, a product of these movements in its initial stages, but by 1780 the influence of Marie-Antoinette and Versailles had diverted the earlier simplicity into channels as luxurious and extravagant as those which had contained the rococo of Louis Quinze.
In recording the part played by the Queen, however, it is easy to overlook the earlier influence of Madame du Barry (born Jeanne Becu, mistress of Louis XV from 1769 to his death in 1774), whose purchases while Louis Quinze was still alive did much to influence the future course of the style. With the help of the dealer, Poirier, she made fashionable the decoration of furniture with Sevres porcelain plaques - small tables, secretaires, and commodes - paying extremely high prices. She employed the ciseleur-fondeur, Gouthiere, to execute the gilt-bronze decorations for the Pavilion de Louveciennes, and her purchases did not end with the death of the King. After her return from exile she continued to spend heavily, and when she met her ignominious death at the hands of the executioner during the Terror she still owed Gouthiere an enormous sum for work of this kind which his heirs attempted to collect from her estate after his death in 1814. A law-suit dragged on until 1836 when it was settled for a derisory fraction of the original sum.
Louis Seize and Marie-Antoinette left Versailles for the last time in 1789, driven out by the Paris mob. They returned to the capital which had been abandoned by the royal family in the days of Louis Quatorze, and soon afterwards the royal furnishings were unceremoniously dumped into carts and Versailles was bereft of much of its former glory. Some of the royal possessions disappeared across the Channel to England; others became part of the stock of the brocanteur, many of them to be sold for absurdly low prices in the years which followed. A few survived to be bought in the 1830s by the more discerning collectors, and by the 1870s French furniture and porcelain of a kind even remotely connected with royalty had achieved a dizzy sale-room eminence which even today is rarely approached.
Thus ended an almost unprecedented period in the history of the decorative arts, of which the Empire style of Napoleon was but a pompous echo. It was a period during which the emphasis had been largely on novelty and the acquisition of the latest fashion, and this had been made possible by the scale on which the arts were organized in France since the days of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (16191683), Louis XIV's finance minister. If we look only at the cost to France of achieving this pre-eminence it seems high, but against it we must weigh the vast return from exports and the prestige which undoubtedly accrued and was reflected in other spheres, not the least that of foreign relations. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, the position of Paris as the artistic capital of the world, a position by no means unprofitable, must eventually be traced to the decisions taken by Louis Quatorze to employ art as an outward and visible symbol of the greatness of France.
For a century and a half the outmoded had been relegated to the attics, a situation which has no parallel. The scholar Pierre Verlet has referred (Les Ebenistes Du XVIII Siecle, 1963) to gifts of unfashionable furniture to the lesser nobility belonging to the Court, and to the system of precedence whereby unwanted objects were removed from Versailles to the smaller royal chateaux. The same authority discusses the difference in taste and buying habits between the rich fermiers-generaux (tax collectors) on the one hand, and the learned professions, represented by lawyers and members of the Parlements, on the other, dividing them into innovators and conservators. The economic climate of the time has been examined by Gerald Reitlinger in Volume II of the Economics of Taste. He points out that the aristocracy, whose wealth was largely derived from landed estates, commanded far less in liquid resources than the fermiers-generaux, who were also financiers. Therefore, what we see from the period of Law's inflation on, almost to the beginning of the Revolution in 1789, is the taste of Versailles supported by financiers rather than by noblemen. That these sumptuous interiors achieved so high a level of excellence was due to the example of Versailles and the patronage of artists and craftsmen of skill and taste.
In a manner not without parallel today, the fermiers-generaux, who knew better than anyone the shaky foundation on which the value of the livre rested, bought works of art on an immense scale, not only as a symbol of prestige but also as an investment, and this brought in its train a rise in prices which was stimulated by the lavish expenditure of Louis Quinze and Madame de Pompadour. As Reitlinger points out, apart from Oriental lacquer furniture, the most expensive objects were those of gilt-bronze or those heavily mounted with it, which was at least to some extent the product of the cost of mercuric gilding, even though the actual gold value was negligible. Mounts lacquered and polished could be bought much more cheaply. Fine marbles for table-tops and for such decorative objects as urns and pedestals were also dear, and semi-precious stones such as jasper and chalcedony dearer still. In judging the cost of works of art at this time we must remember that materials were usually expensive and most kinds of labour cheap.
No doubt prices were enhanced by the popularity of public auctions, a common enough feature of the art-market in ancient Rome but much less in evidence thereafter as a method of dispersal. Competitive bidding pushed prices upwards, but a formidable difficulty in the way of an extension of this kind of selling was the care with which all the interior elements were made to harmonize one with the other, largely depriving them of their meaning when separated from their immediate surroundings. It was quite often essential, when buying a Paris hotel, to buy the furnishing as well. Despite this contrary indication, however, auction prices had reached almost unprecedented heights before the end of the century, a rising market brought to an end only by the Revolution. The problem of what to do with the possessions of Citoyen Louis Capet, the members of his Court, and of those financiers insufficiently astute to read the warning signs while there was yet time, was gravely mishandled. Much was destroyed, and much more sold in circumstances which made it impossible for a fair price to be realized. The Duc d'Orleans, Philippe Egalite, attempted to sell the Regent's picture collection abroad in 1790 for 100,000 guineas, but without success, although the Dutch and Flemish paintings came to England later. The collection of Louis Seize's Finance Minister, Charles Alexandre, Vicomte de Calonne (1734-1802), was sold by Christie's in 1795, but for much lower prices than those at which he had bought them.
The market for antiques, apart from Old Master paintings, did exist in the 18th century, despite the emphasis on what was new; but for the most part little was bought from the immediate past, and only a few discerning collectors ventured even as far afield as Renaissance and Roman bronzes. Much more fashionable was the collecting of curiosities of natural history, such as shells and mineralogical specimens which were often mounted in gilt-bronze.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY