In the study of antiques and the decorative arts, you will learn more than dates. You will discover an intimate and humanized view of the kings, queens and conquerors. You‘ll learn about the impact their desires and tastes, along with such things as trade routes, inventions and excavations had on a nation’s insatiable appetite for new furniture styles. The subject makes for a fascinating, life-long study.
Both the royalty and swelling middle class of 18th century Europe were much like people today, in that they demanded change (and occasional novelty) in furniture and fashion. In furniture styles the pendulum swung from the heavy, symmetrical Baroque (1650 - 1700) to the delicate asymmetrical Rococo (1700- 1750), and back to the delicate but straight classical lines of the Neo-Classical (1750 - 1800). By the time of the Victorians, when the Industrial Revolution brought the demise of furniture that was completely handmade, there was a revival of the all previous styles, including Renaissance, Rococo, Egyptian and Gothic, to name a few.
For a simplified overview of styles, we begin with the Baroque. Prior to this period there were only a few pieces of furniture: beds, tables, chairs. And few pieces were made, since only the wealthy could afford them. We end with the Neo-Classical style, the last period during which furniture was made totally by hand.
Although much fine furniture was crafted elsewhere on the European continent, we have narrowed our focus to France and England. France was clearly the trendsetter for 17th and 18th century Europe. However, England's restrained interpretation of the French styles deserve study on it’s own merit.
BAROQUE PERIOD 1650 - 1700
Louis XIV single-handedly revived the arts in France. Determined to make the arts a national industry. The Sun King gathered the best artist and craftsmen of the day to design and decorate his palace at Versailles. In doing so, he transformed a modest hunting lodge into a showcase of French decorative arts.
As the patron and chief consumer of the furniture made during his reign, Louis XIV chose Charles LeBrun to direct the Furniture Guild. Andre-Charles Boulle, cabinetmaker to the king, influenced cabinetmakers throughout Europe. His unique methods of furniture decoration, called “boulle work” include tortoiseshell veneers with pewter or brass inlay, and are highly prized. The use of ormolu (gilded bronze) mounts were also developed during this period and continued throughout the next century.
In the homes of the wealthy during the Baroque period, the rooms were few but large, permitting a variety of daily activities. Furniture, therefore, was large in scale and very heavy. It was severe, always symmetrical and uncomfortable. The most commonly used woods were walnut, oak, chestnut and some ebony.
Louis XIV’s cousin, Charles II, tried to emulate the Sun King’s lavish spending and his influence on the arts. The French influence can be seen in the heavily carved furnishings so popular in Louis’ reign. Flemish influences can be seen in the "C" and "S" curves of the furniture supports and the use of cane inserts in chair backs. New types of furniture included the wing-back chair (originally made to recline for sleeping) bookcases and gaming table.
William & Mary (the age of Walnut) succeeded Charles II, and reacting to his corrupt reign, adopted a simpler style. Furniture ornamentation depended on veneers, marquetry (inlaid pieces of various woods veneered on a carcass of secondary woods) and lacquer. Chair supports were usually turned. (rotated on a lathe and shaped into various forms with cutting tools).
ROCOCO PERIOD 1700-1750
After the reign of Louis XIV, a transitional style, Regence, emerges, as a regent rules on behalf of the young Louis XV. Furniture is still heavy but features graceful curves, though not full-blown Rococo.. Trademarks are cloven feet on the legs and serpentine stretchers.
During the reign of Louis XV, a growing middle class wants beautiful homes, beautiful furniture and comfort. Out goes the massive, Louis XIV furniture and in comes a feminine, over-curvilinear furniture that reflected the influence of women in politics and literature. Madame de Pompadour actively promotes the arts especially of the Sevres porcelain factory. Her involvement with a Far Eastern goods importer spurs the popularity of Oriental decorative arts. She finances excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which later stimulate interest in neo-classical motifs in architecture and cabinet making. The smaller scale furniture also reflects a change in the room size. Instead of large multi-purpose spaces, rooms are now scaled down and have specialized uses, such as dressing rooms, libraries, music rooms, and conversation rooms.
The cabriole leg with a scroll foot is commonplace, and fanciful curves are seen in the serpentine and bombe lines of case pieces, cabinets, chests, and desks.
Queen Anne in the reaction to the straight lines of William & Mary, curves appear, although more restrained than in the Louis XV rococo. In chairs the cabriole leg now ends in the pad foot, the crest rail is slightly curved, and the solid splat has a gently curving silhouette. Walnut predominates, and mahogany appears on the scene. From 1720-1733, England imposes a high duty on mahogany, but, as soon as the tax is removed, the rich, reddish-brown wood is used for furniture exclusively. The fever for anything Oriental is seen in the number of porcelains displayed in homes and the popularity of lacquer, a varnish derived from trees in China and Japan. Usually black or red, it gives furniture a hard, shiny appearance.
George I style sees carved shells added to the knees of cabriole legs. The pad foot is replaced by the ball-and-claw foot, and the piercing of the solid back splat contributes to the transition from the Queen Anne to George I periods. The china cabinet and tilt-top, pie-crust table make their debut, displaying Oriental porcelains. Also, architect and designer William Kent returns from Italy, inspired by the Italian Baroque. His furniture features many architectural elements and has a massive feel, well-suited to the larger houses of the elite.
George II period is the age of Mahogany, Chippendale makes himself a name in history by publishing the first catalogue of designs, The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Directory. Now the general public can choose a design for him to carve or go to any cabinetmaker in England to have the designs copied. Chippendale’s name spreads throughout England and , later, the Colonies. For those who can afford his prices, he makes richly carved and intricate furnishings. For the general populous, however, he straightness the cabriole leg and designs simpler chair backs. Although Chippendale’s dates fall within the neo-classical period, style wise his designs have more in common with the Rococo. Less massive than the baroque Kent furniture, Chippendale designs are still heavier than those of Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Adam.
NEOCLASSIC PERIOD (1750-1800)
Toward the end of the reign of Louis XV, his mistress Madame de Pompadour became bored with the over-curvilinear style then current in furniture and interiors. She favored a change to straighter lines, while retaining the smaller and more delicate scale of the furniture. Today the style is known as Louis XVI.
By the time Louis XVI ascended the throne with his young, frivolous queen, Marie Antoinette, the people of France were already exhausted by the financial drain of royalty. The new monarchs’ extravagance only hastened the Revolution. Just one example was the “The Hamlet” a lavish, working farm and cottage the queen built so she could play farmer. It did result, however, in bolstering the popularity of pastoral motifs in both decorations and fabrics, such as toile. Classic motifs inspired by Pompeii and Greece- including fretwork and designs such as the acanthus leaf, laurel wreath and honeysuckle (anthemion)- also continued in popularity.
Legs on Louis XVI-style furniture are round or square with vertical or spiral flutings. At the top of the leg sits a square block with a carved rosette.
In the Directoire style, the transitional period between Louis XVI and the Empire style, there was strong Greek influence, and military motifs were introduced. In furniture as well as the decorative arts and interiors, the use of crossed swords, spears, drums, and trumpets bespoke the Revolution and foretold Napoleonic adventures. The Greek Klismos chair, with its fluid, outward sweep on the legs, was copied.
Empire This heavier style is associated with Napoleon’s self-appointment as ruler of France. A master promoter who saw his conquests as more important than those of the Roman Empire, this Bonaparte was the only ruler to commission a style, name it after himself, and artificially impose it on the public. Believing that Greek and Roman antiquities embodied the perfection of the arts, he incorporated many of the Classic motifs in the Empire style. The furniture is symmetrical and monolithic in feeling and relies mainly on the beauty of the wood grain and classic ormolu mounts for ornamentation.
George III (the Age of Satinwood) This is the last period of totally handmade furniture before the age of the Industrial Revolution which began during Victoria’s reign. Following Chippendale’s example, cabinetmakers Hepplewhite and Sheraton published their own separate catalogues of furniture design, The Cabinet-maker’s and Upholsterer’s Guide and the Cabinet-maker’s and Upholsterer’s Drawing-book, respectively.
Because of the strength of mahogany wood, these cabinetmakers could now create furniture that was lighter in weight and more delicate in design. Stretchers disappeared from chairs, which, during this period, also featured sabre legs with a slight taper. Chair backs were finely carved, Sheraton’s were usually square in shape, Hepplewhite’s more curving. Satinwood was now used with the mahogany for banding and inlays.
Hepplewhite was also greatly influenced by the French styles. Some of his chairs, for instance, have slender dancing cabriole legs. Carving was now sparingly used as furniture ornamentation. But marquetry and inlays of different woods as well as painted furniture were more common. The same classical motifs of Greek and Roman inspiration were used, namely festoons, wreaths, reeding and fluting.
The furniture made during the Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classic periods is some of the most beautiful in history. We have hit the high spots and made many generalizations in this brief series comparing furniture styles during this short span of only 150 years.
The study of antiques is a lifelong journey, and we hope we have inspired you to ask questions, read, and search out hands-on experiences. These are truly the best teachers.
*A three part series published in NFocus magazine March, April and May 1998