Home Dealers Calendar Articles Fine Art Database About AFA Login/Register
Home | Articles | Oui, Three Kings

To the novice, the fine furniture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France presents a bewildering array of stylistic variations that can be intimidating to attempt to identify. In particular, applying the correct numeral to each of the styles of furniture named for the three king Louises can be as daunting as discerning a Bohkara from a Heriz for those unfamiliar with the floorcoverings of the Middle East. In truth, it’s not quite as difficult as one might think. The following generalizations, while broad, reflect the major differences in Louis XIV, XV, and XVI furniture. As with many historical European furniture periods, the descriptive names used to identify particular styles are often associated with whichever monarch was reigning at the time. These labeling conventions were applied by collectors and scholars in later periods. At the time of their manufacture, objects were usually noted as being “new” or of the “latest fashion.”

Fig. 1: Louis XIV fauteuil with “mutton-bone” stretcher, ca. 1710. H. 471/2", W. 233/4", D. 311/2".
Courtesy of Dominique Chaussat, La Rochelle, France.

While there were other monarchs in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, the trinity that’s held in such regard by those in the field of antiques begins with Louis XIV, who reigned from 1661 to 1715. Of the three styles, the furniture created during his rule is the heaviest in appearance (Fig. 1). Carvings and overall framework exhibit a formality and a visual presence, and are large in scale. The overall shape of the furniture and, more specifically, its ornamentation is symmetrical and often features hooved feet, scallop shells, and fleur de lys. Furniture intended for the royal residences of Louis XIV, which included Versailles, often bore his marque—a mask imposed on a sunburst—reflecting his self-appointed persona as the Sun King, the center of the universe. One of history’s most famous cabinetmakers, André-Charles Boulle, rose to prominence during this time as the king’s ébéniste. His particular technique of inlaying thin, lacy strips of metal into wood, tortoise shell, and other materials is still referred to as Boulle-work.

The next era in French furniture design is composed of two parts: The Régence (not to be confused with English Regency) and Louis XV. The Régence style (1715–1730), associated with the rule of Philippe II, duc d’ Orléans (reigned 1715–1723), is considered a transitional phase displaying a diminishing emphasis on formality blended with a hint of future exuberance. The style connected with Louis XV (reigned 1723–1774), in vogue from 1730 to approximately 1765, marks the ascendancy of the rocaille, or rococo, style in French decorative arts (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: One of a pair of Louis XV fauteuils, ca. 1750. Courtesy of G. Sergeant Antiques.

In Louis XV furniture there is a delicacy and grace in both shape and ornamentation unseen in earlier French furnishings. Instead of the bold symmetry of the Louis XIV period, a lyrical asymmetry appears, not only in the decorative carving and moldings but also in the manner of their execution. Highly embellished surfaces are often ornamented with flowers, doves, and oriental/exotic motifs rendered in a rhythmic, naturalistic manner. A recurring theme in the surface ornamentation of Louis XV luxury case furniture is the profuse employment of highly figured veneers inlaid and book-matched in myriad designs. Furniture was mounted with ormolu, decorative mercury-gilded bronze corner guards, pulls, and escutcheons that were figural, naturalistic, or abstract in form.

It was during this period that many of the bombé case pieces reached their interpretive zenith, with their distinctive compound curves that undulate from top to bottom and side to side. These flowing lines are also evident in the seating furniture, especially in the shapes of the seat backs and the curved cabriole legs. Seat heights of Louis XV chairs were made slightly lower to accommodate the fashionable lady’s attire of the day and to give the impression of reclining comfort as opposed to the stiffer upright posture of Louis XIV pieces. Indeed, Louis XV is the most sensual of the three furniture periods. Its appeal extended into the nineteenth century Louis-Philippe and Second Empire interpretations of the style.

Fig. 3: One of a pair of giltwood Louis XVI fauteuils, first quarter of the 19th century. Courtesy of N.P. Trent Antiques.

Furniture associated with Louis XVI (reigned 1774–1793) spans from 1765 (to include the Transition period of 1765–1774 when elements of Louis XV and Louis XVI styles mix) until around the time of his death by execution during the French Revolution in 1793. The fully developed Louis XVI style is markedly different from that of his predecessors and is thus perhaps the easiest to distinguish (Fig. 3). The most noticeable variations are the introduction of designs derived from classical motifs and imagery such as columns, trophies, urns, and wreaths. The bulging bombé yielded to a less complex semicircular or rectangular profile, and most notably, the cabriole, or S-curved, leg is no longer to be seen; instead, the legs are invariably straight in axis, whether they were turned on a lathe or cut as a rectangle with flat molded planes, and are slightly similar in appearance to the English Hepplewhite leg. Symmetry was once again back in fashion, and the foliate and arabesque carving became far more restrained and delicate; with ornamental carving (knotted ribbons and flower garlands) tending to accent the surface of a piece rather than form an integral part of the structure. Chair backs were frequently round or slightly ovoid, or else were rectangular with or without a semicircular pediment.

When differentiating between the furniture named for the three kings, the key point is to observe the underlying form of each piece. Look beyond the ornamentation and surface finish to the overall structure. Keep in mind that design changes were not abrupt, especially in the provinces, and that hybrids of the styles also occurred.

Dan Cooper writes about antiques and historic architecture for various publications, and re-creates historic interiors for private clients. He is associated with the historical design firm of J.R. Burrows & Company, Rockland, Massachusetts.

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.