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French Furniture and Decorations

Where design and craftsmanship artfully converge.

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French Furniture
& Decorations: Part ll
Renaissance Through Louis XVl

The purpose of this article and its examples is to provide a comprehensive and detailed view of the various periods or styles of French furniture since the Renaissance period. Having gone over the general characteristics and decorative features of Louis Xlll, this article describes the separate pieces of furniture that are appropriate for a room of this period.

Published on AUG 28 2023 11025PM
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Many of the furniture had pediments of an architectural character. These pediments were frequently broken, and in the centre on a pedestal stood an allegorical figure, or similar ornament, such as that of Justice shown in Plate II.,The flat bulb foot, plain or carved, so typical of this period, is also shown on Plates II.  The winged cherub, which is so often found as a decorative accessory, appears to splendid effect on the mirror on Plate II., under the cornice of No. 4 on the same plate

The only sense of severity of this period in the interiors is produced by the massive chimney-pieces and the somewhat monumental forms of wardrobes, presses, cabinets, armoires, etc. These are usually in two tiers, the lower one usually being solid, as on Plate II., No. 4. The frame, or open lower part, however, was winning its way into favour. A good example of the latter appears 10on Plate III., No. 1, and the more curious and ornate transitional form in No. 4 of the same plate. Another example of the armoire of this period, having drawers between two compartments of doors is shown on Plate IV., No. 4, the details of which are purely characteristic of this period. The full drawing on the same plate shows a smaller cabinet with drawers beneath the two doors. This is a very handsome example of marquetry work. The patterns of the inlaid wood under the cornice are very effective. It will be noticed that panelling plays a most important part in the decoration of these pieces of furniture. Many of them had pediments of an architectural character. These pediments were frequently broken, and in the centre on a pedestal stood an allegorical figure, or similar ornament, such as that of Justice shown in Plate II., No. 2. The panels were frequently richly carved with characteristic Louis XIII. ornaments, or with Biblical, allegorical or mythological subjects, such as Juno and the peacock, Judith with the head of Holofernes (Plate IV., Nos. 2 and 1), and Paris with the golden apple (Plate II., No. 3). The important part played by pillars, whether straight or twisted, in the decorative scheme is readily seen by a glance at the pieces of furniture on Plates III. and IV. No. 4 (Plate III.), called a credence, has three varieties of columns on the same tier. The flat bulb foot, plain or carved, so typical of this period, is also shown on Plates II., III. and IV. The buffet credence (Plate IV., No. 4) shows a peculiar combination of straight and twisted column. The shield in its broken pediment is flanked by the peculiar ear decoration characteristic of this period 11which has already been referred to (page 5). The winged cherub, which is so often found as a decorative accessory, appears to splendid effect on the mirror on Plate II., under the cornice of No. 4 on the same plate and on Plate III., No. 4. Several varieties of mascarons also appear on Plates II. and III.

Louis Xlll Furniture Wood Species: Oak, Walnut, Chestnut and Ebony

The woods of which these massive cabinets, chests-of-drawers, etc., were made were oak, walnut, chestnut and sometimes ebony. The Dutch were bringing great quantities of new exotic woods from the Far East, and the Spaniards were also introducing beautiful woods from the Central and South American forests and the West Indies. Mahogany, however, was scarcely known as yet in France, and was not generally used till a century later. The French, Germans, and especially Netherland cabinet-makers, however, were making full use of the advantages offered by the beautiful grains and tints of the new imported woods for the purposes of marquetry. Ebony, of course, was also extensively used for inlay and in the cheaper work blacked pear-wood was substituted. Ebony was too costly except for the richest kind of work. France was procuring it from Madagascar; the most highly-prized varieties, however, came from Ceylon, from which island green and yellow varieties were brought as well as the black. The workers of ebony gave their name to the whole craft of cabinet-making; the word ébéniste becomes generally used about this time.

In many of the larger pieces of furniture, the severe, rectangular and geometric character, the antique columns, pediments, broken pediments, garlands, pagan 12gods and goddesses, heroes, caryatides, grotesque figures, arabesques, vegetable and animal forms, imaginary beings half animal and half vegetable issuing from foliage, terms, and heads are ornaments and characteristics of the preceding reigns which have been carried over into the Louis XIII. period. The importation of Florentine and other Italian artists and workmen by Marie de Medici is clearly discernible in the great cabinets of this period. Not only were they inlaid with exotic woods, but also incrusted with precious metals and semi-precious stones. A cabinet of the Louis XIII. period made by a Florentine artist frequently exhibits the most astonishing prodigality of material as well as workmanship. One of more than usual sumptuousness is described as being composed of three tiers and being entirely covered with shell, inside and outside. An aspect of extraordinary richness is produced by pilasters of lapis-lazuli, cornaline ornaments, plates of embossed silver, paintings and miniatures, framings of delicately repoussé and gilded copper and a top enriched with stones and silver figurines. Such a cabinet by its elaborate workmanship required the services of many craftsmen—the cabinet-maker, the smith, the engraver, the lapidary, the mosaic-worker, the miniaturist, the sculptor and the ivory-worker.

Fine Examples of Italian-Made
Louis Xlll Furniture

We should naturally expect to find fine examples of Italian-made Louis XIII. cabinets among the possessions of the magnificent Cardinal Mazarin. In fact, the inventory of his goods mentions many such. One is thus described: “An ebony cabinet having a little moulding on the sides, quite plain outside, the front being divided 13into three arcades, in the middle of which are six niches, in four of which, in the lower row, are four virgins of ebony bearing bouquets of silver, the said doors being ornamented with eight columns of veined lapis-lazuli, the bases and capitals of composite order in silver, the fronts of the doors and the rest of the cabinet being ornamented with various pieces, viz., cornalines, agate and jasper, set with silver; and above the arcades are three masks in jasper and twelve roses of the same mixed with six oval cornalines; the remainder is ornamented with silver let into the ebony in cartouche and leaf-work.”

Another cabinet owned by Cardinal Mazarin was of ebony, the cornice ornamented with copper gilt, resting on four copper lions silver gilt, the base of lapis-lazuli with a dome between two pilasters ornamented with ten miniatures. In the centre on the door, Apollo was represented; on the front of the drawers, the Nine Muses; and, on the four corners of each drawer, a medal showing portraits of two ancient and two modern poets. These were covered with Venetian crystal and enclosed in a little cornice with festoons of copper, silver gilt. The cabinet was of two sections and stood on eight columns of pear-wood stained black. It was 3 feet, 1 inch high; 3 feet wide; and 1 foot, 2 inches deep.

Two other ebony cabinets, both known by the name of “Cabinet de la Paix,” also belonged to the Cardinal. One of these was made by Dominico Cussey. This was of ebony inlaid with metal and was almost entirely covered with jasper, lapis-lazuli and agates. In front, it was enriched by four figures representing heroes, of bronze gilt on a background of lapis-lazuli. In the centre, there was 14a portico supported by two columns of lapis-lazuli with base and capitals of gilt bronze, having on the frontispiece the arms of France crowned and supported by two angels—all in gilt bronze on a background of lapis-lazuli. In the depth of the portico, there was a statue of Louis XIII. seated and holding in his left hand a shield with the device of His Majesty. Beneath his feet, there were a carpet and a cushion,—all in gilt bronze. In the top part of the cabinet there was a little niche which contained the figure of Peace that gave the cabinet its name. The cabinet stood upon a gilded wooden base supported in front by two pilasters on an azure background, and four figures representing “the four principal rivers of the world.” The whole was 8 feet high; 5 feet, 3 inches wide; and 19 inches deep.

The companion cabinet of the same dimensions and proportions was likewise in two parts (à double corps); and likewise incrusted with jasper, lapis-lazuli and agates. In the large portico, the figure was that of Queen Marie Thérèse of Austria dressed as Pallas, and above were the arms of France and Spain supported by two angels. On the sides were four figures of the Virtues in relief, standing on a base of sculptured and gilded wood, which, instead of rivers, as in the companion piece, represented the four geographical divisions of the world.

Another of Mazarin’s cabinets that had formerly belonged to his great predecessor, Richelieu, is described as being decorated with wavy mouldings (guilloches) and compartments ornamented with various flowers, masques and half figures, the frieze bearing marine monsters and the middle of the doors having an octagonal 15panel in which is an Amphion on a dolphin. It rested on a base of four ebony columns united in front, and four pear-wood pilasters behind; and between the columns was a cartouche bearing the arms of the deceased Cardinal Richelieu. This cabinet was 5 feet in length; 1 foot, 7 inches in depth; and 5 feet, 10 inches in height. This was evidently an excellent typical specimen of pure Louis XIII. work, since it was made for Richelieu.

These rare cabinets were undoubtedly the origin of the Boulle furniture of the next reign, and they existed in great numbers until destroyed during the Revolution. The few that survived the ravages of the mob are preserved in museums and private collections.

The cabinets à porte (cabinets with doors) were, as a rule, more severe than the sumptuous articles just described. They depend far more upon the architectural form and talent displayed by the cabinet-maker and designer than upon the skill and art of the decorator. The first cabinets à porte date from the Renaissance, and received their name at the moment when one kind of bahut, placed on four feet, contested popularity with another kind that stood on a base with doors, and foreshadowed the form of those pieces of furniture called à deux corps. The construction of these pieces, no matter how fine the execution of their mouldings, panels, and doors, was as a rule massive, and was the work of the joiners and carvers instead of the ébénistes and marqueteurs.

One of these double cabinets is shown on Plates II. and IV., the upper part appearing in No. 2 on Plate II., and the lower in No. 2 on Plate IV. A carved oak 16bahut is shown on Plate IV., No. 1. Another walnut double cabinet is shown on Plate II., No. 4. A cabinet of another variety appears on Plate III., No. 1. This is made of oak and cedar inlaid with rosewood, and has two doors in front with projecting panels, and an oval moulding in the centre and one outside drawer with brass drop handles.

The “Pomeranian Art Cabinet” 

The cabinet-makers of Southern Germany also excelled in their art, and their Kunstschranken were sought for presents to princes. The most famous piece of furniture of this class is known as the “Pomeranian Art Cabinet,” now in the Chamber of Arts in Berlin. 

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The  Pomeranian Art Cabinet was made between 1611 and 1617 for Philip II., Duke of Pomerania. This cabinet is 4 feet, 10 inches high, 3 feet, 4 inches wide, and 2 feet, 10 inches deep. It is made of ebony with sandal-wood drawers lined with red morocco, and mounted with silver and pietra dura work.

The Pomeranian Art Cabinet was made between 1611 and 1617 for Philip II., Duke of Pomerania. Philip Heinhofer of Augsburg designed it and it was made in that town by Baumgartner. The elaborateness of this cabinet may be appreciated from the great number of workmen employed in its construction. These included three painters, one sculptor, one painter in enamel, six goldsmiths, two clock-makers, an organ-maker, a mechanician, a modeller in wax, a cabinet-maker, an engraver upon metal, an engraver of precious stones, a turner, two locksmiths, a binder and two sheath-makers. This cabinet is 4 feet, 10 inches high, 3 feet, 4 inches wide, and 2 feet, 10 inches deep. It is made of ebony with sandal-wood drawers lined with red morocco, and mounted with silver and pietra dura work. It is supported on four griffins with heads and manes of silver gilt but the real weight is borne upon a large scroll. The base is inlaid with small panels of lapis-lazuli, jasper, cornelian and agate, with plates of chased silver between 17them. The upper and lower friezes are composed of fruit, and other ornaments consist of female figures and boys playing musical instruments. There are also medallions of silver and Limoges enamel.

The Amoire Relegated to the Garde-Robes

The armoire did not lose its importance until the end of the Seventeenth Century, when it was relegated to the Garde-Robes; but the armoires, called placards, hidden 18under the panels of the room, remained. Mazarin had an armoire in his Garde-Robe 7 feet high and 5 feet 3 inches wide.

In the inventory of Madame de Mercœur, the garde-robe contains armoires, a bed and seats, and gives a hint of the dressing-table by “a table with drawer, having a housse of red serge d’Aumalle.”

One of the Chief Attractions of a Louis Xlll Room

The feature of a Louis XIII. room that formed one of its chief attractions was its tapestries and other hangings. Wherever the furniture would admit of it, a gay cloth was spread or hung. The parquet, boarded, or tiled floor also was partly covered with rugs from the Levant.


It is an age of rich textiles: not only do we find tapestry with its mythological, Biblical, allegorical, historical and floral pictures, but damasks, silks, velvets, brocades, serges and Oriental goods occur in bewildering variety. Their designs have never been surpassed in effect and elegance. When the materials were of one solid colour, they were usually ornamented with embroidery, braids, passementerie and gold and silver lace in addition to fringes. The latter existed in great number. They were of various widths and materials as well as designs. Sometimes fringes of two widths were used on the same drapery, and it was not infrequent that a fringe of gold was placed directly above one of silver, or the reverse. One of the most popular fringes was the crespine, a very narrow fringe composed of slender threads placed close together and sometimes tufted. This was used for trimming the bed-curtains, tablecloths and chairs (see Frontispiece). Another favourite fringe was the Milanaise or Napolitaine, composed of two 19kinds of threads, frequently silver and a coloured silk rolled together in the form of a spiral.

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The Lit en Housse (covered bed): The Correct Proportions and the Appropriate Materials
are Important

The bed is highly decorative. It is almost solely dependent upon its furniture for its effect, as the wood is seldom, or never, visible. The typical bed of the period is known as the lit en housse. It is the one that appears in Abraham Bosse’s engravings. We may note in passing that the word housse has the some origin as the housse or housings applied to the coverings of the horses in the Middle Ages.

The wooden framework is of comparatively little importance, after the correct proportions have been assured. The ciel, or canopy, which is supported by four posts must never quite touch the ceiling of the room. The posts are covered with the same material as the curtains, or painted in harmony, and occasionally they are left 20plain. Iron rods surround the canopy beneath the valance for the support of the curtains, which may be drawn up or down by means of cords and pullies. When closed, the lit en housse has the appearance of a square box. The lit en housse consists therefore of the four posts, the canopy or ciel, the headboard and the base around which the lower valance is fastened. The canopy is always lined and surrounded by a valance, which is repeated around the base. The straight curtains that hang from the canopy in rigid lines behind the headboard (or bolster if there is no headboard) are known as bonnes grâces. From the canopy and underneath the valance hang the three outside curtains. The counterpane, called courtepointe, or couverture de parade, is generally of the same material as the curtains or their linings. The bolster is always long and round. Pillows never occur.

The lit en housse is particularly easy to reproduce. It is merely necessary to be sure of the correct proportions and the appropriate materials. As we have already remarked in the days of Louis XIII., there was a great variety of rich textiles. A lit en housse was covered with any material from tapestry, brocade, damask, silk and velvet, to serge, or cloth, or even linen, or East Indian goods. The fringe, galloons, braids, laces, tassels, etc., for the ornamentation of the curtains and counterpanes are legion. When tapestry or striped goods were not employed, the silk, velvet, serge, or damask, etc., was usually decorated with handsome braid put on in the form of stripes, or squares, as shown in our Frontispiece and on Plate III., No. 3. The linings of the bed-curtains were, as a rule, of different material, and frequently of 21different hue from the curtains. The valance was of the same material as the curtains; but the lining of the canopy, the covering of the headboard (if there was one) and the bonne grâces matched the linings of the outside curtains. The braids preferably were gold or silver lace with gold or silver fringe to edge the curtains, the upper and lower valances and the rich counterpane. The valance and curtains may be arranged as shown on Plate III., No. 3, or as in the Frontispiece; but, in all cases, the four corners must be decorated with a bunch of plumes or panache, a “bouquet,” of silk ornaments, or a carved or turned wooden knob, the “pomme.” The courtepointe, or counterpane, must cover the entire mattress and fall to the floor on the three sides. The beds, to which we have just referred, also show the peculiar square and rigid shape of the bed when made and the long round bolster that always adorns the head of the lit en housse. The bed may stand lengthwise or “vu de pied.” A lit en housse of later date appears as a full drawing on Plate III. This is represented “vu de pied” and is furnished with a headboard. The latter is upholstered.

How to Reproduce a Lit en Housse

For the sake of suggestions for those who might wish to reproduce a lit en housse, we give a few descriptions of beds taken from some French inventories of the day. One of Cardinal Mazarin’s beds is described as a “green taffeta bed” and fortunately the dimensions are given. It was 6½ feet long and equally wide, so that it was a perfect square. It was 7 feet, 3 inches high. The housse was furnished with three curtains of cloth of Holland green lined with taffeta and garnished at the base with gold and silver fringe. A smaller fringe ornamented 22the sides. The head-board and the cases for the bed-posts were of cloth of silver lined with green. The four knobs decorating the tops of the bed-posts were covered with velvet and trimmed with lace, and each of these was surmounted by a “bouquet” of gold and silk on wire.


The Château de Turenne in 1615 contained two green velvet beds, one of which had its posts covered with green velvet; the other had a double valance of green velvet trimmed with gold and silver lace, a fringe of green silk and a fringe of gold and silver. The head was ornamented with a fringe of green silk mixed with gold and silver and a fringe of violet silk mixed with gold and silver.

The Château de Chenonceau contained a number of beds of this kind. One was a bed of green damask, en housse, the bottom and the headboard trimmed with a narrow fringe of green silk, while a deep fringe surrounded the valance. The curtains were fastened at the corners with shank buttons of green silk. Another was of green Carize, or kersey, ornamented with green silk lace and trimmed with a narrow fringe of green silk. A third was of violet Carize trimmed with a narrow fringe of violet silk; and a fourth of dun-coloured Carize 23trimmed with a fringe of dun-coloured silk. Then there were four beds of black and white drugget, trimmed with a fringe of black and white worsted. There were also many hangings for beds en housse. One was of needlework of many colours ornamented with a fringe of red, yellow and green worsted. Two hangings of tapestry, representing trees and flowers, were trimmed with a deep fringe of red and yellow worsted.

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