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French Furniture: Distinctive Periods and Styles

Where design and craftsmanship artfully converge.

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French Furniture
Periods & Styles
Renaissance Through Louis XVl

The ceilings, wall-decorations and chimney-pieces proper to each period are described from contemporary authorities and illustrated from contemporary pictures and prints. The furniture is described from specimens existing in many collections and museums; and frequently in the words of the great makers and designers themselves. Included here are many partial inventories of representative homes and many descriptions of separate sumptuous beds and other pieces of furniture typical of each period. Any one can learn here how to drape a bed, or a window; what valances, curtains, lambrequins, cords and tassels are appropriate, and what materials, braids and nails may be used.

Published on AUG 11, 2023 11:25PM
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The age of Louis XIII. saw the transformation of Paris, and the application of the decorative arts to private life. The new manners in this period finally break with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is a transitory, but decisive, period with its own originality. The feature of a Louis XIII room that formed one of its chief attractions was its tapestries and other hangings. 

Louis Xlll Period: An Age of Rich Textile

In decorative art, the form of Renaissance known as Henri II., which owed so much to the taste and influence of Diana of Poitiers, lasted for three quarters of a century. There was practically no change till the regency of Marie de’ Medici, when she invited Rubens to Paris. In 1625, he had completed his Luxembourg works, and the commencement of his visit is generally regarded as the date of the beginning of the pure Louis XIII style. Flemish influence, therefore, is the keynote of this modified Renaissance style. Marie de’ Medici called many of her own countrymen from Italy to design the new works, and Rubens himself had spent eight years in Mantua, and therefore Italian taste is often apparent in the Louis XIII style, but is quite secondary to that of Flanders. The great fame that Rubens enjoyed and his splendid reception in Paris gave his work unquestioned authority with the contemporary French decorative artists. His painting affected furniture with its luxuriant, robust and somewhat heavy qualities.

Vouet, during this period, occupied a somewhat similar position to that held by Le Brun during the Louis XIV period. It is interesting to note the importance now held by goldsmiths in decorative art. A great deal of the furniture of the day was designed by them. Architects also regarded furniture as an integral part of the interior decoration of their apartments, and therefore designed the important pieces. For instance, Crispin de Passe (1570–1642) shows, besides his chimney-pieces (which being the most important architectural feature in the room, always received careful artistic treatment from the architects), chairs and bedstead. The latter still retains a good deal of Renaissance feeling, with carved posts, open-carved colonnade in the high foot-board and bulb feet. It is somewhat reminiscent of Du Cerceau’s design.

The General Characteristics and Decorative Features 

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.


The window curtains and portières were also trimmed with braid and fringe. They hung from cornices of oak or walnut, carved to accord with the rest of the furniture. The centre of the cornice was decorated with a cartouche; or a figure of some kind, very frequently a mascaron, and beneath this hung the curtain or the lambrequin. The curtains were of tapestry, brocade, brocatelle, lampas (a kind of brocade), Genoa velvet or damask lined with silk or serge and bordered with braid, lace and fringe of gold, silver or silk, or worsted. The lambrequin used toward the end of the period consisted of a series of denticulated scallops or square flaps, shaped like those that bordered the tops of tents and pavilions, or in the form of the housings on which the knights’ arms were emblazoned.

One of the important decorative details and ornaments is the cartouche which also follows the prevailing taste: it is wider than it is high, and its field has always a somewhat exaggerated convex curve. The rounded form also predominates in the cut-work fringing the frame, and protuberance is also a noticeable feature of the balusters that are made use of in the various parts of furniture that require columns or supports.


The Characteristics of Louis Xlll Chairs

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The most characteristic chair of Louis Xlll period is the short, square and rather squat, yet well-proportioned chair and which in England is known as “the low leather,” or “Cromwell chair. 

The characteristic chair of the period (see Plate l ) is short in the back. The larger pieces of furniture follow the same general form, being divided into two bodies by a horizontal cornice, shelf, or other line at above half the total height of the piece of furniture. The cabinets, architectural in form, have greater width than height, and rest on a frame or table with legs turned spirally and connected. This style of cabinet was introduced early in the period.


A glance at Plate I. will show that the general outlines of the chairs are square. The usual set of seats comprised fauteuils, or arm-chairs; chairs with backs; folding-stools (pliants); and a lit de repos. In the ancient inventories the term “chaises meublantes” is given to chairs with covered backs, while the chairs with wooden and open backs are called “chaises cacquetoires” and “chaises perroquets.” The most characteristic chair of the period is the short, square and rather squat, yet well-proportioned chair that appears in nearly every one of Abraham Bosse’s drawings, and which in England is known as “the low leather,” or “Cromwell chair.” This chair is shown in the Frontispiece and also on Plate V., while variants appear on Plate I. as No. 3 and as a full drawing. This chair may be covered with leather, serge, silk, damask, brocade, velvet, tapestry, or needlework; but in every case the material is fastened to the woodwork by means of large brass, gold, or silver-headed nails, and the back and seat are both usually ornamented with a short fringe, as is shown in the Frontispiece. No. 2 and No. 5 on Plate I. are fauteuils of the period, No. 5 being an Italian chair decorated with a fringe. Many of the fauteuils of the day were “in the Italian taste,” that is to say entirely covered with velvet and trimmed with lace or fringe. 

The framework of the arm-chair was sometimes visible, as shown on Plate I., No. 2. It was of pear-wood stained to resemble ebony, walnut, oak, or it was painted in a colour to harmonize with the covering. Among Cardinal Mazarin’s many chairs were two fauteuils and two chairs with backs, entirely covered with velvet nailed on the wood. These were ornamented with a braid of medium width, as were also the folding-stools, or pliants. The wood of the latter was painted red. We also hear of two fauteuils trimmed with lace and fringe of medium width, the wood being entirely covered with the velvet; at the bottom of the back there was a double row of the crespine. The six folding-stools that went with these arm-chairs were also garnished with lace and fringe, but their frames were painted green and picked out with gold. The seats were covered with green serge. Another set of furniture consisted of six fauteuils, six chairs with backs, six pliants and a lit de repos. These were covered with needlework ornamented with a silk fringe of many colours. The frames were of pear-wood stained black, and they were decorated with twisted columns.

The Characteristics of Louis Xlll Tables

Many of the handsome tables were of a fashion that was continued through the succeeding reign, being of 33richly carved and gilded wood with hind’s feet or with term legs with or without stretchers. Some of them were enriched with gilded bronze, and incrustations and marquetry work of shell, copper and other metal. The tops, like those of the preceding reign, were frequently of marble or marquetry. They were also covered with a cloth and a housse of leather, serge, tapestry, etc. The table-carpet, as a rule, reached to the floor and was garnished with a narrow or wide fringe. This was the housse, and above it was a second cloth (see Frontispiece). These table-coverings were either simple or rich, according to the purse or fancy of the owner. Cardinal Mazarin, for example, had four table-coverings of crimson damask flowered, bearing the arms of his Eminence; four of “red crimson” Turkey leather trimmed with gold fringe and gold tassels and lined with red taffeta, and a green flowered damask table-carpet with four sides, lined with green cloth and trimmed with gold fringe à la Romaine. One of the handsomest varieties of table appears as a full drawing on Plate II.

Although the console is known during the reigns of Henri II. and III., it is in the reign of Louis XIII. that the phrase table en console appears in the inventories. The console was derived from the credence, and was even in its earliest form a large table with a marble top, jutting out like a bracket and serving to support a bust or vase. The three visible faces of the console were in the early days frequently supported with chimæras, fauns, etc. The word table was gradually dropped and the article was known as console.


A variety of table, known as the guéridon, was also popular. This is a small round table mounted on a stem or baluster that ends in three legs (Plate III., No. 2). It was made of various woods, sometimes of pear-wood stained black and sometimes painted. It was of great convenience. Sometimes it was used for cards; but more often it held a lamp, or candelabra, or a refreshment tray.

Louis Xlll Decorative Arts

The vases also are very corpulent in form, which effect is exaggerated by their very small bases. The faces of the mascarons are very chubby, and are unusually lacking in expression. The decorative garlands, which are composed almost exclusively of leaves and fruits, very seldom of flowers, are arranged in heavy swags, almost always disposed in a semi-circle. Pears, and more especially apples, are the fruits most frequently met with. They are usually accompanied with short leaves without serrated edges. The garlands are of uniform thickness throughout; they are quite heavy. Cornucopias symmetrically disposed are often found on the frontons. It is a peculiarity of these cornucopias that notwithstanding the considerable size and quantity of the fruits overflowing their mouths, they are so slender that they might almost be taken for curved trumpets. Though rich and very abundant in detail, this ornamentation does not show much relief, because the composition, as a rule, does not present any important or dominant motive. In the decoration it is seldom that the living form plays more than an entirely accessory part. The bold round mouldings now dispense with the ornaments and details of preceding styles. In many cases, these mouldings frame panels in which the square form predominates. When the square is extended into a rectangle, its dimensions are always greater horizontally than vertically. The hexagon, so much employed in the Henri II. style, is now supplanted by the octagon, which is frequently to be noticed.

The chandeliers were usually of brass and hung from the centre of the room. Of course, candles were inserted in the arms. Candelabra and small candlesticks were also used to give light, and sconces were frequently attached to the walls. Pictures were framed and hung directly over the tapestries, as shown in the Frontispiece. Their frames differed but slightly from the frames of the mirrors, specimens of which appear on Plate II. as a full drawing and as No. 1. Another frame appropriate for either a picture or a mirror is seen on Plate IV., No. 3.

Having now gone over the general characteristics and decorative features of this period, we may proceed to describe the separate pieces of furniture that are appropriate for a room of the Louis XIII style. First let it be said, however, that it is a mistake to suppose that a Louis XIII room need be in any sense bare, cheerless, or lacking in comfort or convenience. The impression gained from the charming engravings of Abraham Bosse is one of cosiness as well as elegance. Read more

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