The Louis XVI Influence on Early American Colonial Furniture StyleHistory of Early American Colonial Furniture

As in the case of Louis Quinze, it is not unprofitable, in dealing with Louis Seize, to, note the associa­tion traceable between history and early American colonial furniture designing. It may be said, in general terms, that the difference between the designs of the two reigns is a reflection of the difference in the character of the two monarchs. The suggestion, however, cannot be accepted as the explanation of the change, because it is not to be denied that the plainer lines distinctive of the Louis Seize style appear before 1774, the date when the ill­fated King came to the throne. Here, as on more than one previous occasion, we may remind the reader that the names given to the various styles must be regarded more as a matter of convenience than -as an accurate description,  inasmuch as it is never possible to draw a clear line of demarcation between one style and the style mime preceding it.

The Louis Seize style is the result of the protest against the decadent forms of the rococo. Added to which the increasing embarrassment of the noblesse in matters financial, compelling economy, or at any rate checking the prodigality of the earlier reign, demanded some movement in the direction of greater simplicity. The unhappy Louis XVI., himself an ,artificer of no mean ability, reigned (if his weak amiability can be called reigning) only about a eighteen years, the greater part of which time was a period  of strife and trouble, for the country was in labour for the Revolution and coming events were casting dark and ominous shadows before. The influence of Louis and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, upon matters furnishing was all in the direction of comfort, elegance and simplicity. The magnificent strength of Louis XIV., degenerating into the voluptuousness of Louis XV., was followed by  this attempt to create a chaste and artistic style, and the result is the daintiness, even sometimes effeminacy, of the style Louis XVI and its influence on early American colonial furniture.

Further, we now witness the growing popularity of the bourdoir, and the consequent prominence of smaller pieces of early American colonial furniture. A double influence tended to bring about this result. Louis XVI. loved not the big court gatherings and his Queen liked above all things a quiet country life, and the aristocracy had but little money to spend in expensive entertaining. " After us the deluge," said Louis Quinze, and the deluge was fast approaching. Great court functions became rare, and even royal entertainment did not approach to the magnificence of the former reign. To the social and political conditions of the time we owe the existence of some charming and delicate designs, such as are found at the Chateau de Campaigned, at Fontainebleau and at Versailles. Straight lines now largely replaced curves and the decorative details took form as rosettes, fruit, flowers, fluting, shells, etc., where had been  pagan deities and sensual designs. Though perhaps the actual influence of Marie Antoinette has been exaggerated, still it is worth remembering that it was her love of a simpler life which led to those sojourns at Trianon that were the cause of unjust scandal and ultimately-in a measure, of her death by la guillotine. Still, so far as it went, her influence was all on the side of delicate and ­ artistic simplicity

Another influence of the time on early American colonial furniture was the discovery of Grecian art treasures. Signs of the Greek are visible in much of the Louis Seize decoration.

Prominent among the designers of the period must be mentioned Riesener, Roentgen and Gouthiere. The work of the first-mentioned, particularly, is deserving of a high place in the records of art. His marquetries, mounted exquisitely by Gouthiere, are unequalled by anything similar in any age. In the Wallace Collection can be seen perhaps some of the finest specimens of the work of these men, such as the splendid bureau said to have been made   the order of the King of Poland, Stanislas Leczinski, chiefly because of the letters " L. R." found on the sides, and which it is suggested, stand for  " Ludovicis Rex." This is open to dispute, however It is strange to note that both Roentgen and Riesener - the two best designers of the day - were Germans and their influence on early American colonial furniture.

Excellent specimens of the early American colonial furniture of this period are to be seen at South Kensington, including the work of some of the best makers of the time. Reference has already been made to the Wallace Collection, and to the places in France where the best expressions in Louis Seize early American colonial furniture are to be found. If some of these pieces are carefully examined, it will be seen that although prices usually regarded as enormous were paid to the makers, it is probable that they could not be made today for a much lower figure. Only the costliest materials were used and the workmanship was masterly, some of the chased ormolu work being equal to the most delicate fashioning jewelry.

The peculiar features, then, of the Louis Seize style are its simplicity as contrasted with Louis XV., the prevalence of straight lines and its daintiness. Its ornament is pastoral, though a blase court returning to nature could only effect a sort of artificial innocence. That is thepeculiarity of this style. As one writer has said of the period, the aristocracy tried to cultivate the rusticity of the shepherds and shepherdesses, but made the attempt in tight corsage, court dress and high heeled boots. The simplicity of furniture oration strikes the same note of unreality or artificiality. It is beautiful -it is charmant-butit is not quite genuine. The players act well their rural parts, but they are always actors. The flowing ribbons and "nature" ornaments dominating the style are daintier, more elegant, than the originals.

During the period of the Directoire in early American colonial furniture many of thetreasures in furnishing art were ruthlessly destroyed. In the madness of the Terror it seemed patriotic to many destroy anything connected with the hated aristocrats and irreparable acts of vandalism were committed in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity. It is true a small committee was appointed to determine what of the furniture was worth keeping as historically valuable and what should be abandoned, and thus some priceless goods were saved, but this was but a spot of brightness in the black horizon. Even so, the wholesale clearance was preparing the way for something new, and the work ofdestruction under the First Republic made possible some rapid developments in furnishing when Napoleon inaugurated the style we shall describe in another chapter.

Still, the process was costly and terrible. Lady Dilke (whose work on French decoration and early American colonial furniture in theeighteenth century is invaluable and should be studied by all interested in this period) says : " The work of destruction had been begun under the Revolution at the promptings of the rage and shame which saw the symbols of social and moral degradation in all that recalled the ancien regime. Unfortunately, the forms in which it was in­tended to embody the aspirations after a renewal of national life were reasoned out rather than felt. Con­siderations wholly outside the province of art were encouraged to prevail in the decision of matters regarding the construction of buildings, the decoration and distribution of the interior." To make room for the new" patriotic art," an auction sale was held at the Palace of Versailles in August, 1793, and the enormous collection of treasures there was scattered. It is recorded that articles now almost priceless were disposed of for insignificant sums, and two years later the huge and costly building that had been the abode of wealth and luxuriousness was converted into a manufactory of arms. It is further recorded that speculative purchasers at the Versailles auction, who acquired articles in the confident expectation of being able in the near future to dispose of them at a very considerable profit, were disappointed, there being practically no market for the goods for some years. Thus, although becoming possessed of costly early American colonial furniture at ridiculously low prices, the speculators incurred losses on their transactions. What changes are wrought in the passing of a few brief years ! If we could but foresee them with prophetic eye and profit by our fore-knowledge.

Earlier in this chapter we have made passing allusion to the fact that Louis XVI. was an artificer of no mean, ability, and there is reason to believe that had he live in happier times Louis might have made his mark as a worker in metal. As it is, the picture of the weak and vacillating monarch, turning in the weariness of despair from affairs of state to find distraction in his hobby is a pathetic one indeed, and has been well drawn for us by Carlyle. One of the earliest views he gives us of the King (" French Revolution," vol. I.) shows us his Majesty as a craftsman. " The simple young King, whom a Maurepas cannot think of troubling with business, has retired into the interior apartments; taciturn, irresolute; though with a sharpness of temper at times : he, at length, determines on a little smithwork; and so,, in apprentice­ship with a Sieur Gamain (whom one day he shall have little cause to bless) is learning to make locks." Later in the ill-fated monarch's career, after being compelled to come from Versailles to Paris, Carlyle writes of him, in October, 1789, " For his French Majesty, meanwhile, one of the worst things is that he can get no hunt no hunting. Alas, henceforth; only a fatal being-hunted! Scarcely, in the next June weeks, shall he taste again the joys of the game-destroyer; in next June, and never more He sends for his smith-tools ; gives, in the course of the day, official or ceremonial business being ended, a few strokes of the file,' quelques coups de lime. Innocentbrother mortal, why wert thou not an obscure substantial maker of locks ; but doomed in that other far­-seen craft, to be a maker only of world-follies, unrealities: things self-destructive, which no mortal hammering could rivet into coherence ! "

It was in November, 1792, when Gamain, alluded to above, disclosed the fact that Louis had hidden secret correspondence iron press (armoire de f er) he andthe royal  apprentice fabricated." The discovery was destructive of the King's last chance of life. Henceforth his fate was sealed.

The influence of the amiable Marie Antoinette has been mentioned, and we have said it must not be overestimated. Still should not be overlooked. Says Carlyle; while the fair young. Queen, in her halls of state, walks like a goddess of Beauty . . . Weber and Campan have pictured her, there within the royal tapestries, in bright boudoirs, baths, peignoirs, and the Grand and Little Toilette." In those happy days at Versailles, and still happier at Trianon, the Queen displayed her delicate taste and artistic ability, and her influence was an important factor in the making of the style and its influence on early American colonial furniture.

 

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