Rococo Loco! The Style of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour

Retrospect

Last week we looked at Louis XIV’s over-the-top Baroque style — so this week let’s look at the exuberant curves and graceful sensuality of the Louis XV style, also known as Rococo. This era was defined by comfort, luxury, and by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's most famous mistress (image 1).

Louis XIV died in 1715, when his great-grandson Louis XV (image 2) was only 5 years old. Until the new king turned 13, a regent (his uncle, the duc d’Orleans) led the government. The Regent moved the French court back to Paris from Versailles. As the aristocrats dispersed to their homes around the city, they reacted against the oppressive grandeur of their former life at Versailles by creating smaller, more intimate spaces in their houses, and decorating it in the new Rococo style.

The Rococo style is defined by S- and C-curves and asymmetry (image 3). Wall and ceiling decoration often included colorful, whimsical designs (image 4), and mirrors played with the perception of positive and negative spaces (image 5). Chairs and couches were now designed for comfort, with more cushioning (image 6), and sophisticated upholstery that could be changed out for different seasons (image 7). Furniture was heavily gilded, and often incorporated exotic elements like veneers of Japanese lacquer or Chinoiserie motifs (image 8).

Where Versailles was full of right angles and straight lines, the physical manifestation of the Sun King’s absolute power over his courtiers, the new décor was full of undulating curves and comfortable sofas (image 9), promoting intimacy, conversation, even amour. The center of society was no longer Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, but the salons of Paris (distinct from the Paris Salon), where philosophers and artists would gather in the homes of intelligent and socially ambitious noblewomen for food, discussion and pleasant debate (image 10). Even after Louis XV moved the court back to Versailles in 1722, the sense of decentralization and intimacy remained, with the king himself preferring small apartments to the grand formal apartments of the past.

Louis married the Polish princess Maria Leszczynska in 1725, and the two started having children at an astounding rate (seriously, 11 kids in 10 years — I’d watch that reality show). Louis XV’s womanizing was one of the defining characteristics of his personal life — and his political life, since it provoked widespread disapproval. He had mistress after mistress, including three sisters in a row (I would watch that reality show too, let’s be honest). His most famous mistress was Madame de Pompadour, who is also the most famous patron of the Rococo style (image 1).

A commoner, Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson to a wealthy family. Beautiful and intelligent, she was the host of her own salon when Louis arranged a meeting with her in 1745 at a ball at Versailles (he was disguised as a yew tree – long story), and the two fell madly in love. Around 1750, their relationship ceased being at all sexual (she was pretty frail and sickly) but she continued to live at Versailles as the official mistress, a partner of the heart and mind if not between the sheets.

Madame de Pompadour, like other fashionable people, embraced the Rococo style, which by this time had been flourishing for a couple decades. She was a great patron of artists and artisans of the time, favoring painters like Francois Boucher (image 1) and furniture makers like Jean-François Oeben (image 11). She was also largely responsible for the king’s support of the Sèvres porcelain manufacture (image 12), which still exists today. Although she is identified with the Rococo style, she was at court at a time of stylistic transition away from the Rococo and toward a more sober neoclassicism. You can see evidence of this in some 1760s furniture whose curves are less exuberant and shapes more symmetrical. Pompadour commissioned the neoclassical Petit Trianon from architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel (image 13) as an intimate retreat for the king and herself on the edge of the Versailles park. She died of tuberculosis in 1764, before the château was completed (it was enjoyed by Louis XV’s next and final mistress, Madame du Barry).

Louis XV lived for another ten years. His popularity, along with the overall popularity of the monarchy (for many reasons) continued to slip until his death in 1774 . He was succeeded by his grandson, Louis XVI, who is associated with the neoclassical style that we will explore next week.

Today, we can see traces of the Louis XV style in many contemporary interiors, adding some feminine curves and a sense of comfortable elegance (images 14 & 15). I like this neo-Rococo mirror from Anthropologie, and here's a lovely chair from Pottery Barn with lots of Louis XV-style curves.

Sources: For more on the salons, Dena Goodman's The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment is a scholarly but fascinating study;
Check out Nancy Mitford's famous and fun biography of Madame de Pompadour;
The Dangerous Liaisons exhibition catalog is from the fabulous 2004 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it is so gorgeous and beautifully written;
To see more French furniture from the Rococo era, hit the museums: there are amazing pieces at the Met and the Frick Collection in New York, among others.



Images: 1 François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, 1756, at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Note the Rococo furniture depicted around her; the ink, plume and books identify her as a woman of letters; 2 Alexis Simon Belle, Louis XV, in the Versailles collection; 3 Design for a table by Juste-Aurèle Meissonier, c. 1730; 4 Detail of a painted ceiling from the hôtel de Verrüe, the famously fashionable Paris home of the Countess de Verrüe, attributed to Claude III Audran, a renowned decorative painter, c. 1720; 5 Interior of Amalienburg, a hunting lodge built on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, Germany, for Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII and his wife, Maria Amalia of Austria, by François de Cuvilliés, 1734-39. The most exuberant Rococo designs were from Germany. Image from Nigel's Europe on flickr; 6 Bergère à oreilles, or Armchair with ears, c. 1760, in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 7 Fauteuil à chassis, or Armchair with removable cushions, c. 1730, upholstered in a Gobelins tapestry from c. 1760, in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 8 English chair with chinoiserie decoration, in the style of a suite of chairs made by John Linnell for Badminton House in the early 1750s. This chair is in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 9 Canapé à chassis, or sofa with removable cushions, attributed to Nicolas Heurtaut, c. 1753, in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 10 Jean-François de Troy, A Reading of Molière (c. 1728); 11 Mechanical table made for Madame de Pompadour by Jean-François Oeben, and completed after Oeben's death by Roger Vandercruse Lacroix (aka RVLC), c. 1761-63, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 12 Lidded Potpourri Vase by the Sèvres porcelain manufactory, c. 1761. Madame de Pompadour owned this form. At the Getty Center, Los Angeles;13 The Petit Trianon, a small château on the edge of the park at Versailles, built by Ange-Jacques Gabriel for Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour from 1762-1768, image from Tilo 2007 on flickr; 14 Living room designed by Jonathan Berger, featured in House Beautiful, photo by Francesco Lagnese; 15 Ornately Rococo headboard in a contemporary bedroom featured in House Beautiful, photo by James Merrell.

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