Louis XVI Style: Revolutionary Road

published Oct 1, 2009
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Finally we come to Louis XVI, the third and last in our series of 18th century French kings named Louis. The most popular of the Louis styles today, its clean lines add a historical patina to contemporary interiors. To me, this is the most interesting moment in French interiors, with the taste for furniture indicating a shift in values as well as aesthetics on the cusp of Revolution.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Louis XV died in 1774, leaving the monarchy to his grandson, 19-year-old Louis XVI, and his Austrian wife, Marie-Antoinette (image 1). Louis XVI (image 2) was, let’s face it, kind of a loser. He was notoriously indecisive, and lacked the social polish of his predecessors. He was famously unable to fully consummate his marriage until seven years into it – historical evidence indicates (seriously) that after a birds-and-bees talk from his brother-in-law, Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, Louis finally understood what exactly the whole thing entailed, and Marie-Antoinette was pregnant within a few months. Louis XVI’s favorite hobbies were hunting and locksmithing (um, locks and keys plus sexual malfunction? Paging Dr. Freud!).

Marie-Antoinette was 14 in 1770, when she was brought over from Austria to be Louis XVI’s bride, a marriage intended to reinforce the new alliance between Austria and France (who had been at war as recently as 1743). Given the longstanding enmity between the two countries and their peoples, Marie-Antoinette really never had a chance. Detested by many at court before she ever set foot on French soil (though the commoners were at first dazzled by her fair looks and regal bearing), her detractors suspected that she was a spy, or at least that she held unnaturally strong political power over her hapless husband. This perception was strengthened by Louis’ unusual monogamy – unlike his predecessors, he took no mistresses (I guess when sex is that mystifying, who needs a mistress?), and some historians believe that because the king’s attention was not divided among several women, but concentrated in the queen herself, she became the symbol of dangerous, foreign, feminizing influence over the king, and, therefore, over France itself.

This era was the apex of Enlightenment thought, and the height of Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s popularity – he wrote about how the purest people are the least civilized, and that modern court or city life led to moral degradation. Accordingly, the new style among the elites was to affect a ‘rustic’ aesthetic. This is evident not only in the queen’s “casual” muslin dresses (a new style – image 1 – that she learned from the Duchess of Devonshire), or in the faux-dilapidated dairies and farms dotting fancy estates (including her own infamous Hameau, image 3), but also in the furnishing style of the age.

Meanwhile, the ancient towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, preserved under ash since Vesuvius’s volcanic eruption in AD 79, were unearthed in Italy in the 18th century. Archaeologists found an incredible amount of intact furniture there, and the dissemination of this authentic classical style launched a craze across Europe (e.g. image 4). The interest in ancient Rome and Greece was also related to new ideas about the role of government – these civilizations were a major inspiration first for the American revolutionaries – who, it is important to mention, were financially and militarily supported by Louis XVI – and then later for the French revolutionaries (in trying to weaken Britain, Louis helped seal his own fate).

The late 18th century, then, was the perfect moment for Neoclassicism. Combining exciting archaeological discoveries with a backlash against the excesses of the Rococo style, a new moral and philosophical emphasis on simplicity, and a political interest in ancient Greece and Rome, Neoclassicism furnished the Queen’s apartments even while it heralded the end of the monarchy.

Louis XVI furniture is characterized by elegant, straight lines (image 5). Instead of the S-curves of the Rococo chair leg, Louis XVI chairs have straight, tapered legs, and are often fluted in reference to classical columns (image 6). Other classical motifs, like lyres (image 6), wreaths and incense burners (image 7), cornucopias, and even sphinxes and pharaohs (images 8 & 9) are often visible on Louis XVI furniture. While much Louis XVI furniture was still gilded and lacquered, occasionally incorporating patterns or pieces from Japan, China and Turkey, there were fewer and more subtle gilt mounts and more visible wood. Wood marquetry was still popular, but now in more regular, geometric patterns (image 10). The most fashionable furniture makers were using unadorned mahogany, a newly available (and very expensive) import from Britain’s colonies in Central America and the West Indies (images 6 & 8).

Meanwhile, France’s national debt – rising exponentially for decades – was out of control, and a series of financial ministers only made the problem worse. Combined with the increasing unpopularity of the monarchy generally, and of Louis XVI specifically, the fiscal crisis led the nobles to revolt against the king in 1789, instigating the Revolution. Both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined at the Place de la Concorde in January and October 1793, respectively.

We can see Louis XVI-style furniture in many fashionable interiors today (images 11 & 12), and you can find great reproductions at places like Restoration Hardware and Wisteria. Its lines are elegant but subtle, delicate without being too feminine, and laden with the symbolism of the historical and philosophical transformations of the Enlightenment.

FLASHCARDSa quick recap of furniture styles
Louis XIV – rectilinear and more massive, often with ‘arabesque’ motifs in tortoiseshell and gilt bronze or silver, bombastic and intended to inspire awe.
Louis XV – Rococo S- and C-curves, lots of gilding and exotic motifs, delicate and feminine, with an emphasis on intimacy and comfort.
Louis XVI – elegantly tapered straight lines, neoclassical fluting and other motifs, more unadorned woods, a suggestion of expensive simplicity.

Sources: Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie-Antoinette is an immensely entertaining read – Sofia Coppola based her wonderful movie, Marie-Antoinette, on it. Caroline Weber wrote a fabulous biography of Marie-Antoinette through the lens of fashion called Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. I mentioned it last week, but the exhibition catalog from the Met’s “Dangerous Liaisons” show incorporates beautiful examples of Louix XVI furniture and clothing from the Met’s collection. Or you could go to the Met and spend some time in the Wrightsman Galleries there, which are filled with furniture from this era – so gorgeous it’s almost worth getting beheaded for…

Images: 1 Marie-Antoinette à la Rose, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783). This shows the casual, Neoclassical-style dress that the Queen would wear in her gardens at the Petit Trianon. The portrait was shown at the Paris Salon of 1783, but taken down immediately because of an outcry that the clothing was not appropriate to a queen – some critics complained that it was a portrait of the Queen in her underwear; 2 Louis XVI, by Joseph Duplessis (1775); 3 The working farm at Marie-Antoinette’s Hameau, the faux-rustic village built for her by architect Richard Mique in the gardens of the Petit Trianon in the early 1780s, photo by Anna Hoffman; 4 The Temple d’Amour, a classical-style folly in the gardens of the Petit Trianon, built for the Queen by Richard Mique in 1778, photo by Anna Hoffman; 5 Neoclassical armchair from c. 1785, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 6 Mahogany and leather sidechair by Georges Jacob c. 1780-90, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 7 Louis XVI-era period room (the Hôtel de Cabris) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo from Rosemanios on flickr; 8 Armchair with Egyptian motifs, attributed to Georges Jacob c. 1790, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 9 Armchair by Jean-Baptiste Sené, made for Marie-Antoinette’s dressing room at the château of Saint-Cloud in 1788, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 10 Mechanical table by Jean-Henri Riesener, made for Marie-Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles in 1778 for the occasion of the birth of her first child, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 11 Living room designed by Dana Lyon, featured in the May 2009 issue of House Beautiful (image 42 of 47 here), photo by Reed Davis; 12 Dining room designed by Karyl Pierce Paxton, featured in House Beautiful (image 3 of 16 here), photo by Kerri McCaffety.