Sun King Style: The Decorative Arts of Louis XIV

Sun King Style: The Decorative Arts of Louis XIV

Anna Hoffman
Sep 17, 2009

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me the difference among the Louis styles, I could buy a few postcards of Versailles. So today, let's do a quick survey of the style of Louis XIV, the famous Sun King, who brilliantly used architecture, gardens and interiors to construct the ultimate image of majesty.

Born in 1638 to King Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, Louis XIV (image 2) became king at age 5, officially taking power in 1661. His policy, like other kings before and after him, was to centralize power under the crown, and reduce the privileges enjoyed by the nobility. Louis was just more effective at this than the others, and his reign was the historical high point of absolute power for the French monarchy.

Undertaking an official program of splendor, Louis took a modest hunting lodge of his father's and transformed it into Versailles, the most impressive château of its kind (image 3). He then moved his whole court into apartments there, keeping the nobility under his watch and within his orbit at all times. Removed from their own châteaux and seats of power, the nobles were constantly occupied with petty services and honors, like taking part in Louis' lever and coucher (waking and bedtime), and watching him eat his meals. Crucially, Louis also imported the most talented artists and artisans to France from Germany and Italy, making Paris the new center of luxury production of furniture, glass and mirrors, tapestry and ceramics, and Versailles its stunning showroom.

The decoration of Versailles was deliberately intended to evoke the king's divine right to rule, his brilliant leadership, and the legitimacy of his reign — propaganda not only for foreign diplomats and monarchs, but also for his potential enemies at court. Nearly every bit of decoration was programmatic, making direct or subtle reference to Louis' supremacy. For instance, the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors (image 1) is painted with depictions of various military victories he commanded, and the Salon of War is dominated by a marble relief of Louis being crowned by Glory while he literally tramples his enemies (image 4). Not the most subtle.

In the 17th century, interior décor was typically all wood, tapestry and textile. Chairs were boxy and throne-like, with high backs and stolid, turned legs (images 5 & 6). Under Louis XIV, the emphasis was on shimmer and shine. Gilding came into fashion, and was applied to wood furniture and paneling whenever possible, greatly enhancing the experience of these interiors, especially by candlelight. The interior of Versailles was veneered in marble and gilt wood paneling. Louis' favorite furniture makers, Pierre Gole and André-Charles Boulle (images 7 & 8), used marquetry techniques to inlay their designs with tortoiseshell and gilt or silvered bronze or ivory, yielding a brilliant, intricate texture. Louis also commissioned suites of furniture in solid silver — the Hall of Mirrors was, for a time, filled with silver candleholders, benches, etc. After a series of military failures (Louis was overreaching in his territorial ambitions, to say the least), all this silver furniture was melted down in 1689 to help refill the French treasury.

Louis XIV style wasn't all grandiose pomposity. The engraver Jean Bérain launched a vogue for "arabesque" patterns of exuberant scrolls that helped lighten the architectural rigidity of furniture forms (you can see his design in image 9, though arabesques also appear in images 7 & 8). Design historians love to cite the comments Louis made on a 1699 proposal for the decoration of his granddaughter-in-law's rooms, in which he criticized the plans as too old-fashioned and serious, indicating instead that the designers should keep the rooms youthful. The new direction for decoration in the beginning of the 18th century was thus indicated — more playful, less grand. Combined with a new interest in comfort and a natural reaction against the formality of Versailles, decoration and furniture became increasingly light and curvaceous, leading to the Regency style of the 1710s (you can see it getting a little lighter in images 8 & 10) and the Louis XV style of the mid-18th century, which we will explore next time.

Because of the over-the-top formality of Louis XIV interiors, it is only occasionally referenced in contemporary decoration — it is basically the complete opposite of today's desire for tasteful subtlety and casual comfort. I do see lots of Louis XIV-style chairs in the lobbies of fancy uptown apartment buildings. But I think the real legacy of the era is in hotel decoration. The new Mondrian hotel in South Beach is a great updating of Louis XIV's pompous excess, including a staircase that looks like it's made out of Boulle marquetry, and a mirrored elevator with a Bérain-style damask pattern (image 11). And the fancy restaurant, Le Meurice, at the swanky Hôtel Meurice in Paris is done up in a more deadpan Louis XIV version of knock-'em-dead elegance (image 12). Have you seen Louis XIV style in current decoration anywhere else?

(Images: 1 Versailles' Hall of Mirrors, from the official Versailles website;
2 Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinth Rigaud (17th c.), via the official Versailles website;
3 Garden façade of Versailles, photo by PhotoBobil;
4 Relief in the Salon of War depicting Louis XIV trampling his enemies and being crowned by Glory, photo by Ted Drake;
5 French armchair, 1650-1660, in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman;
6 French armchair, c. 1670-80 in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman;
7 Cabinet attributed to Pierre Gole from 1655-65, from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman;
8 Commode by André-Charles Boulle from ca. 1710-1732 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York;
9 Writing desk by Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt, with arabesque decoration designed by Jean Bérain, commissioned for Louis XIV's personal use around 1685. Note the interlaced "L's" on every available surface - on the desk's top, large interlaced "L's" are topped with a crown and a sunburst. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York;
10 Part of the permanent exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, showing the stylistic progression from early to late Louis XIV-style from left to right, photo by Anna Hoffman;
11 The staircase at the Mondrian, Miami, via Oyster;
12 Le Meurice, the restaurant at the Hôtel Meurice, Paris, via a Japanese blog that may be called Livedoor.)

Sources: I love this academic book about the construction of Louis XIV's kingly image, Peter Burke's The Fabrication of Louis XIV. I admit, I haven't read this one, but Antonia Fraser's other books are both entertaining and informative, and totally based on historical evidence, so her book Love and Louis XIV: Women in the Life of the Sun King sounds like the ideal combination of history nerdery and salacious fun (which is what we should all aspire to). The Met has a great essay on their website detailing furniture during Louis XIV's time. And Amy Azzarito totally scooped me and did a Louis overview on design*sponge this week. She and I will be duking it out on the playground after school.

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