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Mistresses, Milkmaids and Emperors: Influences on the furnishing of French châteaux

Madame de Pompadour and Queen Marie-Antoinette both exerted a profound influence on the design of 18th century French interiors, and Napoleon on the 19th century.

Madame de Pompadour, paramour of Louis XV (whose period, 1715-1774, is commonly referred to as Louis Quinze by antiques dealers and designers), encouraged the King to promote the fine arts of architecture, furniture and furnishings – it was the age of rococo (curvaceous, asymmetrical, organic style using natural motifs such as scrolls, floral and shell designs) and chinoiserie.  Decorating colours were delicate, although the carved furniture was often gilded.  La Pompadour even urged Louis XV to take control of the Sèvres porcelain factory; in the early 18th century, porcelain was valued more than its weight in gold.  The brilliantly coloured and lavishly gilded artefacts produced by Sèvres were incorporated in furniture designs as inset plaques and table tops.

French Chateau Style, Justin at Magus

French Chateau Style, from Justin at Magus.

Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI (Louis Seize, 1774-1793), has been given a great deal of credit for the rise of neo-classical design in the late 18th century; her extravagant additions in decoration and furniture to Versailles, and her own milkmaid fantasy at Le Petit Trianon, combined neo-classical straightness of line with the most luxurious of damask wall-coverings, silk hangings and painted furniture.  Pastoral scenes adorned walls and accessories.  All soon found their way in to the châteaux of the aristocracy.

The Revolution brought restraint and simplification to French design.  A transitional period, termed The Directoire (after the government of the day) in the 1790s, continued the geometric influences of neo-classicism on a less extravagant theme.  Napoleon’s meteoric rise, and his desire for imperial association with the cæsars of Rome, led the theme of The Empire style, which roughly spanned 1804 to 1830.  Marquetry and carving all but disappeared.  Columns and pillars came in.  The plain veneered surfaces of furniture were decorated with ormolu (carved bronze) mounts and design features such as the wreath, the bee (the Empress Josephine’s monogram), Roman eagles, Egyptian sphinxes and Greek symbols.  Classical curves, from the Roman and Etruscan models, created the ‘gondole’, or bateau-style bed and ‘lit repose’ (day bed).

French Furniture

French Furniture at The Decorative Fair.

After 1830, the restored kings of France had matters other than architecture and furnishings to occupy their money and energies, and French cabinet-making, whilst maintaining its quality, became in design terms a revivalist competition: Cathedral and Gothic style, Italian Renaissance, baroque and Boulle, rococo and neo-classical all saw themselves re-made in the era before Art Nouveau arrived.

The Decorative Fair is a rich source of French furniture and accessories of the 18th and 19th centuries.  An interesting technical detail: most French furniture carries the makers mark, due to strict French manufacturing laws. Unlike most English furniture, which rarely if ever does, hence the importance of provenance to a piece’s identity and value.

A very ornate carved and painted antique European mirror

A very ornate carved and painted antique European mirror.

French Chateau Style, Justin at Magus