17th Century French Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

French furniture evolved from practical, movable wooden pieces to gilded, elaborate works of art during the 17th century. New areas of the world opened to trade, and new materials and decoration techniques became available as the Middle Ages ended.

The Glorious France

The 17th century brought sweeping change to Europe and France in particular. The Middle Ages ended and the period of France as a major world player dawned. This century saw the glory of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and the opening of trade with Asia and the Americas. Right around the turn of the 17th century, furniture developed into one of the major ways artists expressed themselves in France. This lesson will focus on the history and style of 17th Century French furniture.

Historical Context

This time period in France was one of great innovation and change. The ascension of Louis XIV, often called 'The Sun King,' led to the creation of one of the finest castles in Europe, Versailles. Here, we can still see an example of how gilded wood furniture and mirrors exploded in popularity around this time.

Artwork depicting the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles
Artwork depicting the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

Also happening in the 17th century was the opening of the Far East to trade, and the introduction of Oriental style and many new types of materials, especially varieties of wood. More were introduced with the exploration of the West Indies late in the century. These new woods included amboya, violetwood, satinwood, and mahogany. Native wood, like cherry wood and limewood, was used in new ways as well.

French Furniture Crafters

Before the 17th century began, the furniture makers of France were known as menuisiers, which translated in English means 'carpenter.' This is because the furniture was primarily made of local wood and included basic pieces such as seating, cupboards, and clothing storage. Right around the beginning of the 17th century, though, there was a big change in both French furniture and French furniture-makers.

A new breed of furniture crafter, the ebeniste, emerged. This name derives from ebony, a new wood that many of these master crafters began to use at this time. While the menuisier still existed, and was responsible for the basic furniture and carpentry, like door frames, the ebeniste elevated furniture-making to an art form. The ebeniste specialized in using ebony as a veneer or inlay on furniture that was made of more common forms of wood, such as oak. While this was usually done on elaborate cabinets, it could also be found on other items of furniture, especially in the wealthier households.

Late in the 17th century, a new material found its way into French furniture: metal. This led to two more types of crafters. The ciseleur-fondeur was responsible for metal that was melted and then formed into mounts and embellishments. The doreur was known for working with the most precious metal of all: gold. Gilding, or the process of using flakes of gold on furniture, became popular at this time.

Gilded wood in the palace of Versailles
Gilded wood in the palace of Versailles

Moveable vs. Immobile Furniture

Most of the furniture used in France at this time was still like that of the earlier centuries: movable. Because life in the Middle Ages had been so unsettled, furniture had to be something light that could be moved quickly when necessary. Popular styles included the canape, a small French sofa with wooden legs; the fauteuil, or armchair owned mainly by the wealthy, the armoire, which was used for clothing storage, and ambulantes, or small side tables.

As France moved out of the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, life became more stable. The French people, peasants and nobility alike, realized they could stay in their homes for generations. For the first time, the French began crafting immobile furniture, like cabinetry, cupboards, and console tables which were fixed to the wall. This furniture was often richly decorated with the newest styles, which were also new to the 17th Century.

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