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18th Century French Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

France changed a lot during the 18th century, and all of those changes were reflected in the people's taste in furniture. In this lesson, we'll explore French furniture from this century and see how it mirrored changes in the culture.

France's 18th Century

A lot happened in France during the 18th century. It was an extremely busy century, so of course there is one place we must look to understand what all of this change meant to France: their chairs. Actually, any furniture item will do. You see, as strange as it may seem, as France reinvented itself over and again throughout the 18th century, these changes were reflected in the furniture with which the French filled their homes.

The Louis XIV Style

The 18th century began during the reign of King Louis XIV, one of the most powerful monarchs in French history. Known as the Sun King, Louis XIV maintained a strict courtly culture amongst the aristocracy and had a huge say in the fashions of the time. Louis XIV style furniture (popular from roughly 1643 to 1715) was an art form of luxury and opulence, but with a dramatic and regal tone that communicated the grandeur, wealth, and power of the monarchy.

It's important to remember that furniture design is not immune from influence by trends in fine art, and the Louis XIV style was an extension of the French Baroque era of art (also largely supported by Louis XIV). Baroque art was serious in tone and character, but extravagant in ornamentation. Louis XIV furniture was rigid, rectilinear, and built with dark woods to capture this solemnity. Gold leaf decorations and motifs like shells, lions, and (of course) suns ensured that this furniture matched the opulence of the Baroque era.

Louis XIV-era cabinet
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The Régence Style

When Louis XIV died, Louis XV was too young to rule. Instead, France appointed a regent to rule the country. We call this brief period the Régence or Regency period. Without the strict supervision and micromanaging of Louis XIV, French furniture makers and French aristocrats expanded their tastes. They spent less time in the royal court and more time on their own estates, enjoying their wealth and unchecked power.

Regency furniture (popular roughly 1715-1735) drew a lot of influence from East Asian and organic motifs, representing a playful diversification of French aristocratic styles. Furniture was curvier, rejecting the strict right angles of the Louis XIV style for curves and legs set at odd angles. Decorative motifs had a romantic bent, and included dragons, shells, and rosettes.

Rococo Furniture

By the time Louis XV came of age, French aristocrats had developed their own artistic style known as the Rococo. Rococo art rejected the solemnity of the Baroque era, but kept the lavishness. It was a style punctuated by light colors, organic motifs and asymmetrical designs, capturing the idyllic life of aristocrats without strict courtly standards, who spent their money on pursuing their own delights.

Rococo furniture matched Rococo attitudes about entertainment and relaxation
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The most important version of Rococo furniture was the Louis XV style, which was popular after Louis XV came of age, roughly 1723-1774. Like Rococo art, the furniture of this time was more lighthearted, featuring asymmetrical designs and was lots of ornamentation. Lacquers helped promote a sense of opulence, and furniture frames were conceived as a single, curvaceous line that resulted in elegant and playful designs.

Comfort, however, was the number one priority. Cushions were larger, and dozens of new types of chairs emerged to specifically fulfill entertaining needs. Chairs for card playing, for example, were designed to fit the appropriate clothing, while dining chairs had to accommodate different styles of dress. Elite women also became more active in French politics at this time, and furniture styles traditionally associated with women (such as the roll-top desk) emerged as courtly necessities.

Neoclassical Furniture

The 18th century ended with the reemergence of Neoclassical art, which was defined by a renewed fascination with ancient Greek and Roman forms and motifs. There were two dominant neoclassical furniture styles in France, and they were associated with drastically different ideologies.

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