The Louis XVI style is one of the most prominent and most often imitated styles for furniture and interior decoration.
The style, of course, is named after the French King Louis-Auguste who succeeded Louis XIV and Louis XV, both of whom are also associated with their own iconic styles of furniture and interior decoration.
The Louis XVI style dates from around 1760 to 1790, and follows the ideals of the English Neoclassical style with which it coincided: a return to the principles and aesthetics of Classical Antiquity. The style is characterized by an emphasis on straight lines and classically inspired decorative motifs.
Opulence with Restraint
There is a restraint in decoration compared to the previous Louis XV and Rococo periods, though it is no less opulent or lacking in gilded surfaces. Louis XVI furniture features less floral marquetry, instead showcasing solid veneers of wood framed by straight classically inspired gilt bronze mounts, as shown in this pair of mahogany commodes in the manner of Adam Weisweiler.
The burgeoning style was supported and encouraged by the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, who commissioned the decoration and furnishings for her many apartments at the royal residences of Versailles, Saint-Cloud, Petit Trianon, and Grand Trianon in this latest fashion.
Effect of the French Revolution on this Important Furniture Period
The French Revolution (1789-1799) forced hundreds of millions worth of possessions and property of the Crown to be sold, making many of these pieces available on the art market. Items were destroyed or made it into galleries and museums throughout the world, such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Wallace Collection.
The importance, beauty, and rarity of these furnishings and objects d’art became increasingly widely recognised, as an international crowd of wealthy individuals and members of the aristocracy began to enthusiastically collect them. In the second-half of the nineteenth century, many faithful copies or similar models were commissioned for private collections, including many of the pieces pictured in this article.
The Golden Age of Cabinetmaking
The Louis XVI period is recognized as the “golden age of cabinetmaking”. The renowned names of this time included such French furniture makers or ébénistes as Jean-Henri Riesener, Martin Carlin, and Adam Weisweiler, and menuisiers (or carvers of chairs and tables) led by Georges Jacob, a dominant French furniture maker for almost 50 years.
Riesener (1734–1806) is one of the very finest furniture makers of the period. He secured royal patronage by 1771 and there followed a decade of great success until 1784. It was documented that he delivered more than 938,000 livres (French currency) worth of furniture to the French royal household – at a time when most workers earned between 70 and 450 livres a year.
Riesener supplied furniture of incredible luxury, demonstrating his ingenious sense of design and meticulous craftsmanship. Pieces included materials of imported Japanese lacquer with gilt, mother-of-pearl, and richly gilded ormolu mounts. A commode now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was made by Riesener in 1783 for Marie Antoinette’s Cabinet Interieur at Versailles, likely inspired this model by Henry Dasson, which is adorned with similarly finely cast gilt bronze mounts and imported black and gilt dusted Japanese panels.
Furniture of Incredible Luxury
This bespoke English secretaire was made after a model by Riesener, circa 1783, delivered for Marie-Antoinette’s private study at the château of Versailles, and which is now part of the Wallace Collection, London.
The central bronze mount on the drop-front depicts a classically inspired allegorical scene of ‘A Sacrifice of Love’, which was likely intended for the Queen’s amusement.
Adam Weisweiler (1744–1820) is notable for his designs and selling his works works through merchants, such as Daguerre, who had royal ties, and fellow ébenistes like Riesener.
He is especially well known for his trademark-interlaced stretcher, demonstrated on this fine escritoire after a design by Weisweiler. The significance of this piece is that it is similar or based upon the design of a secretaire attributed to Weisweiler, circa 1790, that is believed to have been one of the last pieces delivered by Daguerre for Marie-Antoinette at Versailles before the Revolution, and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Highly Valued and Collected
Giltwood chairs and settees were principal pieces of decoration and function in Louis XVI interiors, like this pair of giltwood armchairs. Chair frames were hand-carved out of wood, such as fruitwood, beech or walnut, and sometimes incorporated gesso, and adorned with decorative motifs of florals, foliates, garlands and classical figures. Upholstery was typically of hand-sewn silks in floral or classical designs, or damask or tapestry in colours of creams and pastel colours. Seating was either pushed against a wall or in the center of the room, likely accompanied by elegant and classically inspired side tables, conducive to conversation.
Although the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette did not last, the associated style of decoration and furnishings of this period have been long regarded and admired, and artifacts of this prominent aesthetic will continue to be highly valued and collected.