Today’s column is a continuation of my series. If you’d like an accompanying handout of the entire series along with photos, send me an email.
Finally, I’m getting to those confusing Bourbon kings – Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. The 17th century was largely good for France. It had a healthy population, its army had increased by 400 percent, and it manufactured its own goods like glass, carpet, fabric, clothing, furniture, and even began to develop a gourmet cuisine. Craftsmen were highly paid and a middle class, of a sort, grew.
Overseeing this was King Louis XIV, who, like King Francois I, supported Renaissance art. In fact, he out-designed Francois’s hunting lodge, Chateau de Chambord (in previous column) with his own hunting lodge, Chateau Versailles.
The interiors of Versailles are overwhelmingly elaborate — large curved forms, twisted columns, complicated shapes, red and gold brocade, gilded plaster, oversized sculpted ebony and walnut furniture, heavy marbling and a mammoth hall of mirrors. The gardens span 2,000 acres and were designed in the formal style known as “jardin a la francaise.” Versailles’s main architect was Louis Le Vau, its interior designer Charles Le Brun, and landscape architect Andre Le Notre.
The style of this period is known as Baroque and began with St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The Italian Renaissance had ended, in part, because of the Reformation which had left the Catholic Church feeling vulnerable. The Church went on a campaign to re-invigorate its followers’ faith. Since most were illiterate, this effort was expressed in art and architecture—full of emotions and messages done in an extreme way. It was overkill on overdrive.
Because of King Louis XIV’s success, wealth and power, the strong and expressive Baroque style carried over and suited him during his reign.
Louis XIV’s great-grandson, Louix XV, succeeded him in 1715. He broke up much of France’s territories and relinquished New France in North America. These decisions damaged France’s power, weakened its treasury, and sowed the seeds of the French Revolution.
Rococo became the style during Louis XV’s reign. Although elaborate and complex like Baroque, it was lighter, less serious, more delicate, and smaller in scale — like Louis himself. Rococo is recognizable by its asymmetric compositions and cabriole legs (s-shaped). In England, Thomas Chippendale adapted and refined this leg, known there as Queen Anne.
Rococo lost favor in the 1760s when Voltaire criticized its superficiality and degeneracy. Such elaboration led to a renewed appreciation for the purity of Classical design. The Neoclassical style would appear under the reign of his grandson, Louis XVI.
Louis XVI, who had supported the American colonies’ fight for independence, made poor decisions during his reign which finally bankrupted France. Never socially popular anyway, he turned a deaf ear to the people and met his end, along with his wife, Marie Antoinette, at the guillotine.
The Neoclassical style saw its second wave after the death of Louis XVI. It became stronger and more dedicated — perhaps because of the new excavation sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The second wave became was known as Directoire or Empire under the rise of Napoleon.
In England, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, and brothers, Robert and James Adams, became noted furniture makers along with Thomas Chippendale. In Austria, a style in the Neoclassical sense developed known as “Biedermeier.”
Although the 17th century had seen a powerful and wealthy France, England was on the rise with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.