Louis XVI Style

Louis XVI Style

The Louis XVI style (called the neo-classical style in England) had replaced the rococo style by the late 1750s. The word neo-classical is a combination of the prefix neo, which means new, and the word classical. Neo-classical design thus reflected a renewed interest in the furniture motifs of ancient Greece and Rome. Neo-classical designers gradually eliminated the numerous curves of the rococo style in favour of the straight outlines of classical furniture. In place of elaborate rococo decorations, neo-classical artisans used thin pieces of plain wood arranged in geometric designs.

Much neo-classical furniture was inspired by classical motifs that were discovered in the mid-1700s by archaeologists in two ancient Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum. The cities had been buried by an eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

French architects designed many neo-classical buildings. The first example of neo-classicism in court circles was the Pavilion de Louveciennes by Denise Ledoux which was built for Madam du Barry in 1771. For the first time chairs with horseshoe-shaped backs were displayed. One of the most famous French neo-classical buildings is the Pantheon (about 1757-1790) in Paris which was designed by Jacques Soufflot.

In France the late 18th century was a period devoted to comfort, lavish trimmings and graceful drapery. Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette encouraged the neo-classical style (known as Louis Seize after the king), and prior to the Revolution the court and Parisian society lived a life of great luxury and elegance.

Jacques-Ange Gabriel was one of the leading neo-classical architects and his greatest work was the Petit Trianon which, though small, was perfect in scale and harmony. The main rooms were rectangular and decorated in soft grey or white while the wall panelling and mirror frames were arched and the mouldings classical. This style was widely copied and “small” was regarded as desirable in interiors. The magnificent fabric designs of Philippe de Lasalle and the restrained and formal decoration of Richard de Lalonde were also important influences during Louis XVI’s reign.

A distinctive feature of fashionable bedrooms was the exquisite hand-painted Chinese paper that had become the vogue of the 1740s. Paint effects such as trompe l’oeil, marbling and graining were also much used, as well as wallpapers simulating marble, stucco and architectural features. Other wall treatments included papering with stripes and geometric motifs, and painting and decorating with a border. Grand rooms were still sometimes hung with damask.

As the Revolution approached, neo-classical motifs developed a sinister symbolism of intent. The arts were increasingly inspired by antiquity, and arts and sciences were encouraged. The Directoire style which developed from the Louis XVI style at the end of the century was altogether a more austere and classical adaptation of Greek and Roman art. The cabinet maker Georges Jacob and the painter Jacques Louis David were considerable influences of the period. Interior decoration became much plainer, characterised by flat-toned plastered walls or fabric hangings with classical borders.

Louis XVI style in brief:

  • Classical interiors;
  • Fluted columns, painted panels with classical figures;
  • Swags and urns;
  • Mirror glass much used;
  • Striped wallpapers and fabrics introduced.

Louis XVI Furniture and Fabrics

By the 1770s more attention was paid to rooms for entertaining people. Until then, furniture had generally been placed around the edge of the room when not in use. However, it was starting to become fashionable to place furniture around the floor and near the fireplace instead. By 1780 it was essential for every sofa to have a table standing permanently in front of it. Large armchairs were designed to blend with the decor of a particular room.

Much of the furniture of the period was painted in matt colours. Of the unpainted furniture, satinwood was the most popular wood and was often inlaid.

Great advances were made in upholstery techniques at this time, with comfort a priority. These included air-filled mattresses and spring-cushioning. Seats were padded with a firm, resilient stuffing. In France the upholstery had a domed, stuffed shape. Chairs were still covered with expensive materials en suite with the rest of the room and were therefore protected with loose covers. In keeping with the classical style, square rather than round lines were fashionable. Just before the Revolution there was a vogue for draping chairs and sofas with festoons, fringes and tassels.

Louis XVI Furniture and Fabrics in brief:

  • With a classical feel, chairs have oval or square backs and tapered column legs;
  • Rounds tables are in vogue;
  • Velvets, brocatelle, damask, flowered silks, painted silks, stripes, toile de Jouy.

Colours

  • Terracotta popular;
  • Pale grey, blue, green, white and gold.

Windows

  • Long casements;
  • More elaborate curtain treatments, swags and tails.

Ceilings

Sky ceilings much in vogue.

Lighting

Candlepower, chandeliers, sconces, candelabras, oil lamps.

Louis XVI Buildings and Museums

Petit Trianon Versailles, Musée Nissim de Camondo Paris, Musée Carnavelet Paris, Musée Conacq-Jay Paris, The Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne, Versailles, Château de Bagatelle Abbeville.

© Adrienne Chinn - London