Two Centuries of French Elegance. Decorative Art of the 17th and 18th Centuries from the State Hermitage Museum Collection
On April 10th, 2012, an exhibit entitled “Two Centuries of French Elegance. 17th–18th Century Decorative Art” opened in the Hermitage Vyborg Exhibition Center. This exhibition presents the primary stages in the emergence and development of French decorative and applied art in the 17th-18th centuries, which had a tremendous influence on the development of that branch of the manual arts in all European countries and in Russia in particular.
Since the 17th century, France has set the tone for the development of applied art. By the middle of the century, a distinct style had been developed, which organically combined aspects of the Baroque, which was dominant in Europe at the time, with elements of Classicism. It is customarily called “the great style,” or “Louis XIV style.” The fact that a style of applied and decorative art was named in honor of the Sun King is a prefect reflection of the main direction of art at the time, which was connected with celebrating absolute authority. Royal manufactories and workshops were organized in the Louvre, in which the best artists of the time worked. They created espaliers, embroidery, silver items and furniture.
Versailles palace life, with its grand receptions and balls, defined the role of interior decoration. Architecturally shaped spaces were filled with painted ceiling lights and mirrors that were part of the walls, which were often decorated with marble. Espaliers and candelabras complemented and organized the interior, but furniture played the decisive role. It is precisely this area of applied and decorative art that reacted most quickly to stylistic changes. In the art of furniture, decorative features became to take center stage, sometimes at the expense of utilitarian qualities. Pieces from that period are characterized by the monumentality of their scale, the generality of their contours and the splendor of their decorations. There was not very much furniture in the grand halls of Versailles; it was limited to console tables, arm chairs, stools, cabinets and floor lamps, which we splendid in form and often gilded. Grand bedchambers took on great significance. This was connected with the fact that the royal “Levees” (morning toilet) and “Couchees” (retiring for the night) ceremonies were fully-fledged spectacles at which the court was expected to be present.
One new type of furniture in the mid-17th century was ebony cabinets. Decorated, carved ebony cabinets on high pedestals had an interior niche, which was often made in the form of an interior or grotto. A great quantity of these cabinets was created, and they could be seen in nearly every palace in the 17th century.
In the second half of the century, the Boulle technique was developed, which involved facing furniture with tortoise shell and copper. The most famous furniture maker of the period, André-Charles Boulle (1642—1732) did not invent this technique, but he did perfect it.
Interior walls were often decorated with espaliers dedicated to mythological, historical or religious themes. A manufactory was opened in the suburbs of Paris, in the home of the dyer Gobelin; it received the name Gobelin, and the espaliers created there were called by the same name. Charles Le Brun, the king’s court artist, managed this manufactory and created the sketches for series of Gobelin espaliers. At almost the same time, manufactories were opened in Beauvais and Savonnerie.
Aside from espaliers, embroidery enjoyed high popularity. It was used in interior decoration and clothing. At the same time, lace became widespread. Venetian lace makers were sent to the Lonrai[t1] castle near Alençon. It was here that the production of so-called Alençon lace was set up.
Silver items were very much in fashion in the 17th century: floor lamps, consoles, and, naturally, grand services. However, at the very end of the 17th century, a decree against luxury was issued, and many of the most beautiful pieces by master silver smiths were melted down. In order to understand how those pieces, created as projects by le Pautre and the other ornamentalists of the time must have looked, one most often has to look at how they were depicted in paintings and espaliers.
Ceramics enjoyed great popularity. In an attempt to imitate porcelain, which had yet to be invented in Europe, masters used to use blue-white coloring in their faience ware. Traditional French pieces, such as Limoges ware, continued to develop. However, they were losing their distinguishing features, yielding to the new demands of the time.
The 17th century was characterized not only by courtly festivities, but also by warfare. Weapons were decorated in accordance with fashion. On swords and pistols, we can see ornaments that were characteristic of the “great style.”
By the end of the 17th century, changes in the decoration of items of applied art can be observed. Jean Bérain influenced the development of decoration; his ornamental engravings include human figures, images of marmosets and other animals, positioned among lambrequins, overhanging garlands, forming a light, fanciful pattern. These so-called Bérain ornaments can be found in every sort of applied art, including furniture, espaliers, ceramics and silver.
The 18th century might be called the triumph of French applied art. At the beginning of the century, the grand halls of Versailles gave way to Parisian villas, created in accordance with new tastes, where walls decorated with rocaille flourishes smoothly transitioned into the décor of the ceilings, forming enclosed spaces.
The mid-18th century might be called the golden age of the development of applied art. Shell became the key element in decoration, which gave the name to the style which, in the mid-century, took on transformed forms in the shape of a flower with a broken circuit; at the same time, S-shaped flourishes, garlands and flowers were adopted.
Furniture in residential spaces became more diverse. They freely spread across space, forming small corners for conservation, sewing, tea drinking, and music-making; it was often so-called “courant,” movable furniture. “Meblant” furniture which stood alongside walls has been preserved. Architectural elements in the forms and decorations of furniture disappeared entirely, and it became a single ornamental organism, in which masters strove to conceal divisions with the help of bronze hasps.
Bronze came to be the favored material of the period. Interiors were filled with numerous brackets, candelabras and floor lamps. Bronze craftsmen reached their greatest achievements in the creation of diverse watch casings. Items made from silver remained as popular as ever. A large number of plat de menages with a variety of flamboyant contours and cruet-stands for various spices. Elegant bottle stands, made by the architect, engravers and jeweler of King Louis XV, Thomas Germain were produced in great quantities.
For many years, French jewelry was the subject of imitation. Various pendants, rings, broaches and earrings served to decorate costumes. The fashion for snuff led to great popularity for snuffboxes made from gold, silver, precious and semi-precious stones. Beauty-spot boxes were distinguished from snuff boxes merely by the fact that they contained mirrors. Large numbers of fans were produced.
The sophisticated nature of the costumes of the period also followed the sinuous lines of rococo. The silhouettes of both men’s and women’s clothing were light and feminine. So-called “contouche” dresses became fashionable, as did “Watteau” dresses, which had frills that fell down the back. Clothing was decorated with lace, which was also widely used for accessories. Aside from Alençon, lace was produced in Sedan, Argentan and Valenciennes.
In the 18th century, faience ware was replaced with porcelain; its secret had already been discovered in France in the late 17th century. Real application of this unique material began in the 18th century, first in Vincennes and then in Sevres. Porcelain was used to create entire services consisting of separate items. It was also in Sevres that the porcelain plastic arts began; it consisted primarily of small sculptures that were placed on tables and consoles to complement the décor.
Due to influence of the Enlightenment, with its striving for simplicity, clarity and love for nature, neoclassicism, inspired by antiquity, replaced rococo. In France, the style of neoclassicism bears the name of King Louis XVI, and covers the period from the 1760’s to the Great French Revolution.
In furniture, straight lines, circles and ovals stood in stark contrast to the broken forms of rococo. The contours of these pieces went from winding to rectilinear, corners were straightened out, divisions became logical and classical ornaments were used. Writing desks with drop-leaves became widespread; they are striking in their austerity of form, balance of proportions, and delicacy of coloristic execution. The French masters devoted particular attention to bronze decorations. The combination of mahogany veneering and gilded bronze corresponded to the style of the period.
Changes in form and décor can be seen in every sphere of applied art. The famous Orloff Service was ordered from the French silver smiths J.-N. Roettiers, R.-J. Auguste and L.-J. Leandric. This striking artifact of the 18th century includes large tureens with an elegant classical pattern, bottle stands, candelabras, trays and vessels for oysters.
Espaliers were once again actively used to decorate interior walls. It is true that these espaliers became more and more reminiscent of cloth paintings. Classical gods and goddess became the heroes of embroidered panels for furniture upholstery and austere, cadenced garlands decorated cloth created in manufactories in Lyon.
French neoclassicism ended with the fall of the French monarchy, to be replaced with a new style, Empire, but many of the achievements of the previous era served as sources of inspiration for the masters in the country was always the legislator of fashion.
At this exhibit, the collection of French applied art from the reigns of French kings from Louis XIV to Louis XVI is represented by remarkable examples of furniture, espaliers, embroidery, jewelry and ceramics. All of these pieces give the viewer a sense of the wealth and luxury of the French court during the heyday of the arts. These two centuries of French Elegance, the 17th and 18th, made France a leading country, which set the tone for the development of fashion and became the legislator of taste for a long time in Europe.
An illustrated academic catalogue has been prepared for the exhibit. Its curator is Tamara Vladimirovna Rappe, the head of the Department of Western European Applied Art of the State Hermitage Museum and holder of a Ph.D. in art history.
Based on T.V. Rappe’s materials