December 2021

Furniture and Decoration in the Louis XVI Style

Furniture and Decoration in the Louis XVI Style

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.

Figure 1. A Marble And Bronze Neo-Classical Portrait Of King Louis XVI. Previously with Butchoff Antiques, London.

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.

Figure 2. Grand Salon from the Hôtel de Tessé, Paris , ca. 1768–72.
Made by Nicolas Huyot. On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 528.

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 ormolu-mounted plum pudding mahogany occasional tables by Paul Sormani (fig. 3).

Figure 3. A Matched Pair of Side Tables in the Louis XVIth Manner, by Paul Sormani. Previously with Butchoff Antiques, London.

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 (fig. 4), Saint-Cloud, Petit Trianon, and Grand Trianon in this latest fashion.

Figure 4. Louis XVI's Clothes Cabinet, Château de Versailles. Courtesy of Palace of Versailles.

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. Many items were destroyed, while others have trickled down into today's galleries and museums throughout the world, such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Musuem, 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.

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 (20.155.12) for Marie Antoinette’s Cabinet Interieur at Versailles, likely inspired this model by Henry Dasson (fig. 5), which is adorned with similarly finely cast gilt bronze mounts and imported black and gilt dusted Japanese panels.

A Magnificent Louis XVI Style Commode Firmly attributed to Henry Dasson of Paris  Of gentle break-front form having radiused corners, being constructed in ebony, inlaid with brass fillets, richly decorated Japanese panels decorated in black lacquer and gold hiramaki-e, and sumptuously dressed in fire-gilt ormolu mounts of the very highest quality: rising from circular tapering toupie feet conjoined by a shaped front apron, centrally mounted with an ormolu foliate spandrel; over, a lockable door, with the original key, housing a large Japanese plaque depicting cranes in a lake setting, is framed within an ormolu frame cast with a running stiff leaf design, and having flanking smaller conforming doors, enclosing a shelved interior; above, a large ormolu tablet in the Neo-Classical taste, with flanking arcades fronts a concealed drawer opened by an interior spring loaded button; conformingly decorated to the sides, and surmounted with a shaped Carrara marble platform with a thumbnail moulding. French, Circa 1870  Dimensions: H: 40 in / 102 cm   W: 54 in / 136 cm   D: 20 in / 50 cm  This extraordinary piece of the cabinet makers' art draws inspiration from the French Royal cabinet makers of the ancien régime, Jean-Henri Riesener, Martin Carlin and Adam Weisweiler, all of whom supplied furniture for the Tuileries, Louvre and Versailles incorporating Japanese hiramaki-e work, a technique in use since the twelfth century that required an extraordinary accuracy, combined with speed of execution to attain a perfect result; even so, failures were frequent, with the resultant loss of the gold dust.  Henry Dasson Henry Dasson (1825-1896) established at 106 Rue Vielle du-Temple, was one of the most highly celebrated Parisien bronzier ébénistes.  His work is renowned for the fine quality of the metalwork, utilising the designs of the ancien régime, and adapting them to conform to the needs of the times.  He participated at the Expositions Universelle in 1878, receiving the laudatory critique of Louis Gonse, the Parisian arbiter of bon ton and quality, 'nouveau venu dans le carrière industrielle HENRY DASSON, s'est rapidement créé par la perfection de ces oeuvres une très haute situation a laquelle nous applaudisons chaleureusement', at which he exhibited a bureau in the Louis XVI manner decorated with Japanese panels; and in the Exposition of 1889, he was awarded the 'Grand Prix Artistique', and examples of his work were purchased by the English Royal Family. Made a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in 1883, he was elevated to an officier in 1889, following his success at the Paris Exposition of the same year.  Reference; Le Mobilier Français du X1Xe Siècle by Denise Ledoux-Lebard, published by Les Éditions de l'Amateur, expanded version 2000.
Figure 5. A Magnificent Louis XVI Style Commode, firmly attributed to Henry Dasson of Paris. Previously with Butchoff Antiques, London.

This bespoke English secretaire (fig. 6) 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 (F303). 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.

An Exceptionally Rare Secrétaire,  After the J.H. Riesener example in The Wallace Collection  Of upright rectangular form with canted corners; veneered in thuya-wood, and banded in purple-wood, exuberantly dressed with gilt bronze mounts of the highest quality, and having a Carrara marble top. Rising from bracket feet, the lower apron has a strong gilt bronze mount of stiff leaf acanthus foliates and volutes; the lower section has two lockable doors, with laurel wreathed escutcheons, the recessed panels, with gilt bronze frames, enclosing a shelf fitted interior. Over, the counter weighted lockable fall front has conforming recessed panels, mounted with a stepped gilt bronze indented band, the corners with rosettes of bay leaves, interspersed with berries. At the centre, an elliptical gilt bronze panel, depicting 'A Sacrifice to Love', a classically dressed woman presenting an infant to Cupid, who stands on a pedestal, wreathed by the scent from a brazier. The plaque has ribbon tied flowers, including roses, myrtle, narcissi and lilies-of-the-valley above, and below. The fall front encloses an interior fitted with drawers and pigeonholes.  The top frieze houses a drawer, having a centrally posited rectangular plaque, depicting three infants, one playing with a spaniel, one holding an open book, and handing a letter to the third infant, who wears the winged cap of Mercury, and has his caduceus at hand. The plaque issues sprays of roses, pinks, carnations and other flowers, with rosaces at the angles.  Over, a gilt bronze egg and dart band frames the shaped Carrara top. The canted front angles are pilasters, mounted with gilt bronze spandrels, cast as stiff leafed acanthus, having attached sprigs of oak leaves, berries and intertwined forget-me-nots, all within a gilt bronze stepped band.  Below, smaller acanthus leaf spandrels are dressed with chased volutes.   The sides are recessed and housed within running gilt bronze bands as seen on the lower doors, with a guard band betwixt the upper and lower sections.  Chubb locks, (marked with their London address, 128 Queen Victoria Street, and 'Detector', their special virtually unpickable lock) are fitted. England, Circa 1900  Dimensions: H: 54.5 in / 138 cm   W: 40 in / 102 cm   D: 17 in / 43 cm  Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806) born in Westphalia, and arrived in Paris in 1755, gaining employment at the atelier of Jean-François Oeben. After Oeben's death, he married his widow, Francçoise, and took over the workshop, became a 'maitre ebeniste' in 1768, and was appointed 'Furniture Maker to the King Louis XVI' in 1774.  His masterful interpretation of the French Neo-Classical manner, married to sublime workmanship is represented in museums world wide, including, the Victoria and Albert, The Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, The Wallace Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Getty Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art, Chicago Art Institute, the Frick Collection, Chateaux des Chantilly, Fontainebleau and Compiegne, and the Louvre, inter alia  The Riesener Secretaire in the Wallace Collection  Originally delivered, along with other pieces, in February 1783 for Marie-Antoinette's private rooms at Versailles, it was confiscated after the Revolution, and re-appeared in Russia in 1865, where it was purchased from Count Koucheleff Bezborodko, by Frederick Davis, and thence resold to the 4th Marquess of Hertford, where it is recorded in his Parisian collection at Rue Laffiite in 1867.   Ref 8548
Figure 6. An Exceptionally Rare Secrétaire, after the J.H. Riesener example in The Wallace Collection. Previously with Butchoff Antiques, London.

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 (fig. 7). 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 (58.75.57).

A Fine Escritoire After a Design by Adam Weisweiler  Constructed in amboyna, dressed with ‘Sevres’ porcelain plaques and gilt bronze mounts; rising from tapering circular legs, inlaid with brass, having bronze bases and capitols, and conjoined with an interlaced stretcher; the shaped apron, having a circular porcelain plaque and bronze foliates, houses a single cedar lined drawer, spring released by a concealed button; over, the secretaire, the drop flap fitted with a French lock, has a square bronze framed Sevres plaque, hand painted with roses within a  ‘bleu celeste’ and gilt reserve, and extensive entrelac foliates, opens to reveal a fiddle back satinwood interior, fitted with an arrangement of three upper short drawers, and a lower single drawer, fitted with ring pulls; gilt bronze caryatids, in the form of festooned Grecian maids bearing baskets of flowers flank the fall-front, and the panelled sides are set with stiff leaf gilt bronze castings, and over, a thumb nail moulded white marble top is dressed with a three quarter arcaded bronze gallery. France, Circa 1870  Dimensions: H: 54 in / 137 cm  |  W: 32 in / 81 cm  |  D: 17 in / 43 cm  Provenance Christie Manson & Wood sale of pieces from the late Edward Huntley Walker and Edward Wertheimer collection, 1932, lot 43   The Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its collection a similar secrétaire à abattant attributed to Weisweiler, circa 1787 (accession no. 58.75.57). It is presumed that this was piece was originally located at Versailles and owned by Marie-Antoinette. After the angry mobs stormed Versailles in 1789, the royal family lived under house arrest in the Chateau des Tuileries. During this time the queen consigned her treasured possessions for safekeeping. An inventory of 1794 indicating royal seized furniture records a ‘secretary with drop front, mounted with a large Sèvres plaque and ten medallions forming garlands.’   Our escritoire is of similar form to the model in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, particularly with the loop form stretcher and gilt cluster colonettes, and decorative design of the central large blue Sèvres plaque and ten gilt medallions. Another very similar escritoire is illustrated on pp 29 of Segoura’s ‘Weisweiler’, cf.
Figure 7. A Fine Escritoire, after a Design by Adam Weisweiler. Previously with Butchoff Antiques, London.

Giltwood chairs and settees were principal pieces of decoration and function in Louis XVI interiors, like this pair of giltwood armchairs (fig. 8). 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 (fig. 9), conducive to conversation.

Figure 8. A Pair of Fauteuils in the Louis XVI Manner. Butchoff Antiques, London.

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.

A Fine Guéridon in the Manner of Adam Weisweiler by Henry Dasson Constructed in Brocatelle d'Espagne marble and mahogany, with finely cast and chased gilt bronze mounts; the top tier of circular form supported on cluster legs of bamboo shape in the typical manner of Weisweiler. The columns joined by a concave-shaped lower tier supported by flared feet dressed with gilt bronze sabots. This celebrated model of gueridon exemplifies the height of taste at the end of the eighteenth century, it was given by Madame du Barry (1743-1793) to the duc de Brissac, delivered by Lignereux and Daguerre. Daguerre's inventory describes a table of corresponding description "Une petite table ronde forme de guéridon en racine de bois d'acajou poli sur trois pieds doubles en bronze doré façon de bambous avec entrejambe à tablettes et camé de porcelaine ornant la tablette supérieure prisée trois cent francs." (Segoura, Maurice, and Patricia Lemonnier. Weisweiler. Paris: Monelle Hayot, 1983.) Henry Dasson became renowned in the nineteenth century for his furniture based on historical designs, often incorporating stylistic elements created by Weisweiler (see Payne, Christopher. Paris Furniture: The Luxury Market of the 19th Century. [S.L.]: Editions D'art Monelle, 2018.). Christopher Payne maintains that "His [Dasson's] best work must be the combinations of elements from Riesener and Weisweiler in a modernised Louis XVI manner" (p. 315) as seen in the present gueridon. Signed and dated 'Henry Dasson. 1878.' French, 1878 Dimensions: H: 26 in / 65 cm  |  Dia: 15 in / 37 cm
Figure 9. A Fine Guéridon in the Manner of Adam Weisweiler, by Henry Dasson. Previously with Butchoff Antiques, London.

by Rainier Schraepen