The Three Louies

Three chairs embodying three style periods named after three French kings: Louis XIV (Quatorze), Louis XV (Quinze), Louis XVI (Seize).  In English we call these periods Baroque (seventeenth-century), Rococo (early eighteenth), and Neoclassical (late eighteenth).

A Louis XIV style chair

Theatricality is a word often associated with the Baroque, and a Louis XIV chair is formal and majestic.  Here is a painting from the Baroque period that was once in the collection of Louis XIV, Nicolas Poussin's Rebecca at the Well, painted around 1648...



Speaking of theatricality, the scene looks as if it were happening on a stage.  The figures are divided into three groups (left, right, and center), and the central figures, Rebecca and Eliezer, are in the foreground and bookended by blocky architectural forms.  There's a lot going on but Poussin arranges it formally for maximum impact: we see Rebecca's moment of humble realization that she is to marry Jacob..  I love the swagger of the woman on the right who leans on her water pot and looks on jealously.  The formality, the solid geometric forms, and the flair are found also in a Louis XIV chair.


The elaborate theater of the reign of the Sun King gives way to the more relaxed style of the reign of Louis XV.  The aristocracy left the grand halls of Versailles for the more modest (it's all relative) rooms of their Parisian townhouses.  The style of furniture reflects this change: it is smaller, more capricious, with many curvilinear forms.



A Louis XV style chair


Before Louis passed he commissioned Antoine Coypel to paint a Rebecca at the Well to take the place of Poussin's at Versailles.  Coypel's painting, with its loose brushwork and a Rebecca who, in contrast with Poussin's seems to execute a dance move and acknowledge her own fabulousness, has a much lighter mood, reflecting the shift in style toward the Rococo.



The style of the reign of Louis XIV - husband of Marie Antoinette - was inspired in large part by the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The excavation of these two Roman cities - buried under lava and volcanic ash since the year 79 - gave eighteenth-century Europeans a clearer picture of what ancient Roman life, painting, and decorating looked like.  And this created a fashion craze.  This style is found in a Louis XVI chair: away with curving cabriole legs, in with legs straight and fluted (grooved) like ancient marble columns.  Overall the forms are more geometric, less organic.


A Louis XVI style chair


Classical subjects had been popular in European art for centuries when Jacques-Louis David painted his Oath of the Horatii (1784); however, there was a shift toward stories of Roman history reflecting stoicism, heroism, and self-sacrifice.  



Three brothers swear on their swords - held by their father - that they will fight to the death for Rome, and the women... well, David seems to have clear ideas about gender roles.  Like Poussin, David stages a scene as if in a play, but he takes clarity to another level, again arranging the figures in three groups,  but using simple geometric architectural elements to more emphatically divide them.  As in our Louis XIV chair, classical elements arranged with balance and clarity. 


All three of these chairs were made in the past hundred or so years, but testify to the longevity of the styles of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

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