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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

French Furniture in the Eighteenth Century: Seat Furniture

Due to the high level of specialization and the strict regulations, both menuisiers and ébénistes had to work with members of other guilds, such as designers, carvers, gilders, upholsterers, and gilt-bronze mount makers, to complete their furniture. In order to make a chair, for instance, first a design or drawing was made by a draftsman or designer. For a special commission, a small model of wax or wood could be produced for the approval of the client before the menuisier would be able to start cutting the basic form of the chair. Working mostly in walnut or beech, the chairmaker was allowed to carve only simple moldings or floral decoration, leaving the more elaborate ornament to a sculptor. Although chairs could remain in natural wood when they were waxed or varnished by the menuisier, most were painted or gilded by specialized painter-gilders. Before the actual gilding, the so-called reparure was done to refresh some of the carved elements lost under the layers of preparatory gesso and to add additional details. Finally, an upholsterer would cover the seat furniture with leather, silk, velvet, or other materials and fine trimmings. Since only the menuisier was obliged to sign his work, the names of the other craftsmen are, unfortunately, rarely known. Both the gilding and the upholstery would add a substantial amount to the chair’s total cost. It was also the tapissier-garnisseur (upholsterer) who was responsible for selling the completed chairs in his shop.

Seat Furniture: Baroque and Régence
Many chairs were ordered as part of a larger suite, which could consist of both side and armchairs (chaises and fauteuils respectively), bergères (chairs with closed arms), settees, stools, fire screens, folding screens, and a (day) bed, all with matching upholstery. Following new stylistic developments, the shape, outline, and decoration of seat furniture changed in the eighteenth century. During the late Baroque period, the chairs tended to be formal, with a high straight and rectangular back. The arm supports joined the seat at the fore-edge; the legs, placed straight at the front corner of the seat rail, turned, or in baluster or bracket shape, were linked by stretchers. The upholstery, fastened with brass nails, would cover most of the chair’s frame. Slowly the shape of chairs began to change, becoming more graceful and comfortable. With the arrival of the Régence style (ca. 1710–35), the strict rectangular form of the chairs was loosened up by including symmetrical curves that also affected the shape of the legs, which were now placed at an angle. The use of stretchers was gradually abandoned. The supports of the armrests were no longer placed directly above the legs but set back to accommodate the fashion of the hooped dress. The decoration became freer, and larger areas of the frame were carved with diaper patterns, shell motifs, rosettes, and other ornaments in flat relief (1983.526).

Seat Furniture: Rococo
During the Rococo period (ca. 1730–60), the graceful movement that first appeared in furniture of the Régence was further developed until the entire frame appeared to dissolve into a continuous flowing, curving line. High-relief carving of twirling leaves, asymmetrical C- and S-shaped scrolls, flowers, and fanciful elements resembling rocks and shells would mask the areas where the cabriole legs and sinuous curving arm supports were joined to the seat rail (66.60.2). The quest for greater comfort and informality was reflected in various new chair types. The fauteuil en cabriolet with a concave back and overstuffed seat cushion, in contrast to the more formal fauteuil à la reine with its flat back, was not placed against the wall but in the center of the room. Other new models included the marquise, an enlarged armchair in which two people could sit intimately, and the duchesse, an extended lounge chair used for reclining. Some chairs were made for specific purposes, such as the fauteuil de bureau, or desk chair, often with a pronounced semi-circular design and sometimes fitted with a rotating seat and an additional leg in front. Fauteuils à coiffer, or hairdressing chairs, had an indented back to facilitate the brushing of a lady’s long hair. Later during the eighteenth century, special chairs known as voyeuses (from the verb voir—”to see”) were introduced. They were used by male spectators of card games who would sit astride while resting their arms on the padded top rail. Since these chairs were inappropriate for women, a lower variant of this chair, the voyeuse à genoux, was made for them to kneel on.

Seat Furniture: Neoclassicism
A reaction against the curvilinear shapes of the Rococo with its exuberant and whimsical carving took place around 1760, when more classical elements were introduced as the result of a renewed interest in antiquity. The changes occurred gradually, and a number of chairs are in the so-called transitional style, often combining a still-curving but usually more restrained outline with new ornaments such as interlaced bands, urns, or acanthus leaves in the Neoclassical manner (1982.60.89). During the Neoclassical period, most chairs featured geometrical shapes with square, rectangular, or oval-shaped backs and straight turned or spirally fluted legs. The armrests were placed once again straight over the legs at the fore-edge of the seat rail, which was often curved. The frames of the back and seat were usually molded or carved with a continuous pattern, while a central ornament such as a medallion or wreath of flowers sometimes surmounted the crest rail (41.205.2). Some of the most talented menuisiers were Nicolas Quinibert Foliot (1706–1776), Nicolas Heurtaut (1720–1771), Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené (1748–1803), and Jean-Baptiste II Tilliard (1723–1798), all members of well-known chairmaking families. Another important chairmaker was Georges Jacob (1739–1814), who supplied elegant sets of seat furniture to Queen Marie Antoinette and other members of the French royal family (1977.102.13).