France was the biggest and most populated country in 17th-century Europe. Although it was geographically surrounded by the Hapsburg hegemony in Austria, Spain, and the Netherlands (now modern Belgium), France under the Bourbon monarchies was a significant force. Through the accomplishments achieved during the first half of the century by the French ministers Richelieu and Mazarin, France had become a strong centralized state. Power rested undisputedly with the King by the time Louis XIV assumed rule independently in 1661.
Louis XIV and the Baroque Style
Louis XIV, along with his minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, embarked on a program to expand the arts in France. Their goals were to employ the arts as a propagandistic tool to promote the king's preeminent rank in France and Europe and to train French artists and craftsmen to surpass their Italian and Flemish competitors. Under the personal taste of Louis XIV, a court style developed that was deeply influenced by the Roman Baroque style. This style was based on the formal values of the classical orders of architecture, monumental scale, and the use of colorful and luxurious materials. The monuments, palaces, and sites of Rome were closely studied by French architects and painters.
Among the many architectural accomplishments created under Louis XIV, the best-known is the king's palace and seat of government, Versailles. At Versailles, the layout of the gardens and the plan of the interior spaces were controlled by symmetry using the palace as the central axis. The palace was an integrated whole where every aspect of the architecture, gardens, furnishings, sculpture, and painting coordinated in both subject and imagery to convey a unified message of absolute royal power. The Galerie des Glaces, or Hall of Mirrors, at Versailles combined the political agenda of the Crown with the achievements of French art and skill. The hall has 17 large windows overlooking the garden. Both light and the garden are reflected in 17 large mirrors along the opposite wall. The ceiling is decorated with scenes glorifying Louis XIV's military victories and the strength of France.
The success of the French Baroque court taste was due to careful orchestration on the part of Louis' chief minister, Colbert, who developed programs to organize and train French artists and craftsmen. Skilled foreigners were recruited to France for the purpose of training French apprentices. The arts and sciences were supported by the foundation of the royal academies. Foremost among Colbert's achievements was the manufactory at the Gobelins at the edge of Paris, which provided the Crown with furnishings for the royal palaces.
Louis XV and the Rococo Style
When Louis XIV died in 1715, the nobility, formerly attached to the court at Versailles, was now free of royal surveillance. Many of them chose not to return to their ancestral homes but to live in Paris during the Regency of Philippe II, duc d'Orléans who served while Louis XV was a minor (1715–1723). In this period French art in particular moved away from the classical order of the baroque in favor of a more intimate, graceful, and lighthearted style.
The term Rococo is applied to the style that developed in the first half of the 18th century. The name is derived from the French word rocaille, used for playful rock-and-shell garden ornamentation. The style is characterized by a use of pastel colors; the repeated use of curves; an abundance of ornamentation; the harmonious combination of naturalistic motifs, such as sprigs of flowers, with nonrepresentational ornament, often reminiscent of splashing water; and a tendency towards asymmetry.
Louis XV preferred an intimate social life rather than formal court etiquette, and this was followed by the members of his court at Versailles, echoing the new freedoms of Parisian society. To accommodate this intimate lifestyle, new types of furniture, such as specialized work tables, game tables, drop-front desks, rolltop desks, and a wide variety of chairs, settees, and stools were devised to suit smaller domestic interiors.
Louis XVI and Neoclassicism
The Neoclassical style first emerged in the 1750s and was fully developed before Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1774. The catalyst behind this new style was a strong reaction against the frivolous Rococo style by a number of influential critics who advocated a nostalgia for the nobler Baroque style of the Louis XIV period and by a renewed interest in classical antiquity.
As the Neoclassical style took hold in France, there developed an interest in the direct imitation of antique forms, rather than just the appropriation of classical motifs onto exisiting types of furniture and architecture. This interest was stimulated by new archaeological discoveries, extending from southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean to Egypt and the Near East, during the second half of the 18th century.
Decorative motifs that were most admired in the works of antiquity, like acanthus, laurel leaves, palmettes, small rosettes, festoons, flutes, Vitruvian scrolls, and medallions, were applied throughout the decorative arts. The lines of furniture became straight and severe. Ornamental details were placed under the control of the architectural elements of a composition. Rectilinear forms were substituted for Rococo curves, whimsical elements gave way to architectural embellishments, and symmetry replaced asymmetry.
This literal interpretation of the antique in France was also associated with a profound change in social outlook and a desire to restore the ancient Roman virtues of civic life—a desire that contributed to the movement toward the Revolution of 1789 and the abolition in 1792 of the monarchy and the society that supported it.
Guilds in France: The 1700s
In the 1700s in France, becoming a master craftsman required lengthy training, usually six years as an apprentice and three as a journeyman. To prove expertise at the end of that period, a craftsman then had to create a "master piece" and pay the guild reception fee. With this certification, the master had the right to produce goods for sale. Each trade had its own guild—ébébeniste (cabinetmakers), bronze casters and gilders, and silversmiths, to name a few.
In 1743, in an effort to control quality in the furniture trade, the ébénistes' guild began requiring makers to stamp pieces with their name. Usually hidden underneath or on the back of the work, these stamps were meant to be seen by guild inspectors, not by consumers. During their quarterly visits to masters' workshops, officials of the cabinetmakers' guild often placed a second stamp with the initials JME on the furniture to show that it had been inspected. The initials stand for the French Jurande des Menuisier-Ebénistes, or the senior members of the cabinetmakers' guild.
Conflicts between the ébénistes and other craftsmen's guilds often arose over objects whose production involved two or more specialties. For example, the complex process for making a piece of veneered furniture with gilt bronze mounts involved a carpenter building the carcass, an ébénistes veneering it, a sculptor designing the mounts, and a bronze worker making the mounts. The cabinetmaker Charles Cressent went ahead and produced the gilt bronze mounts for his furniture himself, leading to prosecution and fines for ignoring these strict regulations. Guild officials also raided unlicensed workshops, confiscating and then auctioning goods and equipment.