From Louis XV to the Empire Style: Three Changes in French Design

Tric trac table

A Late Louis XVI Period Tric-Trac Table, France, circa 1790.

The period from the death of Louis XV (in 1774) to the fall of Napoleon (in 1815) stretches forty-one years; yet, in that relatively short time span, it is possible to trace the evolution of three significant shifts in French fashion and taste, reflecting the transition from aristocratic ancient régime to the self-made Empire of the first Napoleon.

The Louis XVI style (Louis Seize) developed as a reaction to the Baroque and Rococo styles of Louis XV, which had dominated French architecture and design since the mid-17th century. ‘Baroque’ and ‘Rococo’ were originally terms of unflattering criticism: baroque (possibly from the Portuguese, meaning ‘flawed pearl’), used by detractors to describe the ‘absurdly complex’, and ‘Rococo’ a term which first came into use in the 19th century, then dismissed as an overload of ‘twisted ornamentation’: both came to exemplify all that was best in grand 17th and 18th-century French design: both -rather theatrical – styles a very Catholic reaction to the more restrained Protestant North.

Louis xv walnut centre table
An 18th century Louis XV Period Walnut Centre Table, France, circa 1750.

This charming country Louis XV centre table shows the influence of the Rococo style: with the scalloped edge of the apron (i.e. the front panel connecting legs and surface) and the curvy, rather animated ‘cabriole’ legs – full of movement, life and zest.

Louis xvi console table
A Late 18th Century Louis XVI Period Mahogany Dessert, France, circa 1790.
In contrast, a late 18th century Louis XVI mahogany console dessert displays symmetry: straight lines, fluted columns, and a marble top: for the archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii inspired a neo-classical revival in the later 18th century.
At the same time, Anglomania took hold in the years before the French Revolution: English butlers, English dogs and English carriages became tout le rage. Outdoor sporting pursuits and that very English ‘Sport of Kings’, racing, enjoyed modish support: the Duc d’Orleans and the Comte d’Artois imported fine horses from England- all of this, essentially, an idealised, aristocratic view of the natural world, exemplified by the English Landscape tradition; nature tamed by a sense of order- as seen at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire and Capability Brown’s Stourhead in Wiltshire. And from 1780, with le style l’anglais, women’s fashion became more practical, inspired, in part, by the English outdoors.

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