Friday, May 7, 2010

French Decorative Styles: 17-18th Centuries

Model of Marie Antoinette's Room in the Neoclassical style
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Within the vast halls and exhibitions of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, are the Wrightsman Galleries featuring models of the rooms and some original decorative pieces of European rulers and aristocrats. A guided tour takes visitors through these halls and three separate rooms fashioned in the styles of Kings Louis XIV, XV and XVI, which reflect the changing styles of French decoration through the 17th and 18th centuries.

King Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, ruled in France from 1643-1715, the longest reign of any monarch in Europe. Louis chose a royal hunting lodge at Versailles to become his grand palace and home to the French government and noblemen. Over the following decades expanded it into the largest palace and grounds in the world. When decorating his private rooms in Versailles, King Louis XIV favored the Baroque style, popular throughout Europe. The room, as modeled in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is rich with tapestries, lush dark red coloring and intricate wood and metal craftsmanship adorning the furniture. King Louis XIV’s decorations are imbued with images and metaphors of himself, his family and “sun” emblems. A particular piece of furniture, his personal writing table, is a permanent piece in the MET collection and on display in the room. The desk, made by Dutch-born cabinetmaker Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt, illustrates how materials such as tortoise shell were used to create a rich and multi-tonal veneer with brass inlay in intricate and symbolic patterns referring to King Louis XIV.

Following Louis XIV was his great-grandson Louis XV. The styles throughout his reign of France and at the Palace of Versailles shifted into an even more ornamental, sculptural style that retained a delicate and playful elegance, called Rococo. The term Rococo is a combination of the French word rocaille, meaning stone, and coquilles, meaning shell and alludes to the elaborate ornamentation on the walls of salons and rooms throughout France. Statuettes and stucco decorations on the walls of the salon featured in the MET combine symmetry with ornate decoration. Movement within the rooms was important to Louis XV and the furniture was lighter for easy rearrangements, more curvaceous and rounded and inviting to be used.

King Louis XVI, who reigned from 1774 until 1792, when he was tried and executed for treason, was a young king growing up in Versailles. Louis XVI and his young Austrian bride, Marie Antoinette, favored a simpler style called Neoclassical. Throughout the 18th century, straight legged furniture replaced the curves of the Louis XV style and the ornate wall designs and fixtures were transformed into straightforward designs. Symmetry and simplicity were the models used for decoration and color palette was lighter and fresh. A room in the MET describes this style and is modeled after Marie Antoinette’s private quarters. Containing her original writing desk and a chest sent from her mother, visitors see the dramatic change from the highly decorative and fluid Rococo style to the symmetrical, simple yet Neoclassical style.

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