French Decoration in the 17th and Early 18th Centuries

Interior decoration had its birth in 17th century France, and this concept of the civilised way of life was developed and refined at the court of Louis XIV, becoming the ideal for every ruler and the aristocracy of Europe. 

Leonard Joel Auctions
Jean François de Troy, A Reading of Molière / Wikimedia Commons

Louis moved the court to Versailles away from Parisian intrigues, effectively creating a gilded cage for the nobility who were required to attend the elaborate and inflexible structure of court life that centred on the “Sun King”. These rituals – the “lever” and the “coucher” (getting up and going to bed) of the King, his audiences, and his meals all took place very publicly in the grand marble panelled salons and galeries of the chateau, where the only members of the entourage who were allowed to sit down were the royal family. However, this oppressive ceremonial had its reverse side with the development of elegant, comfortable, and luxurious retreats in the form of smaller private chambers at Versailles and the pavilions or maisons de pleasance in the gardens, where playfulness and informality was allowed, both in manners as well as decoration. These pavilions were the focal point of entertainments for the courtiers and overseas visitors, where ballets, feasts, firework displays, and other diversions created a more relaxed and light-hearted atmosphere. 

The interiors of these pavilions and smaller chambers were conceived as a deliberate contrast to the overpowering classical formality of the “rooms of parade” in the main chateau. In these places, a playfulness and informality could be allowed to reign. Many of the schemes were based on Chinoiserie themes and decorated with export porcelain and lacquer, others relied on elaborate draperies, sumptuous fabrics, and naturalistic gilt carvings of fruit and putti, furnished with comfortable upholstered chairs and daybeds. These developments paved the way for the “douceur de vivre” and relaxed elegance of the Rococo period. 

A set of nine engravings of the Gardens of Versailles by Demortain | $3,000-5,000

In 1715 the Sun King was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson, Louis XV, and France was ruled by his grand-uncle Philippe, the duc d’Orleans, until 1723 giving this period its name, the Régence (Regency). From the mid-1720s, the budding Rococo style unfolded, came to full flower and eventually withered in the cool winds of neo-classicism in the last quarter of the century. The demise of the Sun King meant that society once again moved back to Paris and new maisons particuliers (private mansions) being built or decorated in the capital were designed not only with formal apartments for grand receptions, but also an arrangement of rooms that allowed for informal visits of friends and small parties and dinners. It was in these salons that the Rococo style can be seen at its finest. The sinuous naturalistic forms, the scrolls, shells, rocaille (rock work), swags of flowers, and cherubs were applied to all aspects of the decoration, from the candle branches, panelling, ceilings, textiles, and silver to the furniture. 

Rooms decorated in this unified manner had an almost organic feel, the walls broken up by recesses and panelling, large reflective expanses of mirror glass, coved ceilings, and sinuous furniture, and would have seemed incredibly contemporary and unusual in contrast to the relatively severe, rectilinear, and architectonic forms of the previous century. Seen by candlelight, the effect of the flickering glow on gilded mouldings, mirrors, glittering brocades, ormolu, shiny marquetry, and marble surfaces must have been quite dazzling, as captured in the painter Jean-François de Troy’s scenes of the time. 

The reaction against this opulent luxurious style began with the rediscovery of severe neo-classical design in the reign of Louis XVI, and the horrors of the French Revolution sealed its demise. 

RONAN SULICH / Senior Adviser, Sydney

Banner Image: A French patinated-bronze equestrian figure of Louis XIV | $50,000-80,000

February 2023