The arts of decoration had never known, even under the Renaissance popes, such encouragement and display. Thickly carpeted floors, ornamental columns, massive tables and chimneypieces, porcelain vases, silver candelabra, crystal chandeliers, marble clocks inlaid with gems, walls paneled or frescoed or hung with pictures or tapestries, cornices elegantly molded, ceilings coffered or painted—these and a dozen other forms of art, in Versailles, Fontainebleau, Marly, the Louvre, even in private palaces, made almost every room a museum of objects charming eye and soul with the mystery of perfection. From Raphael and his aides—Giulio Romano, Perino del Vaga, Giovanni da Udine—and the Loggie of the Vatican, Le Brun and his aides took their palette of gods, goddesses, Cupids, trophies, emblems, arabesques, garlands of flowers and leaves, cornucopias of the fruits of the earth, to decorate the record of the royal triumphs over women and states.
In the style of Louis XIV furniture was lavish and gorgeous; here classic simplicity yielded to baroque ornament. Chairs were often so carved, upholstered, and petitpointed as to frighten away all but the most exquisite bottoms; on the other hand, tables could be heavy and solid to the point of apparent immobility. Writing tables and “secretaries” were of an elegance inviting the pen to compose with the pithy precision of La Rochefoucauld or the bubbling vivacity of Mme. de Sévigné. Chests and cabinets were in many cases laboriously carved, and/or inlaid with designs in metal or jewelry. André Charles Boulle, who was settled in the Louvre (1672) as the favorite cabinetmaker of Louis XIV, gave his name (“buhlwork”) to his special art of inlaying furniture—preferably ebony—with engraved metal, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, etc., and adding floral or animal scrolls of the most graceful design. One of his inlaid cabinets brought £3,000 in 1882, probably equal to $50,000 in 1960; 11 Boulle, however, died in extreme poverty in his ninetieth year (1732). More to our taste are the carved stalls that were set up in this period in Notrc-Dame-de-Paris.
Tapestry was now specifically a royal art. Not content with bringing the Gobelin and Aubusson factories under the King’s control, Colbert persuaded him also to take over the tapissiers of Beauvais. Tapestries were still the favored decoration for the walls and screens of palaces and châteaux, for pageants, tournaments, state ceremonies, and religious festivals. At Beauvais the Flemish painter Adam van der Meulen designed an outstanding series, The Conquests of Louis the Great, for which the artist prepared himself by following the King to the wars, and drawing or painting on the spot the sites, forts, and villages involved in the campaigns. The Gobelin factory employed eight hundred artisans, who made not only tapestry but fine textiles, woodwork, silverwork, mctalwork, and marble marquetry. There, under Le Brun’s direction, were woven the great tapestries from the cartoons of Raphael’s massive frescoes in the Stanze of the Vatican. Hardly less renowned were the several series designed by Le Brun himself: The Elements, The Seasons, The History of Alexander, The Royal Residences, and The History of the King. The last group ran to seventeen pieces and took ten years of labor. A superb specimen still hangs in the Gobelin exhibition rooms—the figures astonishingly individualized, the details fully visualized, even to the landscape picture on the wall; all in colored threads patiently woven by subtle hands under tired eyes. Rarely has so much human industry been devoted to the adulation of one man. Louis excused himself by explaining to Colbert that these apotheoses gave employment and income to dyers and weavers, and served as impressive gifts in the lubrication of diplomacy.
Under the lavish royal hand all the minor arts rejoiced. Splendid carpets were made at La Savonnerie near Paris. Fine faïence was produced at Rouen and Moustiers, good majolica at Nevers, soft-paste porcelain at Rouen and St.-Cloud. Toward the end of the seventeenth century French craftsmen, prodded by Colbert, learned the Venetian secrets of casting, rolling, and polishing plate glass; so were made the vast and brilliant mirrors of the Galerie des Glaces. 12 Goldsmiths like Julien Defontaine and Vincent Petit were organized by Colbert and Le Brun, were given lodgings in the Louvre, and made for the King and the rich a thousand articles in silver or gold—until Louis and the grandees melted down these ornaments to finance war. Jewels, medals, coins were cut and engraved in designs that set the pace for all Europe but Italy. Not since the Renaissance had the art of the medallion reached such excellence as came now with Antoine Benoist and Jean Mauger. Leaving no stone uncarved, Colbert founded in 1662 the Academy of Medals and Inscriptions, “in order to render the acts of the King immortal by . . . medals struck in his honor” 13—which was the great minister’s way of enlisting moneyed vanity behind expensive art. In 1667 the École de Gravures was established in the Louvre; and the burins of Robert Nanteuil, Sébastien Le Clerc, Robert Bonnart, and Jean Lepautre illustrated with meticulous refinement the personalities and events of the reign. Even miniature painting survived, though fallen from its medieval estate, in theLivre d’heurespresented to the King by his pensioners in the Invalides. It is the minor arts, above all the rest, that display the taste and craftsmanship of the great century.