The Worship of Beauty


IN this age between the Regency and the Seven Years’ War—the age of le style Louis Quinze— women challenged the gods for adoration, and the pursuit of beauty rivaled the devotions of piety and the passions of war. In art and music, as in science and philosophy, the supernatural receded before the natural. The ascendancy of a woman over a sensual and sensitive king gave new prestige to delicacy and sentiment; the hedonistic orientation of life that had begun under Philippe d’Orléans reached its fullest expression under Pompadour. Beauty became more than ever a matter of “tactile values”; it was something pleasant to touch as well as to behold, from Sèvres porcelains to Boucher’s nudes. The sublime gave place to the delightful, the dignified to the graceful, the grandeur of size to the charm of elegance. Rococo was the art of an epicurean moneyed minority eager to enjoy every pleasure before the disappearance of its fragile world in an anticipated deluge of change. In that frankly earthly style lines gamboled, colors softened, flowers had no thorns, subjects shunned tragedy to stress the bright potentialities of life. Rococo was the last stage of baroque, of the rebellion of imagination against reality, of freedom against order and rules. Yet it was not disorderly license; its products still had logic and structure, giving form to significance; but it abhorred straight lines and sharp angles, it shied away from symmetry, and found it painful to leave any piece of furniture uncarved. Despite its coquettish prettiness, rococo produced thousands of objects unsurpassed in finish and elegance. And for half a century it made the minor arts the major art of France.

Never before, so far as we know, had there been such activity, rarely such excellence, in the once lesser fields of aesthetic enterprise. In this period the artist and the artisan were again made one, as in medieval Europe, and those who could beautify the intimate appurtenances of life were honored with the painters, sculptors, and architects of the age.

Never before had furniture been so exquisite. In this “style of Louis Fifteenth” it was no longer so monumental as under the Great King; it was designed for comfort rather than for dignity; it was more fitted to feminine contours and finery than to majesty and display. Sofas took on a diversity of shapes to suit attitudes and moods; “today,” Voltaire wrote, “social behavior is easier than in the past,” and “ladies can be seen reading on sofas or daybeds without causing embarrassment to their friends and acquaintances.”1Beds were crowned with delicate canopies, their panels were painted or upholstered, their posts were handsomely carved. New types of furniture were developed to meet the needs of a generation that preferred Venus to Mars. The large, deep-cushioned, upholstered armchair (fauteuil or bergère), the tapestried sofa, the chaise-longue, the writing table (escritoire), the desk (or secrétaire), the commode, the footrest, the console, the chiffonier, the buffet—these took now the forms, often the names, that they have in essence retained to our time. Carving and other ornamentation were profuse to an extent that provoked a reaction in the second half of the century. The “buhlwork” introduced by André Charles Boulle under Louis XIV—an inlay of furniture with metal or shell—was carried on by his sons as cabinetmakers to Louis XV; and a dozen variations of marquetry broke up the surface of painted, veneered, or lacquered wood. Voltaire ranked some lacquerwork of eighteenth-century France as equal to any that had come from China or Japan. Craftsmen like Cressent, Oppenordt, Oeben, Caffiéri, and Meissonier achieved such pre-eminence in the design or adornment of furniture that cabinetmakers came from abroad to study their techniques, and then spread French styles from London to St. Petersburg. Juste Aurèle Meissonier included in one mind a dozen arts: he built houses, decorated their interiors, fashioned furniture, molded candlesticks and silverware, designed snuffboxes and watch cases, organized pompes funèbres orgalantes, and wrote several works to transmit his skills; he was almost the uomo universale of his time.

As the ceremonious publicity of the seventeenth century was replaced by the intimacies of life under Louis XV, interior decoration passed from splendor to refinement; and here again the age marked a zenith. Furniture, carpets, upholstery, objets d’art, clocks, mirrors, panels, tapestries, drapes, paintings, ceilings, chandeliers, even bookcases were brought into gratifying harmonies of color and style. Sometimes, we may suspect, books were bought for the color and texture of their bindings as well as for their contents; but we can understand that pleasure too, and we gaze with envy at personal libraries housed behind glass in handsome cases set into the wall. Dining rooms were rare in France before 1750; dining tables were usually made to be easily multiplied and removed, for dinner guests might be incalculably numerous. Chimneypieces were no longer the massive monuments that had come down from the Middle Ages to Louis XIV, but they were richly embellished, and now and then (a rare instance of poor taste in this period) female figures were used as caryatids upholding the mantelpiece. Heating was almost entirely by open fireplaces, protected by ornamental screens, but here and there we find in France a stove faced, as in Germany, with decorated faïence. Lighting was by candles in a hundred different fixtures, culminating in immense and glittering chandeliers of rock crystal, glass, or bronze. We marvel at the amount of reading that was done by candlelight; but perhaps the difficulties diminished the production and consumption of trash.

Wall panels, lightly colored and delicately adorned, replaced tapestries as the century advanced, and in this period the art of tapestry had its final flowering. In almost every variety of textiles—from damasks, embroideries, and brocade to immense carpets and drapes—France now challenged the finest weaves of the Orient. Amiens specialized in pictured velvets; Lyons, Tours, and Nîmes were famous for decorated silks; in Lyons Jean Pillement, Jean Baptiste Huet, and others made wall hangings stamped and sewn with Chinese or Turkish motifs and scenes that captivated Pompadour. Tapestries were woven in the nationalized factories of Paris and Beauvais, and in private shops at Aubusson and Lille. They had by this time lost their utilitarian function of protecting against damp and drafts; they were purely decorative, and were often reduced in size to suit the tendency to smaller rooms. The weavers at Les Gobelins and Beauvais followed designs prepared, and the colors prescribed, by the leading painters of the age. Especially beautiful were the fifteen tapestries woven by the Gobelins (1717) after cartoons provided by Charles Antoine Coypel to illustrate Don Quixote. The Beauvais weavers, as we shall see, produced some fine tapestries after designs by Boucher. The Savonneries—originally soap works—were reorganized in 1712 as the “Royal Factory for the Manufacture of Carpets in the Persian and Near-Eastern Styles”; soon they were weaving massive carpets distinguished by careful drawing, varied colors, and soft velvet pile; these are the finest pile carpets of eighteenth-century France. It was the tapestry factories that made the painstaking upholstery for the chairs of the well-to-do. Many humble fingers must have been worn to calluses to prevent the same on thriving fundaments.

French potters were entering upon an adventurous age. The wars of Louis XIV gave them an opportunity: the old King melted his silver to finance his armies; he replaced his silverware with faïence, and bade his subjects do likewise; soon the faïence factories at Rouen, Lille, Sceaux, Strasbourg, Moustiers-Ste.-Marie, and Marseilles were meeting this new demand; and after the death of Louis XIV the taste for dishes and other objects in faïence encouraged the potters to produce some of the finest wares of the kind in European history. Artists as famous as Boucher, Falconet, and Pajou painted scenes or molded forms for French faïence.

Meanwhile France was moving toward the production of porcelain. Soft-paste varieties had long since been made in Europe—as far back as 1581 in Florence, 1673 in Rouen. These, however, were imitations of Chinese exemplars; they were made not from the hard-paste kaolin, or china-stone clay, as fused at high temperatures in the Far East, but from softer clays fired at low temperatures and covered with a glossy “frit.” Even so, these pâte-tendre porcelains—especially those fired at Chantilly, Vincennes, and Mennecy-Villeroi (near Paris)—were very beautiful. Hard-paste porcelain continued to be imported from China or Dresden. In 1749 Mme. de Pompadour coaxed 100,000 livres from Louis XV, and 250,000 from private sources, to expand the production of soft-paste wares at Vincennes. In 1756 she had Vincennes’ hundred artisans moved to a more commodious building at Sèvres (between Paris and Versailles), and there, in 1769, France began to make true hard-paste porcelain.

Goldsmiths and silversmiths had the advantage that the French monarchy used their products as a national reserve, transferring bullion into extravagant forms of beauty that could be readily fused in emergency. Under Louis XV the middle classes enlarged the demand for silverware as utensils and decoration. Almost every type of cutlery now used took its present form in eighteenth-century France: oyster forks, ice spoons, sugar spoons, hunting services, traveling services, folding knives and forks; add exquisitely carved or molded salt cellars, teapots, ewers, jugs, toilet articles, candlesticks … ; in this field the Louis Quinze is “the purest of all French styles.”2 The goldsmiths and silversmiths made also the little boxes that men as well as women carried to hold snuff or pills or cosmetics or sweets, and a hundred types of containers for the toilet table and the boudoir. The Prince de Conti had a collection of eight hundred boxes, all of different form, all of precious metal, and all of fine workmanship. Many other materials were used for similar purposes—agate, mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli … The cutting and setting of jewelry were the privilege of the 350 master craftsmen of the goldsmiths’ guild.

Metalwork bore the mark of the age in its delicate pattern and finish. Andirons took fabulous forms in intricate designs, usually of fantastic animals. Gilt bronze was used to make or decorate andirons, torches, candela-bras, or chandeliers, or to mount clocks, barometers, porcelain, or jade; the eighteenth century was the heyday of modern bronze. Clocks could be monsters—watches could be gems—of bronze, enamel, silver, or gold, chased in the most exquisite style. Torches were in some cases masterpieces of sculpture, like that which Falconet made for Versailles. Miniatures and medallions were among the temptations of the time. One family, the Roettiers, produced within a century five graveurs de médailles, all so distinguished for their work that they were welcomed into the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts along with the greatest painters and sculptors. It was in the little things of life that the eighteenth century displayed its most careless wealth and most careful art. “Those who have not lived before 1789,” said Talleyrand, “will never know how sweet life could be”3—if one could choose his class and dodge the guillotine.

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