Know your Louis!

As an antique shop owner, I'm often asked how to identify and date the different styles of French furniture, which most people call 'Louis' for want of a more crisp definition!

The easiest way I've found to remember the main three periods is shown in this illustration, credit pinterest.

These styles are of course named after the King of France during the period they were fashionable, but furniture with the characteristics of all three periods has been made continuously ever since.

The dates given for the periods are officially those of the Kings' reigns, which are

Louis XIV 1643-1715 (The sun King)

Louis XV 1715-1774 and

Louis XVI 1774-1792, culminating in His execution as France became a Republic.

Dating pieces accurately is rather difficult and we 'experts' are often only making educated guesses as to the age of a piece in the Louis style. Pointers are the quality of the carving, the construction of joints if visible, the colour and patina of the timber or any paint finish and materials used in any upholstery, although of course this last is likely to have been renewed or at least had the top covering replaced at some stage if it is a genuine Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century piece.

This pair dates from the Nineteenth century, under the seats at the back was stamped a makers mark, Antonietti. This sounds Italian, but artisans from many countries made furniture in French cities and it was the law at the time that pieces produced in officially registered ateliers had to be identifiable. This helps in proving that pieces such as these are not more modern reproductions.

Much country-made furniture of the period is unmarked, however, so just because there is no maker's mark, it does not necessarily mean a piece is more modern.

Can you tell which of the Louis styles these are?

During the latter part of the Nineteenth century and the first years of the Twentieth Century, before the first world war, there was a prolific output of furniture and furnishings from larger outfits more along factory lines, rather than on the earlier atelier or workshop model. This was mostly due to the rise of a wealthy middle class across Europe who needed to furnish their new homes and had the means to do so. The furniture produced by such factories is less finely made, with cruder carving and less skilled manufacture, more machine input and a lack of craftsmanship. The pieces are still of good quality, however, and most of what is found in the antique shops and brocantes of France will be furniture from this period of mass production.

An example of this sort of furniture is shown above. There is a slight bastardising of style, with curvy legs but a straighter back line and less surface carving than is found on earlier craftsman-made pieces. These lines were easier to produce using machinery rather than hand tools.

The chairs in this picture are sturdy and generously proportioned and would probably have graced a Gentleman's or merchant's drawing room. There are remnants of the original yellow silk brocade upholstery on one chair.

It is extremely rare to find a genuine, fine period Louis XV or XVI piece outside of a museum or a Parisian antique shop. (Although I live in hope of discovering some forgotten gem in a dusty corner somewhere when I'm treasure hunting!)

But early to mid Nineteenth Century pieces found at a country brocante or vide grenier are often of a good quality and would have been made aping the fashion of the day, in a similar manner to the spread of tastes in furniture of the Chippendale or Hepplewhite styles in England, as smaller local furniture makers copied the work of master craftsmen.

This lovely fauteuil armchair would illustrate the dissemination of fashion very well. It has not come from a fine atelier but the quality of the carving is good and the construction would support a date of mid Nineteenth Century for this piece, which is upholstered in what may be the original, silk velvet with a gorgeous faded, timeworn appearance. The timber has been painted in an old gloss paint probably at some point in the Twentieth century which is a shame but this chair certainly has what could be called Chateau chic! The carving around the frame is prolific and has ribbon curl motifs and leaves, while the crest has a ribbon bow. All of these details were produced by hand.

This chair is in the style of Louis XVI, did you guess?

Another motif very commonly found on furniture of the style of Louis XVI is the quiver of arrows and flaming torch crossed at the crest. Found on chairs, sofas and mirrors, the symbols represented life, truth and the pursuit of justice. They were often combined with ribbon bows, or laurel wreaths as seen on the lovely old mirror I have in my bedroom.

The earliest of the Louis styles, that of Louis XIV, is currently the least fashionable for modern tastes. The motifs and shapes tend to be more masculine, with chunky and large pieces less suited to the 21st Century home. However, for a farmhouse dining room, or a Gentleman's study, the generous proportions of a Louis XIV chair can be perfect. This one certainly has throne-like nuances!

This lack of popularity can often mean that prices for the style can be very much more reasonable and you do get a lot of furniture for your money! This piece has been nicely reupholstered in a linen type fabric with large decorative studs, although most typically you will find examples upholstered in tapestry, in a kind of homage to the medieval.

I'm a fan of the lovely, feminine Louis XV style myself, which is certainly the most popular of the three periods in the UK at the moment among my customers. My house was built around 1780 so I should really be looking out for Louis XVI pieces to be true to the period, but I like to mix my styles anyway and contemporary pieces can look just fine alongside chateau chic items in my opinion.

What do you think, and which one is your favourite?

If you would like more inspiration, why not visit the Unfrench Pinterest board showing antique French furniture, the link is here there are some truly amazing images for you to drool over. And while you are there, why not take a look around at the other boards we've curated for you.


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