National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Production of French Decorative Arts in the 1700s

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Comfort and convenience were hallmarks of good taste in eighteenth-century Europe. To meet these fashionable demands, designers developed a wide variety of specialized, multipurpose furniture. For instance, at her combined desk and dresser, a lady could keep household accounts, write letters, serve refreshments, play cards, sew or embroider, groom hair, or freshen cosmetics--all without leaving her chair.

Strict legal regulations governed the production of such expensive furniture in France. Major pieces, for example, are often struck or indented with their makers' marks as proof that the works met guild standards. Exceptions, or unsigned pieces, include the work of craftsmen appointed to the royal court, who could ignore guild inspections, and furniture made in shops located in the privileged, tax-free neighborhoods of Paris.

Menuisiers (carpenters) worked primarily on chairs, beds, picture frames, and other carved furnishings, including the carcasses or bodies inside veneered pieces. Ebénistes (cabinetmakers) created veneered furniture such as desks, tables, and dressers. Their name derives from an old association with ebony, an expensive, imported wood.

The veneered work consists of a structural carcass--almost always oak--encased by marquetry. The thin sheets of fine woods in marquetry are cut and arranged in "jigsaw puzzle" fashion, glued down, and sanded to an even, flat surface before final varnishing. Ebénistes used about forty trees native to France, and customs officials recorded another fifty-seven exotic inlay woods, many imported from French colonies in the East and West Indies.

Fondeurs (founders) created metal fittings and furnishings. Doré d'or moulu, or ormolu, which translates as "pulverized or ground gold," is the finest gilt metal. The sculptural design was modeled in wax, cast in bronze, and finished by engraving or chasing the details. The surface was gilded by applying an amalgam of gold and mercury. After the mercury was driven off as a vapor by kiln heating, the gold deposit remained as an integral part of the bronze. Ormolu is practical as well as decorative because the metal creates a protective sheath around furniture feet, legs, and top edges, where marquetry or lacquer might snag or chip.

In 1662, Louis XIV had founded a royal factory in the Paris suburb of Gobelins to create the furnishings, mirrors, and tapestries for Versailles and his other palaces. Because Gobelins could work only on orders from the court, another factory was sanctioned in 1664 at the northern French city of Beauvais to supply the nobility, bourgeoisie, and foreigners. Gobelins and Beauvais shared many of the same designers and weavers, causing their tapestries to be virtually indistinguishable.

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