CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Show a Little Leg: Three Centuries of French Table Legs

8 minute read

Each period of French furniture design is characterized by elements that reflect the stylistic ideals of that era. Oak wood legs, in particular, offer unique insights into the evolution of furniture craftsmanship and style. Read on to learn more about how French furniture styles developed over the centuries, with a focus on their most supportive feature — their legs.

Louis XIV (1643-1715)

Louis XIV-Period Kingwood Bureau Mazarin

Louis XIV-Period Kingwood Bureau Mazarin

Elected to the throne of France when he was only four years old, King Louis XIV would not only become the longest serving French monarch, but he would also become a defining force in French design. The basis of his style was derived from the Italian Baroque, thanks in part to his advisor, Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661), whose Italian roots made him a strong supporter of the Baroque aesthetic.
Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles

Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles

If there is one space to summarize this sense of refined grandeur of Louis XIV’s beautiful style, it would be the Palace of Versailles, begun at Louis XIV’s request in 1661 and designed by leading architect Louis Le Vau. Building on the rudiments of an earlier royal hunting lodge, Le Vau developed a monumental palace that assumed a general U-shape to envelope an expansive stretch of gardens that extended from the rear façade. The lavish interior was designed by Charles Le Brun using the Baroque principles to favor Louis XIV’s tastes.
The Royal Boulle Marquetry Commode by Blake

The Royal Boulle Marquetry Commode by Blake

Building on the opulence and adornment of the Baroque era that arrived in France shortly after its debut in the Italian peninsula, the Louis XIV style was pivotal in defining the artistic, decorative and architectural styles of its day. Wood furniture legs were typically as ornate and robust as the rest of a piece of furniture, featuring opulent ornamentation and ormolu accents. While there were different wood types and styles, oak was a popular material that was crafted into the elegant tables you see today. Whether shown off in a living room or highlighted in a dining area, sturdy french tables were used both for their functionality and style.

 

Louis XV (1715-1774)

Sèvres Porcelain-Mounted Bureau Plat

Sèvres Porcelain-Mounted Bureau Plat
Louis XV, also called “Louis the Beloved,” succeeded his great-grandfather Louis XIV as King of France in 1715. The Louis XV elegant style of interior decoration that flourished during the king’s lengthy reign represents the French iteration of Rococo. In fact, the term “Rococo” is thought to be born of the French words rocaille and coquilles — “rock” and “shells” — organic motifs frequently found in architecture and design of the 18th century. The Louis XV style is thus defined by exuberant curves, superior craftsmanship and emphasis on a cohesive overall aesthetic. It also represents a backlash against the extreme opulence of the preceding age. Rather than grand ornamentation, more emphasis was instead placed on comfortable, graceful designs.
Louis XV-Style Tulipwood Vitrine

Louis XV-Style Tulipwood Vitrine

This emphasis is, of course, reflected in the legs. Cabriole, or S-shaped legs, were most often seen in tables and chairs, embodying the lighter — yet still opulent — Louis XV style.

Louis XVI (1774–1792)

Louis XVI Dressing Table by Paul Sormani

Louis XVI Dressing Table by Paul Sormani
Louis XVI, the last king of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution, ruled from 1774 until the abolition of the monarchy on September 21, 1792. While Louis XVI exhibited little interest in the arts, Marie Antoinette promoted the Neoclassical aesthetic even before becoming Queen of France and spent lavishly on the interior decoration of courtly residences in the Neoclassical style during the brief reign of her husband. The style developed as a reaction against the florid Rococo stylings of the Louis XV style. Contemporaneous excavations of ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the growing popularity of Enlightenment ideologies propagated by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also influenced late-18th-century decorative arts and design.

Louis XVI Giltwood Console Table

Louis XVI Giltwood Console Table
The Louis XVI style of visual arts and interior decoration is characterized by clean, orderly lines, symmetrical structure and overt Neoclassicism inspired by ancient Greek and Roman models. Thus, table legs are typically straight and often reference ancient columns with fluting or ribbon-twist carvings. Click here to learn more about 18th-century French furniture design.

Directoire (1795-1799)

18th-Century French Tric-Trac Table

18th-Century French Tric-Trac Table

Following the storming of the Bastille in 1789, a committee known as the French Directory (1795-1799) briefly assumed power over France — it is from this government that the Directoire period gets its name. In the post-Revolution era, a new austerity permeated arts and design in France for reasons that were both economic and political. Like the Louis XVI style, the Directoire style was influenced by classical models. Yet it favored ornamentation that was far more reserved, as opulent displays of wealth became associated with the old order. Works from the Directoire period, above all, exhibit architectural proportion and a restraint of decoration. Legs were thus almost always straight with minimal ornamentation and fluting.

Empire (1800-1815)

French Empire Dressing Table

French Empire Dressing Table

After Napoléon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, a new style of decorative arts was ushered in to convey the legitimacy of Napoléon’s new imperial regime. Above all, the Empire style was informed by the iconography of the great ancient empires. While the classical world inspired designers long before this moment in time, the Empire style used symbols from antiquity in a unique way to promote Napoléon’s reign. He (and his designers) very deliberately styled himself after the great civilizations of the past, creating the illusion of longevity, permanence and power.
French Empire-Style Center Table

French Empire-Style Center Table

As a whole, the Empire style brought together the classical forms and ornamentation of the Louis XVI period with the imperial symbols of Napoléon’s reign, including crafted imperial eagles, swans, bees, laurel wreaths and the Crown of Charlemagne. French table legs were thus sometimes straight and sometimes curved, but always symmetrical and graceful. They also almost always featured some ornamentation that referenced either ancient Egypt or Greco-Roman traditions. Click here to learn more about 19th-century French furniture design.

Conclusion

French furniture design over the ages may appear to be a rollercoaster ride of design styles. Yet, a logical progression is seen throughout these eras. Styles naturally responded to the decades that preceded them, while also reacting to the current political climate and cultural influences. What is your favorite style? Check out our current selection of French furniture by clicking here and try to spot the influence of each era!

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