THE LEGACY OF THE CHAIR AND THE MASSANT RANGE
The antique chairs' collection on which the House of Massant has based its reproductions illustrate the most glorious moments in the history of French seating and the skill of the joiner and cabinet-maker, together with that of the tapestry-maker and the art of upholstery trimming. All of the antique models reproduced by the expert artisans of the Massant studios have been selected for the purity of their lines and decoration, their character and their originality.
The finest antique chairs are rare single pieces or frequently incomplete sets of chairs, stamped with makers’ marks and preserved in stately homes or in public or private collections. These chairs are not necessarily luxuriously decorated royal thrones but simply offer a chaste harmony of line which displays the excellent taste of the nobility, the clergy and the upper middle class.
Included in the Massant range are cane chairs and armchairs of the Regency period, in a variety of light finishes; a Louis XV chair with a moulded, sculpted and pierced back; a charming Louis XV Bergère intended for a child; a Louis XV cabriolet armchair in painted wood; Louis XVI chairs with medallions, with lyre-backs or with cane backs; Louis XVI and Directoire armchairs, couches and sofas; and Directoire and Charles X models in natural wood or painted with cameos.
THE VERSATILITY OF THE HOUSE OF MASSANT: FROM THE REGENCY TO CHARLES X
The Regency chair (1715-1723)
When, towards the end of his reign, Louis XIV encouraged the spread of new ideas, the nobility and the bourgeoisie built private town-houses in Paris. Protocol was more flexible and lines became more harmonious.The rooms were better laid out, became more intimate and were luxuriously decorated. The Regency style illustrates a transitional period which began around 1695 and ended around 1725. The colours used in decoration were clear and light, with motifs drawn from nature. Changes in society gave rise to the creation of a variety of new forms of seating.
Besides stools, folding chairs, straight chairs and armchairs, the chaise longue or « duchesse » and the couch made their appearance. Seats were upholstered, chairs were straw-bottomed.At the end of the century, cane reappeared in France and reached its peak in the reign of Louis XV. Chairs once more became lighter, with the backs often of uncovered wood. Armchairs had arms which curved back and consoles fell out of favour so that women wearing crinolines and panniers could sit down more easily.
The couch, providing seating for several people, went by different names according to its shape. The first bergères, on which very little wood was left visible, were spacious and comfortable, with side-pieces and cushioned seats.
The main decorative themes of the Regency were sea-shells, flowers, acanthus leaves and rosettes on a chequered ground. The stretcher-bars between chair-legs became lighter, until at last they disappeared completely. The gentle curve of the legs became more pronounced as the reign of Louis XV approached. The legs terminated in claw-feet or in light scrolling.
The backs of chairs and armchairs were often flat (the style called «à la Reine»), in uncovered wood with mouldings and decorations identical to those of the seat. When this fashion came to an end, backs became curved. The general shape of the back was less regular; it was flowing and symmetrical, developing into the fiddle-back.Arms had a revival, but became shorter and set farther back. A space was left on the arm to accommodate the padding.
The woods used for these chairs were beech, oak, cherry or walnut, depending on the region. The wood was painted or left natural, according to its type. The upholstery was more comfortable, better-stuffed and fuller. Arms were shorter and more rounded. The popular fabrics were silks, damask and later lampas, which has a plain ground and multicoloured motifs. Brocatelle, silks brocaded or embroidered to resemble brocade, were continually in use, as were Genoa velvets and tapestry. Braid and ornamental nails put the finishing touches to the chair.
The Louis XV chair (1723-1774)
Following the period of transition of the Regency, French style expanded to influence the whole of Europe. The style of Louis XV predominated for more than a century, fulfilling the desire for comfort of the nobility and the bourgeoisie.
From the beginning of the 18th century, etiquette was less stiff, society became more frivolous. Card-games and peaceful activities were popular. Rooms were more intimate, laid out in a more rational manner and more specific in their uses (boudoirs, greater and lesser salons, music-rooms ...)
This variety led to the invention of new kinds of furniture, including more comfortable seating of exceptional quality. Remembered among the great chair-makers of history are the names of Boulard, Cresson, Delanois, Gourdin and Nadal. The names of the tapestry-makers are not known, except through inventories.
To the existing range of seating, from stool to couch, were added forms intended for more and more specific uses, such as the «chauffeuse», a low armless chair which allowed ladies to do their needlework in comfort, or the cabriolet chair (or armchair) with a seat shaped in a semi-circle behind, matching the incurving back which offered better support to the sitter.
The bergère, which took various forms (such as the roomy « marquise » and the version equipped with an arm-rest on which another person might lean), became the perfect drawing-room chair. The observer’s chair or «voyelle de femme» was a chair with an arm-rest on the upper part of the back on which one could sit astride, and was ideal for card-games.
The studios produced many types of multiple seating to facilitate conversation, such as the couch (armless and resembling an easy-chair), the cushioned sofa with padded side-pieces like those on a bergère, the ottoman or padded couch, gondola-shaped and of Turkish origin, or the famous confidante’s couch, comprising two corner-chairs at its ends, separated by arms. There were many lounging-chairs: the « duchesse », which was a type of chaise longue, the day-bed with its side-pieces of different heights, and the Turkish couch or « sultane », a kind of backless bench with two scrolled ends of equal height, which was placed against a wall.
Towards the end of Louis XV’s reign, wood was carved into irregular shapes and heavily sculpted. Lines were serpentine. Fiddle-backs were scooped at the base, leaving a space between the elements. Consoles and arm-rests became less prominent and finally vanished. Panniered gowns were in fashion and ladies needed to be able to sit down easily in them.
Richer models were carved with flowers (especially roses), open pomegranates, acanthus leaves and seashells ornamented with foliage, linked together by curlicues or irregular, rock-like formations.
The front legs were carved in elongated curves terminating in scrolling, mouldings or acanthus leaves.The rear legs had cambered ends. The front edge had moul-dings. The seat was light and elegant, with the rear edge forming a semi-circle when viewed from above. Backs began to change shape, curving inwards to follow the shape of the seat. Chairs or armchairs with backs which enfolded the sitter were said to be «en cabriolet». Arms became smaller and smaller. Stretcher-bars disappeared.
An important development was the invention of chairs with portable frames, which permitted a change of décor accor-ding to season or for particular occasions. A wider variety of woods came into use. Most of these chairs were painted, so that there was no point in using any special type of wood. They were highly- polished. Chairs were embellished with carving, sometimes picked out in gold leaf, like those of royalty. Upholstery was more voluminous. Cane-bottomed chairs had pierced squares in place of cushions. Cushions were stuffed with feathers or with down. The mechanics of construction were carefully disguised and the finish was becoming perfect.
Italian baroque style and Oriental art had their influence on France, as did the Chinese and Turkish styles. Fabrics were dyed in the Oriental fashion (as re-presented by the East India Company) and decorated with birds (whose reputation for bringing bad luck resulted in their being eventually banished). Most of the fabrics were silk, since the import of Indian fabrics was forbidden in France. Besides the fabrics already in use, Utrecht velvet made its appearance, as did Beauvais and Gobelin tapestries showing pastoral scenes, bouquets of flowers or amoretti. Braid and decorative studding provided the finishing touches. Around 1750, a royal decree made it compulsory for furniture to be stamped with a maker’s mark and the hallmark of the guild of joiners and cabinet-makers.
Louis XVI (1774-1793)
The period around 1760 saw progressive changes in furnishing. Mediterranean culture enjoyed a resurgence with the discovery of Greco-Roman remains such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Cabinet-makers took their inspiration from the columns, reliefs and ornaments of antiquity. Nature, too, was a source of inspiration, expressed by the artists in the form of garlands, pine-cones, acorns and flowers. The nobility and bourgeoisie tired of the Rococo style with its contorted shapes and looked to simpler forms. Chairs were adorned with new designs such as the « Montgolfière » (balloon-back). Others were pierced in the English taste.
The great names amongst chair-makers made their appearance : Lelarge, Séné, Nadal, Jacob and Tilliard. The kinds of seating, which had become so diverse under Louis XV, did not change greatly, except in their names and shapes. The medallion chair with its oval back «à la Reine» appeared around 1760. Flat backs (square, or shaped like medallions, basket-handles, balloons or shields) and cabriolet backs (trapezoidal, basket-like or hooded) co-existed. Lyre-, balloon- and sheaf-backs were pierced.
These chairs were often varnished or polished to show the grain of such woods as cherry or walnut. The rear edge of the seat, viewed from above, was trapezoidal. The front was a gentle arc. Chairs had spindle-legs with simple or more elaborate fluting and were decorated with beading, ribboning, fluting, pastoral motifs or caryatids. Fashions in clothing had changed and dresses were more flowing. Chair-arms lengthened once more to parallel the feet and curved inwards to provide greater comfort. The trend was for backs «à la Reine» with medallions, and the Greco-Roman influence was so strong that some types of medallion- or basket-backs were flanked by pairs of free-standing columns. The pattern-books show that the backs were topped with finials in the shape of pine-cones or spires.
Wood was varnished in light colours, the mouldings picked out in the principal colour of the upholstery fabric. As the fashion drew to a close, some chairs were made in fruit-woods such as plum, apricot and cherry. The upholsterer’s art developed gradually and shapes became more defined owing to finer stitching and the clever use of horsehair. For the covering, stripes were fashionable and these required great care in the finishing; braid was used, as were nails with decorative heads. Fabrics were still very rich and varied, decorated with bouquets, garlands and baskets of flowers, ribbons and stripes (such as grosgrain, a heavy silk with the alternate stripe always cream-coloured). The colours used were soft and subtle.
Empire chairs (1804-1815)
The reign of Napoleon I was short but it gave a boost to the economy. Bonaparte surrounded himself with great architects and artisans. Décor was predominantly in the classical Greco-Roman or the Egyptian style and symmetry was emphasised. Wood was complemented by bronze inlays (palms and palm-leaves, rosettes, stars, laurel-wreaths). The style was austere, but not without splendour.
Functional shapes, circles, squares and rectangles, were appropriate to the fashions in clothing. Chairs were heavy, with scarcely-curving backs. X-shaped folding stools reappeared. New designs included the gondola chair with its scrolled back ; the « Paumier » or chimney-corner chair, an angled armchair ; and the Récamier day-bed intended for resting.
Georges Jacob and his descendants remained prominent, alongside Bellangé and Marcion. Sphinxes, gryphons, caryatids, lion-heads and dolphins evoked classical antiquity. Polished mahogany, picked out in gold leaf, was in use until the blockade of 1806 against England and the ban on the import of Central American woods. Springs made their first appearance in upholstery , which became very sophisticated. The silk-weaver’s art reached its peak. Fabrics were adorned with motifs suggesting the Empire (capital Ns, eagles, daggers,…).
From the Restoration to Charles X (1824-1830)
With Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis-Philippe came the return to power of royalty. Orders were fewer and the Empire shapes continued to be used. Décor took its inspiration from the Middle Ages. Austere « cathedral-style» furnishings were designed. This fashion ended with the accession of Charles X and the beginning of Romanticism (the neo-Gothic «Troubadour» style). The «Duchesse de Berry» school produced a short series of delightful furnishings in light wood with embossing. Bronze inlays became rarer and vanished in the reign of Charles X in favour of embossed motifs. Chairs were « à dauphin », gondola-shaped or scrolled. Various types of back were current: some with cross-pieces, others grilled or with a central strut. The « Voltaire » armchair had a low seat and a high cambered back (it was unknown to the writer himself). A light chair, called a « chaise volante » (flying chair) was equipped with castors. A low, deep armchair, of wood entirely upholstered and already sometimes with buttoning, appeared around 1838. The « tête à tête », or conversation-seat, was a couch with two back-rests, one at either end, joined by a lower back.
Springs revolutionised the art of upholstery. Buttoning, although not very comfortable, met with considerable success. Various fabrics were used ; velvets, preferably in dark colours, were popular. Industrialisation made furniture more readily available to a wider variety of people.
THE CHAIR FROM CLEOPATRA TO LOUIS XIV
Of all the ancient civilisations, Egypt has left behind the richest legacy as regards the chair. Those found in the Nile Valley were in an excellent state of preservation.. The Egyptian chair, already very comfortable, reached its peak around 1500 BC. Made in several pieces, these chairs had very simple lines. The base is made from strips of leather, fastened to an encircling frame; on this base, presumably, would be placed a linen cushion woven from the flax that was grown in Egypt. There are various models : folding chairs, wooden stools, straight chairs, thrones, armchairs and beds with headboards. These chairs are made from several types of wood, including cedar and ebony, and are decorated with inlays of ivory or with gilding.
The chairs of other civilisations, not so well-preserved, are illustrated in bas-reliefs, paintings of various kinds, including frescoes, and on pottery or other ceramics which allow reconstructions to be carried out. Antiquity has always been an inexhaustible source of inspiration in the two thousand years that followed.
The medieval period
Since invasions are not conducive to comfort, it was not until the end of the High Medieval Period (5th to 8th centuries) that interiors underwent development. From the 9th to the beginning of the 11th century came the spread of Roman-style coffers (or chests) put to many uses ; the ceremonial chair for the local lord, the bench for guests – with a high back to keep out the cold – and a number of little portable seats or stools of various kinds, including the three-legged stool. These are minimally decorated (usually with scrolling). Wrought iron, hangings and tapestries made up for the shortage of furniture and the lack of heating.
The Gothic style unfolded from the 13th to the 15th century, with its architectural motifs of pointed arches, flowerets and rosettes on chests, benches, ceremonial chairs (made of wood with a cushioned seat and a high, canopied back). The « faldstool » made its appearance. Furniture was made of oak. The Italian revival of the arts and sciences in the15th century introduced richly-decorated fabrics such as damask silks imported from Syria or made in Italy, and velvet from Genoa. In France, linen was more commonly used. The designs used on fabrics were simple — the Royal arms or the fleur de lys. At the same time, highly-coloured tapestries were gaining in popularity.
From the 14th century onward, Italy enjoyed a resurgence due to the Florentine school and the construction of rich palaces, inspired by Grecian art. Furniture flourished creatively during the 15th century. In France, at the end of the 15th century, following the wars with Italy, François I encouraged the spread of the Italian Renaissance by summoning Italian artists to his court. Arabesques, foliage, spirals and pilasters rioted over chairs, credenzas, cabinets and tables. Chairs of the « scabello » and « sedia » types spread throughout France. The châteaux of the Loire valley became the crucibles of the Ile de France school (also known as the Fontainebleau school). Regional schools, including those of Bourgogne, Lyons and Provence, produced more traditional furnishings.
This period was characterised by the rise of a middle-class which contributed, along with the nobility and the clergy, to the development of the decorative arts. Early in the 16th century appeared the armed chair with a straight back.
The four legs were connected by transverse bars some centimetres from the ground. The arms were supported by the elongation of the front legs. In the second half of the century, the back was sloped to make the chair more comfortable. It was either solid and decorated or pierced. The seat was provided with a small square cushion.
These chairs were made of oak or walnut. The feet were often turned. The first upholstered chairs appeared in France at the beginning of the 17th century. The stuffing in the seat (of wool, silk-waste, tow, dried grass or leaves) was supported by a wooden base until this was replaced by a strapwork made of very tightly-woven cloth. The chairs were covered in a variety of fabric – damask or silk velvet in Italy, Tours cloth, embroidered fabrics, petit-point or gros-point tapestry in France. Tooled leather from Spain or the Orient was similarly employed.
The chair in the reign of Louis XIII
The Louis XIII style came about in response to an architectural revival which advocated better-laid-out rooms. Despite the Wars of Religion, the arts were developing and French taste was gradually predominating in Europe at the expense of the Italian taste and Flemish ideas on décor. Louis XIII chairs were more portable and had slightly sloping backs. Upholstery was evolving. Some chairs were caned. The chair was really beginning to make its mark. Seats were wide and shallow, backs were low. Armchairs looked like any other chairs but for having arms. Oak and walnut – native woods – remained in use. The construction of the chair consisted of straight lines. The rear legs were extended to provide the struts for supporting the back. This style is characterised by the lower legs, which are supported by stretcher-bars in the form of an H.
The armchair had straight arms linking the sides to the back. On carved chairs, the sides pieces terminated at the top in animal or human heads.
Combinations of geometrical shapes (including diamonds) were sometimes embossed. Where the wood showed, it was turned in rings or in twists. On the legs and stretcher-bars, there were heavy blocks of wood resembling dice where the pieces were fixed in place. As much of the surface as possible was covered in fabric, although upholstery remained simple, predominantly in silk fabrics (brightly coloured and decorated with foliage or stripes) but also in Cordovan leather. The seat was still quite heavy and plain.
Louis XIV chairs
Louis XIV gathered together the greatest artists and workmen to build his palace of Versailles. The grandiose style produced an impression of uniformity, majesty and distinction. Sculpture, veneering and marquetry (to which André-Charles Boulle gave its full splendour by the incorporation of copper and tortoiseshell) displayed such motifs as symmetrical shells, masks, trophies, double Ls, and lambrequins. Couches and daybeds were fashionable. France was at war with Flanders and the king forbade the importing of cane or of caned chairs. Chairs were still massive. Under Louis XIV, there were two main styles of construction : richly decorated, carved and gilded display-furniture and plainer furniture in natural or painted wood.
Designs were varied; the most common were jointed folding stools with metal frames, chairs with high, narrow backs, arm-chairs with gracefully-curving arms and invalid-chairs or « confessional » chairs, which were more spacious and deeper, prefiguring the bergère with its back and side-pieces
Stretcher-bars became X- rather than H-shaped. The top of the high-backed chair took the form of an arch. Carved arms gradually became almost straight and acquired ornamentation in the form of small padded armrests. There were baluster-feet, console-feet, curved or turned feet and feet shaped like a leg of mutton.
Beech and walnut, close-grained woods, were generally used. Ceremonial chairs were trimmed with gold leaf. On others, the wood was painted or left natural and waxed. Upholstery on chairs had more rounded edges. Braid and decorative studs gave the finishing touches to the work. Precious fabrics (damask, brocade, silk velvet from Genoa) picked out with gold or silver thread were preferred, as were strong, lively colours. The tapestry-makers of Gobelin and Beauvais were internationally famous.