A few months after the death of Richelieu, Louis Xlll died, leaving his five-year-old son Louis XIV to reign for seventy-two years, first under the restraint of Mazarin, and later as absolute monarch. With his succession and under the unbroken influence of his long reign all the arts flourished to an extraordinary degree. Le Roy Soldi ruled with a magnificence and state unknown since the days of the Roman Empire. Colbert, his able minister, gathered famous artists and craftsmen together and housed them in the Louvre under royal patronage.
Early in his reign the King had decided to make his court the most magnificent in all Europe and to make France the center of culture of the modern world. To accomplish this purpose he appointed Le Brun his Minister of Fine Arts. Le Brun took over several of the finest manufacturers in France, placed them under government control and supported them with state funds.
Among these were the Gobelins, Beauvais, Aubusson and Savonnerie looms where tapestries and floor coverings commonly placed in front of fireplace doors were made, and the Sevres porcelain factory. He also established the National School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux Arts) which is still under the French government control and which receives pupils from all over the world, offering free tuition in architecture, painting, sculpture and engraving.
Jules Mansart was appointed royal architect and commissioned to build the great palace at Versailles, one of the most magnificent and largest buildings ever constructed. The cost of this structure alone was so expensive that it is said to have sown the seeds of the French revolution.
The palace was intended not only to furnish living accommodations for the immense retinue of the King, but enormous rooms were planned to entertain thousands of persons in the most regal splendor. Although the building was practically stripped of all its furnishings during the revolution and has undergone many changes since that time, enough of its original decoration still remains to make it the finest extant example of the Louis XIV period.
The most typical characteristic of the interior architecture of this style was the enormous scale of the rooms themselves and the massiveness of the architectural detail and furniture that was in them, right down to the wooden bar rails. The orders were largely used and classical proportions were strictly adhered to, although ornamentation was quite original.
Paneling was large and vigorous. The main structural lines of the panels were straight and rectangular, but much ornament was used. A dado usually ran around the room, the panels above it running up to an ornate cornice. As a rule, the colors used were a cream ground and gilt moldings although natural oak and other painted colors were also employed.
Elaborate woodcarving was much used. Fireplaces were conspicuous, the openings and the chimney breast elaborately treated. Over-mantels incorporated framed paintings, and in smaller rooms mirrors. Doors were paneled, carved, painted and gilded. Floors were of parquet or marble tiling and ceilings often flat in smaller rooms.
Le Brun appointed as head cabinet maker to the King, Boulle (also spelled Boule and Buhl), who with the possible exception of Chippendale has had a greater influence upon the development of furniture than any other man. Boulle is known as having popularized the use of metal mounts (Ormolu) in the ornamentation of furniture. He also is famous for his use of tortoise shell and metal inlay. By cutting two layers of tortoise shell and sheet metal in an elaborate jig-saw pattern, he alternated the metal and the shell in applying it as veneer to the doors and panels of his cabinet furniture.
Boulle used a great variety of wood. Ebony was one of his favorites, but oak, walnut, tulip, rosette wood corner blocks, rosewood, and other more costly woods were also used. Many of his pupils later became well known cabinet makers. Among them were Levasseur, Jacob, and Oeben. The furniture of this period was as a rule large and in the main rectangular lines predominated. The chairs were commonly reinforced with heavy stretchers between the legs.
Later the furniture became curvilinear in both structure and ornament. It was elaborately carved, painted, and gilded, with small pied-de-biche, dolphin’s head, scrolled, round, or square feet. The pieces were numerous, the canape, commode, armoire and escritoire were finely developed. Superb Aubusson tapestry, embroidery, needlework, damask, large figured velvets, leather and caning were used. Metal mounts were works of art in brass or ormolu. Everything was formal, stately and sumptuous.