French Antique Furniture Overview

To help us understand French antique furniture, we shall start around the 1700 hundreds(18th Century) when the French were extremely powerful and so... it was fashion to follow the French.

Let us start our French antique furniture adventure with the...


and the Duc d'Orléans 1715-1723.

He was said to be a witty and fun loving person which had an influence on Society as it was then. As the Court moved from Versailles to Paris, social behaviour became more relaxed and intimate and thus the furniture styles changed as well.

Many new houses were built to house all these court followers and Paris became very cosmopolitan.

All this activity brought with it some excellent cabinet makers among whom, many were foreign.

Furniture began to get curvy, for example the cabriole leg, the comfortable upholstered bergère chair came into being and bronze mounts began to compliment commodes and other furniture.

French antique comfortable upholstered bergère chairWith Louis the Fifteenth (Louis XV 1723-1774) -came the

Rococo period ca. 1730 - 1770 where an abundance of ornamentation and a preference for light and gay colours was the fashion not only on the walls but cascading onto the furniture as well, in the form of foliage, flowers and scallop shells.

Exotic woods on French antique furniture of this period: rosewood, tulip wood, amaranth, mahogany, satinwood amongst others for marquetry and inlays.

Towards the 1760s the traditional geometric panels were replaced by more complex pictorial designs in marquetry boasting musical instruments, shells, flowers and Chinese scenes reflecting the decoration on porcelain and textiles of the time.

French marquetry games table 1740Originally these pieces of antique french furniture must have been extremely colourful, almost painful to the eye, but these brilliant tones and colours have been mostly lost due to light and the atmosphere.

On some marquetry restoration I have done on antique commodes and tables, you can get an idea of the colours when lifting the panels off the carcase and looking at the underside.

Painted furniture in red, yellow, green and black was also in vogue.

Furniture was also imported from the orient and the panels taken out and put into new furniture.

French furniture was also sent to the orient to be Laquered and this caused the 'varnishers' to experiment until the Martin Brothers managed to develop an imitation and bring it to perfection around 1730. Hence Vernis Martin.

Commodes became smaller and developed into corner cupboards which came mostly in pairs. The Chaise-longue was most popular. Consol tables, the bonheur du jour for writing materials and dainty tables such as the coiffeuse, a dressing table to hold hair pins and wigs, the poudreuse to hold beauty patches, chiffonières for sewing implements.

These tables tended to be small and light so they could be easily moved about the room.

Antique French furniture of the 1700sAmong the great cabinet makers of the time were Oeben, Caffieri, Meissonier, Oppenord and Oudry.

We must remember that although provincial antique french furniture lacks the bronze mounts and other decorations, the forms still followed the height of fashion, although in some areas this would have followed somewhat later and the exotic woods would have been replaced mostly by local woods.

Around 1760 the Rococo began to lose favour and this is referred to as the Transitional Period.

Some famous cabinet makers of the french furniture period were Jean Francois Oeben, Jean-Henri Riesener and Jean-Francois Leleu.

The curvy, wavy, and opulent furniture began to take on straighter, less frivolous stature and by the time Louis the Sixteenth (Louis XVI 1774-1793) came to the throne furniture was becoming simpler, back to the rectangular, and with straight lines.

Carving became flatter and more restrained, case furniture became straight and angular and marquetry returned to popularity. Cabriole legs changed to tapered or turned and grooved or fluted.

The decoration was classical - Greco-Roman - acanthus leaf, oak leaves, palm leaves, fretwork, and ribbons, swans, urns, lyres, festoons and wreaths. China plaques were also used. The secrétaire à abbatant (fall front secretaire) already popular became more so. The vitrine for displaying curios came into being. Mahogany was mostly used and ebony was back in fashion.

Fall front secretaire FrenchThe Neo-Classical style in antique french furniture was to remain up to and after the revolution.

The decoration then changed to caps, arrows, spikes, triangles, wreaths, clasped hands, fasces - the motifs of the revolution.

Directoire ca. 1795 - 1804.

France was no more the Influence of fashion as of old and the carpenters didn't have the patronage of a monarch any more.

The standards of French furniture making reflected the changes in the economy and became simpler.

The interest in archaeology was wide spread by the end of the 18th century and Napoleons martial expedition to Egypt (lasting 4 years) brought on a new passion for sphinxes, gods from the Egyptian Pantheon, ancient Pharaohs and Mummified figures.Sabre legs on chairs, along with scrolled-over top rails are often seen on antique French antique furniture of this time.

 Empire: 1804-1815

French Empire bureau-platAntique French furniture became heavy, grand and masculine.

Mahogany furniture carried bronze mounts, chair backs were stiff and square.

Napoleon's military victories were mirrored on the decoration of furniture in the form of crossed swords, laurel crowns, bows and arrows.

Joséphine introduced a few feminine motives such as the swan which was incorporated into the shape of chair arms and beds and tables were supported by them.

The large Psyche mirror and a delicate table à toilette, designed to be perched on a ladies knee were two new styles of french furniture to be introduced during this time.

The English blockade made mahogany scarce and very expensive - cabinet makers resorted to local and other European woods such as fruit woods, walnut, ash, elm, sycamore and so forth.

Swans on French furnitureBeware when buying French antique furniture that you are not buying one of the many copies that were produced during the industrial era. 

Restoration 1815 - 1850

Changing times - the industrial revolution which in turn produced a new type of customer for the cabinet makers.

With the specialized Gilds having been abolished the carpenters were able to create workshops with other specialists.

The new middle class tastes were not as exacting as the Royal Patronage of bygone years and the straight and masculine Empire style began to become more comfortable and less ornate.

These were troubled times : Louis XVIII (1815-1824), Charles X (1824-1830) and by the time Louis Philippe (1830-1848) had fled the country, furniture had taken on many elements of previous Monarchs - the curves and swings of Rococo along with the Gothic revival.

The new rich had taken to decorating rooms in different styles and Boulle work was also back in fashion along with the revival of bamboo furniture in the late 1830s.

Political unrest persuaded many cabinet makers to leave the country - many to England and Germany.

The Second Empire 1848 - 1870

With Napoleon III, fashion began to be dictated by a Monarch again as in the 18th century.

The revival continued combining Louis XV with Louis XVI and these various styles remained until around 1870.

With the coming and going of cabinet makers from other countries historical remakes in many styles continued alongside the new Art Nouveau style.

Art Nouveau 1880 - 1910

French art-nouveau furniture

A German dealer from Hamburg who opened a shop in Paris, filled with Japanese traditional ware, furniture, glass, ceramics etc, unwittingly gave the new movement its name by calling his shop 'L'Art Nouveau'.

The foliage of the Baroque and Rococo began to take on a new stylised form. Louis Majorelle produced furniture with characteristic flower or plant motifs that controlled the form anique French furniture was to take.