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Louis XVI and the Rise of Neoclassicism

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Louis XVI

Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette have become the most recognisable names of the French Monarchy. Despite presiding over the advent of the French Revolution and losing their lives to Revolutionary France, their reign oversaw one of the most notable and influential developments in art and design – the shift from Rococo to Neoclassicism.

It could be argued that from childhood the young Louis-August was ill equipped to become the king of France. He was third in line to the throne of his Grandfather Louis XV and so did not benefit from the education often set in place for the heir apparent. His older brother died at the age of nine, and so upon the death of his father from tuberculosis in 1765, at the age of eleven Louis-August became the new Dauphin. His uncle had charge of his education, and the uneven mixture of studies left him poorly prepared to rule a country in political and social turmoil. He had a keen interest in history, Latin and geography, but his other instructors taught him the conflicting merits of timidity, leading to a portrayal of him as an indecisive king during his rule.

On May 16th 1770, aged only 15, Louis married the Archduchess of Austria, Marie-Antoinette. One could argue that Marie-Antoinette herself was even more ill equipped for becoming Queen than her husband. The 15th child of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa she received an aristocratic education, but not one specifically designed to prepare her to become Queen. Nevertheless her marriage to the Dauphin was deemed advantageous, and so at 14 she married Louis. The young couple were complete strangers until two days before their marriage, and due to their shyness, young age and inexperience their marriage was amiable but distant, ultimately not being consummated until 1777.

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At 19 in 1774 Louis ascended the French throne as Louis XVI. He lacked self-confidence and felt unprepared for the responsibility placed before him. The government was deeply in debt, and public opinion had turned against a monarchy which was seen as increasingly ‘despotic’. His support for the colonists of the American Civil War brought the government to the edge of bankruptcy, and accusation of his wife’s spending, frivolity and extravagance turned the tide of public opinion against him. To stave off impending disaster Louis XVI called the ‘estates-general’ in order to raise taxes. This would provide the framework for the Revolution to take hold. In 1789 he was forced to bow to the authority of the newly formed National Assembly after the storming of the Bastille.

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On January 18th, 1793 he was condemned to death. He was guillotined in the Place de la Révolution in Paris on Jan. 21, 1793, followed nine months later by his wife Marie-Antoinette.

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While the lavish court styles of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette made them unpopular with the French people, they were instrumental in the shift from the late Rococo decorative art styles to the Neoclassical movement. Marie-Antoinette especially played patron to a number of painters, designers and cabinet makers of the day. The king himself was said to have loved pastel colours and exotic woods, but it was Marie-Antoinette who was responsible for furnishing Versailles, creating a golden age of French art and design.

Typical of Louis XVI style (also known as Louis Seize) is a feeling of informality and intimacy. Marie Antoinette sought after the more simple things in life, as can be evidenced by her commissioning of the The Queen’s Hamlet; a fully functioning farm to which she could escape the rigours of palace life in an attempt to imitate a more rustic lifestyle, and this need for simplicity translates itself to much of the early French Neoclassical commissioned work of the day.

Queen's Hamlet

Louis XVI style saw a return to simpler forms, graceful lines and more restrained ornamentation. Pastel colours were in vogue and furniture and chimneypiece design included attempts to imitate the classical elements of Ancient Greece and Rome. These including carved friezes, classical columns and finely carved friezes with wreaths and foliage, all of which can be seen on this very fine Louis XVI antique fireplace below.

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As opposed to their more opulent uses however, the early Neoclassical style of Louis XVI augments these designs with asymmetry, and straight simple lines. Some perfect examples of these ideals in use can be seen in a selection of Thornhill Galleries’ antique and reclaimed fire surrounds. These three examples show a varied cross section of what the simple Louis XVI style was capable of, specifically in fireplace design.

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All three fire surrounds show similar design elements, each however remaining completely unique. They share the classical motifs, especially of the oak and laurel wreaths, while maintaining clean and simple lines. The transition can be clearly seen from the more curved and opulent design of the late Rococo to the more simple neoclassical style. For more examples of antique fireplaces of this nature, please click here: http://www.thornhillgalleries.co.uk/fireplaces/

It is somehow ironic that a reign which fell due to public opinion of its opulence should produce a relatively simple and intimate design style as Louis XVI. The death of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette led to the end of the golden age of French art and design. French style had already made such an impact on the world that the seeds of Neoclassicism spread by the reign of Louis XVI would be picked up and developed by other nations, ending the French monopoly on the fashions of art, design and decoration.

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