Antique Louis XVI Chairs: Elevating interiors

A pair of Louis XVI giltwood armchairs, stamped by Jean-Baptiste Gourdin. A pair of Louis XVI giltwood armchairs, stamped by Jean-Baptiste Gourdin. Sold for €24,130 EUR via Sotheby's (June 2023).
French monarchs have long been associated with a style of furniture and interior design that left a lasting impression on the world. In particular, Louis XVI and his wife, Queen MarieAntoinette were instrumental in popularizing the lavish and ornate aesthetic known as Louis XVI style. Renowned for its elegance and sophistication, the design movement featured intricately carved furniture, opulent fabrics, and a harmonious blend of Neoclassical elements.

In actual fact Louis XVI is thought to have had little interest in the arts, but Marie-Antoinette was a devoted patron with a taste for Neoclassicism – a movement that was inspired by the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. It came into vogue with the discovery and unearthing of archeological sites at Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748, respectively. Scholars, designers, architects and engravers were dispatched to Italy and their sketches of artifacts and frescos informed the designs of furniture designers and cabinet makers of the time, especially those who worked with fine marquetry.

Marie-Antoinette and the royal court embarked on furnishing projects on a grand scale and ordered large numbers of exquisite pieces for the new apartments in the Palace of Versailles, the Palace of Fontainebleau and other royal residences.

The new style – which was much emulated by the upper classes – was a departure from the lavishly decorated and curving Rococo style of the previous decades. It can be recognised by simpler, more streamlined and restrained forms: chair legs became straight and fluted – often featuring classical columns with Ionic capitals – while chair backs were oval or rectangular. Decorations were light and refined, often mixing flora and fauna motifs, horns of plenty, garlands and references to Greek mythology.

Although the French Revolution saw the dispersal of much of the most precious furniture, much of which has ended up in museums around the world, the influence of this period can be felt to this day. Many pieces continue to be highly valued and collected, often restored and altered, but still recognisably of the Louis XVI period or inspired by it.

Louis XVI Chaise Voyeuse with "en Lyre" style back.

Chaise Voyeuse with “en Lyre” style back. Sold for €660 EUR via Sequana (June 2016).

What Makes a Louis XVI Chair?

Chairs from this period are highly collectible and sought after on Invaluable. In terms of their style, they were elegant and popular for a remarkable for a wide variety of designs, especially in the backs of the armchairs. These included styles known as en raquette, en chapeau, en lyre, en grebe and en médaillon. A Louis XVI chair can also be identified by its legs; these were usually straight and fluted to resemble Roman or Greek columns tapering to the end. As per Queen Marie-Antoinette’s taste, upholstery tended to be floral while frames were often gilded. 

  • En Raquette: “En raquette” translates to “racket” in English. This style often features a backrest shaped like a tennis racket, with a rounded or oval central panel.
  • En Chapeau: “En chapeau” means “hat.” Chairs with an “en chapeau” back have a top rail that resembles the shape of a hat, often with a concave or rounded design.
  • En Lyre: “En lyre” translates to “lyre” or “lyre-shaped.” This style mimics the shape of a lyre, with a central panel resembling the body of the musical instrument.
  • En Gerbe: “En gerbe” translates to “sheaf” or “in a bundle.” This style may involve a backrest design resembling a sheaf of wheat or a bundled arrangement.
  • En Médaillon: “En médaillon” means “in medallion.” Chairs with an “en médaillon” back often have a central oval or round medallion shape as part of the backrest design.

One of the most classic examples of Louis XVI style can be found in Marie-Antoinette’s private chambers in the Palace of Versailles. She renewed the furnishings in her rooms several times, notably in 1783, when she commissioned white wood panels that were decorated with gilded Neoclassical designs, such as sphinxes and flowers. The furniture was made by her favourite designer, Jean Henri Riesener, and included a commode, a corner table and a secretaire inlaid with cedar wood, amaranth and medallions of gilded bronze. It also included a sofa with a gilded frame.

Suite of six Louis XVI chairs with backs "en gerbe".

Suite of six Louis XVI chairs with backs “en gerbe”. Sold for €15,643 EUR via Tajan (June 2004).

This period saw much innovation in furniture and cabinetry and under the auspices of Louis XVI the world saw the first recorded swivel chair – the Fauteuil de Bureau. The first set was made by Henri Jacob in 1785, of carved walnut, cane and leather. The seat was mounted on a circular platform and could turn around. The chaise voyeuse, designed for a person to sit astride and lean on the chair back while playing a game of cards, remained in fashion.

A Noble Chair Made from Fine Materials

Forms of timber easily found in France, such as cherry and walnut, were often used, as well as beech, which was more widely used for chairs, as it was easily sculpted yet robust. The decorative, colorful woods used for marquetry usually came from South America or the West Indies – and were considered precious. Mahogany also became popular in the late Louis XVI period.

Meet the Makers

One of the most notable carpenters – or master menuisiers – of chairs was Georges Jacob, whose workshop produced carved, painted and gilded seat furniture and upholstery for the French royal palaces. His contemporaries (and rivals) Jean-Baptiste-Claude and brother Louis Sené made furniture for several French royal palaces. A typical example of Sené’s work can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which holds a carved armchair from 1788 that is covered in Neoclassical ornamentation, such as laurel and acanthus leaves, with arms supported by busts of Diana, the goddess of hunting. This chair was almost certainly part of a suite made for Marie-Antoinette’s cabinet de toilette at the Palace of Saint-Cloud outside Paris.

Modern Approaches to the Louis XVI Chair

Nowadays, interior designers often use an eclectic mix of pieces from different eras. Original pieces sell for high sums so reproductions, or pieces inspired by the period, are easier to find and incorporate into interior schemes. Carved details, sumptuous upholstery and gilded frames all add a touch of opulence but designs are often more pared back so as not to overwhelm either contemporary or traditional settings. Upholstering a chair in a modern fabric can bring it into the 21st century and help to fit seamlessly with a chosen design scheme.