18th Century French Furniture Style Guide

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the French Royal court was the dominant force in defining taste and style throughout Europe, rendering French 18th century furniture extremely desirable. The combination of fashionable styles and impeccable artistry meant that French craftsmanship reigned supreme.

RÉGENCE 1700 – 1730

Charles Cressent was one of the most highly revered masters within the Régence and early Rococo periods. His work was characterized by the use of exotic timbers such as palissandre and amaranth. His bombé commodes are lavished in highly sculptural and decorative ormolu mounts resulting in almost a total loss of form and function in favour of the curvaceousness and movement of the gilt bronze. Many of these features are beautifully demonstrated by the commode pictured, c. 1730, found at Waddesdon Manor.


The Régence is a period of 18th-century french furniture that spans two, the end of the heavy baroque classicism of Louis XIV’s court under the artistic direction of Charles LeBrun and the beginning of what would become the Rococo. As early as 1699, the King had called for a lighter new style in the creation of the updated interiors for the Chateâu de la Ménagerie at Versailles, he noted that ‘youthfulness’ was lacking in the first drafts. Even the King needed somewhere to escape the omnipresent pomp and majesty of the Official style that adorned every room of Versailles. He found his respite at Trianon and Marly.

The comfortable rooms at Marly were designed in stark contrast to those of Versailles. Comfort was the order of the day, combined with gracefulness and elegance. A general reduction of the highly sculptural baroque, its decorative elements, and bold classical orders were seen as the style developed under the guidance of Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646-1708). A key decorative detail of the Régence was the use of ‘Strapwork’ as a 3-dimensional decorative motif, joining architectural details as well as furniture ornament. The notable designers of the day included Jean Berain (1640-1711) Claude Audran ( 1658-1734) and Pierre Le Pautre (C.1648-1716).

A Régence tortoiseshell and brass inlaid table top showing bands of strapwork integrating the scene and the development of the rococo C scroll. This design carries the eye from left to right, up and down, in swirls and curls interspersed with delightful pools of detail. (Image Christie’s)

Under the direction of the Regent, The Duc D’Orleans, the French court moved from Versailles to Paris and the young Prince Louis who was 5 years old in 1715 took up residence in the Tuileries. Versailles at this time had become ‘gloomy and faded’ and with this move the court artists and intellectuals followed. France at this time was in financial dire straits following numerous very expensive wars during Louis XIV’s reign. As a result, much of the commissions for the new style came from private figures to furnish their new hôtels in the Faubourg St.-Honoré and Faubourg St. Germain – 18th-century french furniture.

Rococo 1730 – 1755

Jean-François Oeben, one of the chief cabinetmaker’s to Louis XV, was a proponent of later Rococo and the Greek styles of the mid-eighteenth century. He was famed by his ingenious mechanical examples, where hidden drawers and chambers are revealed to only those who know the secrets of these masterpieces. Oeben’s furniture maintains a sense of the Rococo: the cabriole leg is still present, as is a curvature of the of the sides of many cabinets and commodes yet the design is overall remarkably more ordered, controlled and rational as floral marquetry tends to take precedence over the ormolu. The image featured, of one of Oeben’s writing/toilette tables c. 1750 from the Getty Museum, demonstrates this evolution of French furniture style.

Oeben’s writing/toilette tables c. 1750 from the Getty Museum

Picking up on the Régence, the Rococo period falls under the reign of Louis XV and is generally considered to last from 1730-1755, though outside of France, the style was enjoyed for longer into the late 18th century. The Rococo is a fanciful style, that is both decorative and opulent, its roots stem in the divergence from the Baroque of Louis XIV and develop the ideas and styles of the Régence period. Notably, the reference to the classical language of the ancients that was the foundation of the Baroque, was removed completely from sight. Not a column or classical Roman capital to be seen.

Pleasure, informality and intimacy were the of far greater importance to the mid 18th century elite. Consequently, the use and design of rooms changed and so did the French furniture style. The Parisian houses installed tall elegant windows that flooded the rooms with light, and fitted pier mirrors between them to maximise the feeling of space, daylight and evening candlelight. The room’s paneling incorporated carved rocailles that created the flow and structure of the room and painted in light pastel colours to enhance the light.

In Pierre le Patte’s ‘Discours Sur l’architecture’ of 1754, he recorded that “Previously dwellings were designed purely for display, and nothing was known of the art of living in comfort, for one’s own benefit. It is the pleasing distribution of space in the hôtels of the present day that transforms our dwellings into abodes of charm and delight.” He refers to the intimate rooms of city townhouses, rather than the grand Palace halls that were still required design in the courtly formal manner.

It is possible that the origins of the word Rococo, lie in a decorative detail known as the rocaille which referred to the ornament of rocky waterfalls, shell works, icicles, and other asymmetrical decorative elements that were used regularly both in interior design decoration, but also on objects and furniture. This combined with the rejection of straight classical lines and their replacement with C and S scrolls inspired by nature were the perfect motifs to employ in all sorts of manner. Fantasy was further enriched by the introduction of Singeries and Chinoiseries introducing surprise and the exotic.

A rare set of boiserie panels are now installed at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. The ‘Green Boudoir’, has a cornice of gilt cavorting monkeys. This transitional paneling retains design elements from the slightly more rigid Régence and thus dates it to the transition of the Régence and Rococo styles circa 1725 – 30. Chinoiseries were also the perfect companion to the Rococo, the exotic opened endless opportunities for charming ornament. Other notable interiors that retain their Chinoiserie interiors with monkeys are the Grand and Petit Singeries at the Château de Chantilly.

The Green Boudoir at Waddesdon Manor. Monkeys span the cornice in ever elaborate acrobatics so suited to such a fluid natural style

The Rococo continued in France into the mid 1750’s when it began to fall foul of the views of the classicists and traditionalists who harked back to the classics and advocated a return to reason and the classical orders. The Rococo coincided with discovery and excavations taking place in Italy which slowly drove a new and fervored interest in classicism that finally took hold during the last decades of the 18th century. Furthermore, the Rococo became associated with immorality and wayward behavior of Louis XV’s court. Through a phase of transition, aptly referred to as ‘Transitional’, Rococo designs began to ‘tighten up’, for example, the introduction of straight fluted chair legs, yet still with Rococo arms fall well into the Transitional period.

Pair of ‘Transitional’ armchairs by Nicolas Courtois Master 1766 at Nicholas Wells Antiques

NEO CLASSICAL 1755 – 1798

Classicism was back, the antique sources of the Greeks and Romans and their revival during the Renaissance fueled the artistic references for last decades of the 18th-century and continued into the 19th. This incarnation of classicism had a distinct moral purpose, a cleansing from the extravagances of the Rococo under Louis XV with reinterpreted extravagances of the period. It was also adopted by a far wider audience from the outset. As far away in St. Petersburg, Classicism was the order of the day, and even today that style dominates the streets and canals. In England, Robert Adam and his contemporaries transformed the country houses of Great Britain into Arcadian idylls of Classicism.

Writing table made for Marie Antoinette, 1780-85 at Waddesdon Manor
Jean-Henri Riesener – National Trust, Waddesdon Manor / Jérôme Letellier

Jean Henri Riesener’s period of eminence comes after Oeben, and is characteristically neo-classical. This is visible from the use of decorative motifs such as running guilloche, egg and dart in addition to fluted, tapered legs. We can see this from the example above, dated c. 1780-85, also from Waddesdon Manor. As mentioned previously, and highlighted throughout Waddesdon’s exhibition, Riesener’s close connection to Louix XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette renders his work not only of decorative interest but also historic, as examples of the opulence ultimately leading to Revolution.

Stylistically, classical references drawn from antiquity are abundantly seen on furniture and the interiors it was designed for. As with the Rococo and any movement, everything was in the gout du jour. Rams heads, husk swags, paterea, classical orders, fluted columns, pilasters, anthemions, friezes, scrolls, volutes and acanthus leaves, classical term figures, river gods and all things classical issued from the drawing books of Parisian designers and into workshops of cabinet makers, bronziers, artists, architects and all sort of artisan craftsmen and women.

Louis XVI Satinwood Commode, Ferdinand Bury – Dit ‘Ferdinand
Classicism was also celebrated with a sparsity of detail, where lavish ornament gave way to refined detail and quality materials.
Here exotic Satinwood and Amaranth were used with gilt bronze to exemplify the simplicity of outline but the sophistication of its creation.

In post-revolutionary France, the Empire style championed by Napoleon is exemplified by the furniture of Bellangé. The drawing pictured, depicts a set of designs by the craftsman c. 1800 and demonstrates the transition to heavier furniture using darker woods and a mixture of decorative motifs taken from a mixture of ancient cultures such as classical and Egyptian. The furniture is, on the whole, considerably more immobile and has a weight of grandeur and dominance that the lighter neoclassical examples simply did not possess.

One of the desirable features of French 18th century furniture is that it is commonly stamped thanks to the Parisian guild systems in place. Statutes introduced in the seventeenth century enforced the stamping of furniture, ensuring that works been produced by registered ‘masters’ and their workshops. This helped to maintain quality control in addition to self-preservation and distinction of the guilds. The guild regulations were very strict – Charles Cressent was fined and even imprisoned several times for producing his own bronze mounts – a practice that was strictly forbidden. Today, stamped furniture is particularly helpful in terms of identification, as they bear the name or initials of the master of the workshop. English furniture, however, is generally not stamped, and therefore more difficult when faced with questions of attribution.

Waddesdon Manor’s desire to highlight the French furniture within the collection is easily justifiable, but it is not only within country house and museum collections that these pieces of incredible craftsmanship can exist. Original, stamped, French furniture could be yours to take home! There are several pieces of Louis XIV through to Empire furniture available with Nicholas Wells Antiques ranging from commodes and chairs to desks.

Take a look at some examples of French furniture currently available at Nicholas Wells Antiques – amazing pieces all in need of a good home.