Plant ornamentation through French styles

April 30, 2020
Paul Bert Serpette

Nature has always been one of the main sources of inspiration in men's artistic creations. Already in antiquity, acanthus leaves and foliage peopled with birds adorned the architectural elements that we still have the chance to admire today. Over the centuries, plant ornamentation has continued to enhance furniture and works of art, crossing French styles.

17th century

If the taste for plant decorations is a thousand years old, in the 16th century we witnessed a real revival of interest in botanical subjects, thanks to the publication of multiple works, inspiring all Decorative Arts.

In the 17th century, the sumptuous Louis XIV style saw bouquets and abundant foliage flourish in sumptuous inlays like that of Thomas Hache or the no less famous André Charles Boulle. The sculpted elements are not left out and the acanthus leaves are dressed in their most beautiful golden woods. Plant ornamentation becomes pure aesthetic pleasure and a pretext for the technical demonstration of the greatest cabinetmakers and ornamentalists in the decoration of royal apartments, orchestrated by Charles Le Brun.

18th century

The Louis XV style sees the climax of the plant kingdom arrive. It becomes the basic ornamental reference and is enriched with exotic references and chinoiseries. The legs are refined thanks to technical progress, endowing the curves with more elegance and also allowing the appearance of the impressive Rocaille style.

Many ornamentalists excel in the art of plant decoration, like Jean Pillement and his chinoiserie decorations, or even the extravagant Juste Aurèle Meisonnier, designer of the King's room.

Little by little, the excessive sinuosities of the Louis XV styles will be abandoned in favor of a return to the principles of Antiquity, brought by the discoveries of the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is how the Louis XVI style came into being, dominated by the extraordinary influence of Marie-Antoinette on the decorative arts. On light furniture, you can see friezes of palm leaves or inlays of lake landscapes.

Art Nouveau

As a Belle Epoque result, Art Nouveau is a real renaissance in the field of decorative arts. The lines of the furniture directly take the form of plant stems, while remaining refined. The ornamental repertoire meanwhile is above all floral and showcases new varieties. Poppies, ferns, water lilies, Irises, hawthorns and sweet peas ... It is a garden of another order that flourishes on the decor.

In France, the architect Hector Guimard embodies this movement with the creation of metro entrances. Emile Gallé is also a worthy representative of Art Nouveau with its glassware, ceramics, furniture ...

Qualified as a “noodle style” because of its stretched lines, the Universal Exhibition of 1900 will constitute a quality showcase, notably with the works of Louis Majorelle, Emile Gallé, René Lalique, Eugène Grasset…