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 Stylistic Origins 


Stylistic Origins of the Château des Bois CollectionTM


(This information may be freely copied and disseminated, providing attribution to M. Markley Antiques is included.)


M. Markley Antiques is recognized as the foremost authority in the U.S. on French Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival furniture.  This has allowed us to offer the widest array of pieces to buyers who prize these styles and to procure the most interesting and unique items as they become available in Europe.  Because enthusiasm in the U.S. for these styles has outpaced the publication of scholarly materials,* we have dedicated our website to expanding and enhancing the resources available in English on the 19th century revival in France of Gothic and Renaissance design.  In this endeavor, we express our gratitude for their inspiration and guidance to two people connected to Meril Markley's alma mater, Vassar College, where her love of Gothic Revival style was born:  Professor Emeritus of Art History, Eugene Carroll; and Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The Markleys with Eugene Carroll at Brasserie 292 in Poughkeepsie

The Markleys with Christopher Wilk at Racine in London

Eugene Carroll's Book to Accompany the Exhibition
at the National Gallery in Washington, DC (1987)

              Christopher Wilk's Book on the History of Furniture (1996)

Much has already been published about the Gothic Revival in England – a movement encompassing the late 18th century and much of the 19th century.  Not only did it include architecture and furniture, but also literature, painting and poetry.  To its adherents, it was superior to all other styles, not only artistically but morally.  It embodied what it meant to be English, although contemporary critics noted that Gothic architecture originated in France and was exported to England at a time when the country’s Plantagenet rulers spoke French.  Nevertheless, the Gothic Revival was firmly entrenched within the broader Romantic Movement as part of a yearning for distant historical times of myth and legend while promoting personal emotional expression over encroaching industrialization.  Neo-Classicism, with its emphasis on the rational and on the remote pagan civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome was swept aside by a rising tide of interest in individualism, nationalism, Christian religious fervor and love of nature.  

As with other design movements, the 19th century revival of interest in the Middle Ages was shaped by political, social and economic events.  The French Revolution caused huge disruptions in the hereditary aristocracy along with dispersal and destruction of family fortunes, including furniture.  The subsequent years of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe wrought havoc on furniture and its owners across the continent.  With Wellington’s victory came waves of British would-be collectors,  like locusts devouring a crop of wheat, buying furniture at fire-sale prices and even chartering their own ships to haul it home from the Continent.  This harvest of chattels involved the destruction of buildings, especially Gothic churches, where architectural elements were considered fair game for enthusiasts wishing to add a Gothic flavor to existing buildings or to include a ruin in their garden.

While such wholesale transfers of wealth from one country to another are rare, in the case of French furniture in England, it can be argued that preservation and admiration were fortunate byproducts.  As Clive Wainwright demonstrates in his fascinating book, The Romantic Interior, collecting was no longer limited to the nobility but trickled down to the merchant class and the upwardly mobile.  Such literary luminaries as Sir Walter Scott and Horace Walpole adored the Gothic style and collected passionately to create the romance of the Middle Ages in their homes without sacrificing modern conveniences for the primitive standard of living and technology in medieval times.  Collectors became patrons and protectors, studiously cataloguing their collections and opening their homes to visitors.

Book by Clive Wainwright(
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Jacqueline Boccardor's Book in French

Jacques Thirion's Book in French

During the early 19th century, France too was swamped by waves of enthusiasm for earlier styles.  These went by various names, including those attributed to Kings Henri II (reigned 1547-1559) and Louis XIII (reigned 1610-1643), but also items made in the 16th and 17th centuries and referred to collectively as haute époque (Middle Ages and Renaissance).  As in England, the Gothic Revival in France was closely associated with literature, especially the works of the devoted furniture collector Victor Hugo, but without adopting a moral stance.  It enjoyed the indulgence of royalty as the Duchesse de Berry embraced and encouraged what was called the Troubadour Style or Cathedral Style of Gothic Revival on exhibit at French industrial and trade fairs in the early 19th century.  The shift in tastes from Empire, with its elaborate polishing and ormolu, to Gothic Revival with its more massive and architectural look, also reflects the importance of individual collectors and the expansion of the ranks of the bourgeoisie seeking to validate nascent wealth with timeless furniture.  

As political stability returned intermittently to France, the Gothic Revival became enmeshed with a movement by leading intellectuals and artists to conserve the country’s artistic heritage.  In 1830, a government department was established to preserve and protect national treasures including the medieval city of Carcassonne and to restore buildings such as Notre Dame de Paris under the supervision of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.  Even the King of France, Louis Philippe (reigned 1830-1848), indulged his passion for earlier times.  He embraced 19th century industrial techniques to popularize the revival of furniture in the Gothic and Renaissance styles, particularly in connection with the renovation of his residence, the Château de Pau in southwestern France.  

The key stylistic elements of the Gothic Period are the pointed arch, the linen-fold panel (pli de serviette or pli de parchemin), spires and columns (including fluted and twisted), tracery resembling windows in cathedrals (fenestrage), vegetation (vines, grapes, sunflowers, etc.) and fantastic animal and human figures (especially hunt motifs and mythical beasts such as griffins and basilisks).  Combined in virtuosic exuberance, they are pleasing to the eye and captivating to the mind as they invite contemplation and celebration of each detail as well as the overall effect.

Linen-fold panel on Chest  3216

Finial on Cabinet 5216

Fenestrage on Cabinet 4190

Basilisk on Cabinet 5216

The French revival of Gothic style, as interpreted in furniture, is clearly distinguishable from the English.  At the risk of generalizing, English Gothic furniture has a more delicate and refined look and finish.  It is a re-interpretation of earlier styles to suit 19th century tastes and lifestyles rather than a faithful recreation of old pieces of furniture.  French Gothic furniture, on the other hand, appears more massive and solid, faithfully replicating the pieces from the haute époque on view in many French museums and collections in the 19th century.  For Gothic pieces incorporating tracery or fenestrage, the material of choice was oak as it was for medieval artisans.  Renaissance and Louis XIII style pieces from the 19th century tend to be of walnut, whose fine grain permitted highly intricate carving such as that created by 15th and 16th century craftsmen.  An emphasis of architectural elements including arches, columns, pediments and trestles characterized the 19th century revival with an emphasis on construction from solid wood, in contrast to 18th century construction techniques involving inlays, marquetry and veneers.

Particularly toward the end of the Middle Ages and as Renaissance design moved northward from Italy, the furniture is characterized by the elaborate detail and exquisite ornamentation found in the paintings of that time period.  A shift in overall style from Gothic arches and tracery to Renaissance elements traceable to the re-discovery of Roman designs from antiquity, such as “grotesque decoration” adopted by artists such as Raphael and Pinturicchio and inspired by the ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea, take hold.

Spurring a complete re-invention of art in France in the 16th century was King François I (reigned 1515-1547) and his passion for all things Italian.  The king invited the Florentine artist, Rosso Fiorentino, to the hunting lodge of Fontainebleau to expand and renovate it.  Rosso's masterpiece was the Galérie François I, including frescoes glorifying the king’s magnificence and framed by stuccos introducing design elements such as strap-work, garlands of vegetation, and mythological figures.  

Galérie François I

Venus Fresco by Rosso Fiorentino

Image of  Rosso Fiorentino from the Elephant Fresco

Book from  Exhibition at Château de Fontainebleau (2013)

In fact, the king treasured this room so much that he founded a tapestry workshop at Fontainebleau to craft six tapestries based on Rosso’s work, so they could remind him of the Galérie and accompany him on extended visits to his other residences.  These are on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Rosso was central to the adoption of  Italian Renaissance style in France, not just in the frescos and stuccos in the Galérie François I but also from books of engravings made from his designs, influencing furniture makers for generations to come.  It is these works that 19th century designers copied faithfully and, at times, sought to pass off as 16th century originals.  Thanks to Eugene Carroll, Professor Emeritus of Art History at Vassar College and developer of a website dedicated to Rosso Fiorentino, our research into the development of furniture design in France has been greatly and fruitfully expanded.

The key stylistic elements of the Renaissance are the rounded arch and other architectural elements, rectilinear designs mimicking perspective in painting, elaborate and broad mouldings, contrasting types of wood or marble inlays, emblematic animals such as lions, salamanders and porcupines, Roman armorial symbols, mythological figures portrayed in caryatids and terms, historical figures and biblical scenes portrayed on panels, and the acanthus leaf.  An emphasis on symmetry and overall balance also characterize furniture of this period along with a sense of the individual owner whose taste it mirrors.  The grotesques and mythological allusions may also reflect the influence of the ceramics or faïence known as Urbinoware whose brightly colored examples swept into France from Italy to be adopted and further developed by ceramic manufacturers such as Gien and Blois in the 19th century.  

Armorial Ornamentation on Table 9218

Salamander Emblem on Chest 5154


Term on Chest 5154

Figure with Lion Mask on Cabinet 5183A

Grotesque Ornamentation on Cabinet 4157

Grotesque Masque on Chair 5212

For us, one of the most perplexing aspects of Renaissance design in France was the use of what appear to be motifs from the native cultures of Central and South America including figures with elaborate feather headdresses, earrings and costumes.  These were especially popular in the hand-carved decoration of cabinets and armoires from the 16th century.  The mystery was solved when we read in the New York Times of an exhibit at the Grand Palais in Paris in the spring of 2005 of artifacts of Brazilian Indians.  Alan Riding detailed in the article how the French were captivated by 50 Indians brought to France in 1550 and housed in a reconstructed Indian village in Normandy for the entertainment of royalty.  From this exposure to New World culture, it is no surprise that French designers, always alert to what is new and stylish, would choose to include these motifs in their furniture.

Detail of  Armoire 24 from the Sale at Auction
of the Collection of Bruno Perrier (April 6, 1992)

During the revivals of Gothic and Renaissance styles, views about what was an antique were fluid.  The passion for furniture in the  style of earlier periods led to “marriages” of old elements with new.  If a suitable ancient piece could not be found, collectors were not averse to designing or commissioning new pieces in the old style and incorporating them into rooms which were a mixture of old and new, albeit united by the Gothic theme.

In reviving the styles of earlier times, French furniture designers did not adhere slavishly to the forms or styles of the distant past but designed furniture in forms that did exist previously, such as the occasional table, the armchair and various display pieces such as the sellette or column.  But the desire to create one-of-a-kind pieces of commanding proportions infused the designs of 19th century craftsmen of cabinets and armoires just as it had their haute époque forbears.

When seeking to recreate the past, some mistaken assumptions were made and persist to this day.  Both English and French furniture makers and antiques dealers in the 19th century believed that pieces dating from the Middle Ages and Renaissance were dark, whether arising from centuries of paste wax mixed with smoke, or just from fashion preferences and use of stains.  As scholars now know, furniture made in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was not stained and the natural beauty of the wood was admired.  Nevertheless, 19th century dealers and collectors persisted in their desire for darkly colored furniture and interiors evoking the darkness and mystery of earlier times while convinced that such interiors should protect them from intrusions of light and the outside world.

Enthusiasm for Gothic and Renaissance style furniture persisted beyond the end of the 19th century thanks to access to collections from the original periods in museums as well as popular publications in color, such as Racinet’s L’Ornement Polychrome, from which designers and manufacturers could derive elements to include in their products.  Enthusiasm not only for Gothic design but also for Renaissance elements such as rounded arches, columns, vegetation and masques led to a delightful mélange, commonly referred to as Henri II style, popular in France by the close of the 19th century and up to World War I.

The Château des Bois CollectionTM evokes the spirit of Europe’s master designers and cabinetmakers whose scrupulous attention to detail and use of the finest materials speak to us across the centuries as we welcome these pieces into today’s homes and businesses.  Despite wars, pestilence and other attacks on the furniture and the people who owned it, those examples that survive are an ongoing tribute to their makers’ genius.  

*  For a more complete Bibliography, click on the book.



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