By Robert M. Kelly
The story of the royal family's steadily dwindling luck during the French Revolution is gripping. It becomes more personal yet when we learn about their personal choices, among which were wallpaper choices. In this article we learn what their wallpaper consisted of and why it was chosen to decorate the previously empty apartments of the Tuileries in Paris after the family was forced to abandon Versailles.
This article is ostensibly about the royal wallpaper, which was significant in both price and effect. But, M. Jacqué, former curator at the Musée du Papier Peint, has a magisterial and enthusiastic grasp of wallpaper history. Like a seasoned jazz drummer, he cannot resist throwing in a few extra beats. It's surprising that the editors at Bard were able to limit him to one exclamation point and thirty pages.
None of the wallpapers survive but thanks to billing records Jacqué nonetheless paints a believable picture. For example, he estimates the size of the rooms based on the linear feet of cornice border. Some of the rooms were large (the Queen's Dining Room was almost 114 feet in circumference). Madame Royale's Study was about half that size. No less interesting are the eight color illustrations of surviving late-eighteenth century installations. These styles and colors bring the text to life.
The section on Madame Royale’s cabinet d'entresol is a sort of mini-glossary of French wallpaper terminology. There are differences between camees and cantonnieres. “Objets en feuilles” refers to single sheets: this short-lived style featured a wide variety of vases, medallions, overdoor elements, framing, and rosettes.
Wallpaper was used extensively at the Tulileries, amounting to thousands of yards and almost 20,000 livres by the time the family was sent off to their last rather more sparsely furnished accommodations. As to why decoration was even an option in these perilous times, Jacqué explains that in the new setting "…monarchical ceremony, although subdued, continued in full public view. The sovereign still retained broad powers, not to mention a real popularity. It mattered, then, that the king was surrounded by décor suited to his status and functions."
The king hesitated to spend too much on furnishings because of the political and financial crisis. Besides, he hoped to return to Versailles. The solution to these quasi-permanent decorative needs was wallpaper. By 1784 wallpaper was appropriate for royal use, at least in private rooms, though it cost far less than fabric. And unlike fine silks painstakingly woven in Lyons, wallpaper was almost immediately available.
But this was no routine redecoration. The single sheets just referred to (objets en feuilles) were often trimmed and pasted onto a background prepared with plain green or blue paper. Single-sheet motifs were more distinctive than those found on sidewall papers and were more carefully printed. These creative layers were applied within panels, and, more adventurously, on overdoors and ceilings. No wonder these installations were so expensive.
Not everyone was thrilled with the results. An anonymous letter criticized Thierry de Ville d'Avray, the official who oversaw the installations. The writer was of the opinion that "in royal residences such décor [wallpaper] is only suitable for the lodgings of domestics."
But any opposition would have been easily overcome by a supremely important voice, that of Marie Antoinette.
By this time her preference for wallpaper was well-known. She apparently went hog-wild in her dining room. She created an entirely new style with pale green grounds, wide borders of floral twists, and no less than 229 rosettes installed in spandrels and at the corners of panels. The cornice area sported four different borders.
The wallpaper in the study of Madame Royale was elaborate and even more expensive than the dining room paper. Other important rooms dissected by Jacqué are the King's Study (arabesques) and the King's Bedroom and Alcove (arabesques again, but this time in avant-garde colors).
Jacqué suggests that high-ranking Parisians imitated these rooms soon after their official and semi-official visits. He argues persuasively (through a careful selection of examples and by comparing like to like) that the royals were fashion leaders. According to Jacqué, the royal family followed aristocratic traditions of using the best decorative materials with "… great artistic audacity, even in difficult times," which certainly applies here.
He singles out the forward-looking color combination of black, orange and violet in the King's Bedroom. This combination predates by almost a decade a wider transformation whereby a warm color palette based on florals curdled into acidic tones.
Jacqué also highlights the Queen's innovative use of floral twist borders on plain grounds. He ruminates on a conflicted combination: rich floral borders surrounding austere, almost monochromatic antique images in the King's quarters. The borders looked backward to the Rococo while the cool classicism of the prints foreshadowed the Neoclassical style.
Arthur & Robert, suppliers of the papers and installers, were hugely important. They were not only royal manufacturers - they also employed over 400 people. This article makes a good case that their factory rivaled that of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, whose reputation has long overshadowed theirs. The review of the French wallpaper industry is excellent. It's still surprising that although dominos and papier de tapisserie were well established in France during the early years of the eighteenth century, good-sized factories producing joined paper did not exist until the 1770s.
In 1772, an Irishman by the name of Edouard Duras set up a factory in Bordeaux and began importing the latest patterns from England. Within a few years he faced stiff competition from a nascent French industry, which, Jacqué writes “…transformed an item formerly considered an imitation…into a truly autonomous product”. French manufacturers did this by “…calling on the best designers, reviving and perfecting once obsolete techniques, establishing a vast network of international sales, and adapting themselves to various methods of hanging…”
What is astonishing is the seeming ease with which the French nation pulled this off. Within a few decades they had eclipsed England as America's preferred wallpaper supplier (though another fateful event - the American Revolution - played a large role). By 1800, there were six wallpaper firms with over a hundred employees in Paris. There were also ten wallpaper firms with fifty to a hundred hands. These were joined by many smaller shops throughout the country.
The text is awkward in spots and on one occasion seems wrong. Figure 2 is a watercolor of a proposed arabesque installation. Its caption describes this as a "decorator's sketch"; in the text, it is described as a "paperhanger's sketch." The word "decorateur" sometimes described a French installer. But "decorateur", when applied to paperhangers, seems to relate to the on-site job of arranging paneling.
As Geert Wisse writes:
"… these paperhangers became "decorators" when their services were offered to customers; "...herewith are papers which our decorator will arrange for you..." wrote the same Dollfus to an Alsatian client on September 18, 1791. This staff was trained by serving apprenticeships in Paris. If a "decorator" was not coming to the place and pasting the wallpaper, manufacturers sent the customer a diagram, many of which appear among the invoices in Mulhouse."[*]
Thus, a paperhanger could be a hands-on "decorator" in the sense of arranging panels, but it seems unlikely that paperhangers would have been adept at rendering the artwork. That job would probably have been assigned to one of the in-house designers.
* This quote is from Geert Wisse's chapter on installation in the French-language book "Les papiers peints en arabesques du XVIIIe siecle". The translation is my own.
The image used here is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art: "Marie Antoinette and her Children," by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.