French Furniture

Although some inventories after death and other records list imported pieces brought to New France by administrators, seigneurs and ecclesiastics, most Canadian furniture of French derivation was probably made locally in small quantities as early as 1640.
Although some inventories after death and other records list imported pieces brought to New France by administrators, seigneurs and ecclesiastics, most Canadian furniture of French derivation was probably made locally in small quantities as early as 1640.

Furniture, French

Although some inventories after death and other records list imported pieces brought to New France by administrators, seigneurs and ecclesiastics, most Canadian furniture of French derivation was probably made locally in small quantities as early as 1640. According to the first official census in 1666, there were 65 artisans among the some 3200 inhabitants of the colony, directly connected to either carpentry or joinery. The furniture they made was traditional in type and regional in detail, influenced indirectly by the high-style furniture of court circles (Louis XIII, XIV and XV) as filtered through provincial adaptations and vernacular influences. Most of these pieces were of solid, jointed wood and made by skilled artisans working in the traditions of their trade - mortise and tenon joints for structural elements secured with wooden pins, no use of glue, few if any nails, tongue and groove piecing of flat surfaces, spline construction to stop warping and cracking of broad surfaces, etc.

These were not cabinetmakers (ébénistes) trained in the elaborate European techniques of veneer, marquetry, lapidary incrustations and ormolu mounts, but rather joiners (menuisiers) and turners (tourneurs) familiar with the qualities of specific woods and the practical techniques of solid construction handed down through generations. Some had workshops, while others, perhaps itinerant, worked on site in churches, institutional buildings and domestic dwellings, since internal finish and furniture were frequently part of the building contract, and most worked upon demand.

The generic categories of furniture (armoire, chair, table, buffet), the stylistic forms (rectangular, curvilinear), and the motifs (diamond, lozenge, shell, flowers and vines), in addition to the overall shape and proportion, reflected a variety of provincial origins, the most common being those of Brittany, Normandy, Île de France and the southwest more generally. Folk motifs drawn from geometric and natural sources or related to symbolic systems, hearts and stars for example, were often common to several provincial traditions, although the preponderant use of solar disks, wheels and other circular forms might indicate a Breton origin, while flowers, baskets and birds suggest influences from Normandy or perhaps the south. In French Canada such distinctions have little relevance. Their meaning resides rather in traditional symbolic values or decorative intent and effect.

As in rural France, styles in French Canada evolved slowly and persisted longer than in the mother country. The motifs of the Louis XIII-Louis XIV style, such as the lozenge and diamond as well as the flowers, tendrils, vines and volutes of Louis XV, survived well into the 19th century alongside the neo-classical, Georgian and Empire forms that came to New France with the British directly, or more indirectly through Loyalists, at first after the American Revolution, and later as a consequence of increasing commercial contacts with New England.

White pine, yellow birch and butternut were the most widely used woods in French Canada between the end of the 17th century and about 1800. Pierre BOUCHER in 1664 remarked that maple was too hard to work and considered of little use except as firewood and for making handles for tools. As these three easily worked and useful woods became less available in the first quarter of the 19th century, ash for structural elements and basswood for large surfaces replaced them. This practice/necessity coincided with a change in tastes and fashions, as curly or tiger maple, bird's eye maple and other fancy woods such as domestic cherry or imported mahogany and rosewood satisfied a demand for more formal, less rustic furniture, refined in look and construction, suitable to the requirements and social ambitions of a rising urban bourgeois class both French and English after 1760.

Along with imported mahogany came British and then American adaptations of Georgian styles and tastes. This in turn led to the mixing of French and Anglo-American elements in original and unexpected combinations that reflected both a demographic reality and the changing cycles of fashion. The architectural vocabulary of what might be taken for Louis XVI influence in the armoires of late 18th century Québec (dentil, reeded or chevron effects, architectural cornices, light fine mouldings and the like) came in fact through the Adam interpretations of neo-classicism. Leg and rung structures of chairs that were clearly French in spirit sprouted Chippendale or Hepplewhite backs, while commodes and other case pieces retained the crossbow-shaped facade of Louis XV curves in combination with claw and ball or bracket feet reminiscent of the Chippendale style. Such hybrids in both high-style and country versions are characteristic of the period 1780-1820 and constitute a distinct Canadian contribution to the historical record, alongside the survival of the traditional Louis styles of the French régime.

Much early furniture in French Canada was undoubtedly painted or stained in imitation of similar practices in France, the usual ingredients being pigment (Prussian blue, alkanet root, ochres, iron oxide, red lead, etc.), dryer (litharge), and vehicle (linseed oil in particular). The predominant colours were blue, green and red, or variants, especially in the hues between blue and green until, toward the beginning of the 19th century and after, some pieces began to be updated in the Anglo-American fashions of faux-bois or trompe-l'oeil painted finishes imitating mahogany, bird's eye maple or rosewood, a technique intended to valorize poorer woods. When applied over the original French colours, the unintended result reflected both a cultural and a stylistic shift.

The census of 1681 records six locksmiths in the colony, and one may assume that blacksmiths, tinsmiths and others also made simple forms of hardware of forged iron in traditional categories and shapes (pick and barrel or baluster hinges, fleur de lis and stylized dragon/serpent-shaped escutcheons, scalloped and geometric back-plates for latches and drawer pulls), although the first commercial production of iron began only at the Forges du St Maurice near Trois Rivières in 1738.

Among the types of furniture produced before the industrial revolution, drove many artisans and their hand made products from the marketplace, storage chests, armoires, buffets and commodes (chests of drawers) are the most frequent survivals. Storage chests, the only free-standing furniture known to the European Middle Ages, appear to have been the prototype for other case furniture (armoires, buffets, etc.), all sharing the same basic functions of storage, protection, security and sometimes display, as with dish dressers and glazed cupboards. Armoire doors and other large surfaces, as well as the case and drawers of buffets and commodes, provide spaces and profiles that lend themselves to decorative treatment in both the rectilinear mouldings, lozenges and fielded panels of the Louis XIII - Louis XIV style so prevalent in French Canada, as well as to the later curvilinear Louis XV idiom with its asymmetrical panels, undulating profiles and its panoply of motifs drawn from the natural world: flowers, foliage, volutes, scrolls and S and C curves presented in a tangle of irregular and sinuous combinations. The shell in its many variations appears as the pre-eminent motif throughout the 18th century, often as part of a cartouche-like Louis XV ensemble. In its human proportions, curved lines and insistence upon comfort, the Louis XV, or rococo, style is the antithesis of the classical spirit of the 17th century and the architectural affinities and geometric formality of the Louis XIII and Louis XIV styles.

The commode, said to have been invented by André-Charles Boulle about 1690, became in the latter half of the 18th century one of the most decoratively imaginative of Canadian furniture types. Cabriole legs, claw and ball feet, double scroll, and in one instance boot feet (the collection of the MUSÉE DES BEAUX-ARTS DE MONTRÉAL), combine with arbalète (crossbow), serpentine or bowed drawer fronts, usually three in number, as if to compensate in sculpted form for the lack of surface decoration expressed through the complex techniques of marquetry and ormolu.

Few beds survive from the French régime. Early examples were either box-like wooden enclosures (cabanes) built into the corner of a room or four-posters, perhaps with spiral turnings as in high-style table legs also of baroque inspiration, and elaborate curtains with valance and "ceiling" above, made of heavy textiles intended to protect against drafts and enclose the body heat of the bed's occupants. Closed beds also provided a measure of privacy in multipurpose or single-room dwellings in which parents, children and perhaps others all shared living space. With improved methods of heating these beds were replaced by low-post forms with turned or tapered uprights, and later in the 19th century by the Empire sleigh style and other Victorian forms.

Tables and chairs in the Louis styles of the ancien régime were usually made with pine tops and seats respectively while semi-hardwoods, particularly birch, were used for frame and foot. Louis XIII - Louis XIV armchairs had legs with baluster and cube turnings, shaped aprons and sloping backs, and were generally upholstered in tapestry, wool serge or other durable materials. The distinctive sheep-bone (os de mouton) arm and side chair from the early 18th century on was also upholstered but had the vigorously carved and curvilinear legs and stretchers suggested by its descriptive name.

Two common Canadian chair forms are the Île d' Orléans type, of mortise and tenon construction, with plank seat and open back, and the more sophisticated armchair à la capucine, which has baluster, cube and ring turnings to feet, stretchers and uprights akin to the Louis XIII - Louis XIV upholstered armchair, a ladder-back of shaped horizontal cross-pieces, and a seat of rush, marsh grass or similar fibre, usually woven in a diamond pattern. Commonly believed to have its source in the straw-bottom chair found in the dwellings of both rich and poor in France as all-purpose utility seating, the Canadian capucine is a unique form in terms of its elaborate turnings, the finials on the back posts and the energetically shaped back slats. At the same time the French straw-bottom chair gave rise to a variety of simple habitant side chairs constructed with rounded stretchers inserted through the uprights and plank or open-weave leather or gut seats, a technique probably borrowed from the Aboriginal use of webbing in the making of snowshoes. The American rocking chair also inspired many folk versions of the type, among them the double rocker that makes amusingly concrete the courting rituals of the cavalier et sa blonde.

In recent years the search for authentic and unaltered pieces of the pre-industrial period has brought very high prices to the marketplace and a well-developed industry of modern reproductions (and fakes) of the classic French Canadian types: the diamond-point armoire; the os de mouton armchair; the two-door, two-drawer buffet bas; and the three-drawer commode. This recent trend is both a tribute to the past and a recognition long overdue that our material heritage is an essential aspect of any inquiry into origins and identities.

Further Reading

  • John A. Fleming, Les meubles peints du Canada français 1700-1840/ The Painted Furniture of French Canada 1700-1840 (1994); Michel Lessard, Meubles anciens du Québec (1999); Paul-Louis Martin, La berçante québécoise (1973); Jean Palardy, Les meubles anciens du Canada français (1963); The Early Furniture of French Canada (1965).