A dark pink arm chair with silk upholstery and a light wood frame

Armchair (Bergère), about 1770/1772 or early 1780s, Georges Jacob. Walnut, painted and varnished, and beech; silk, linen, hemp, and horsehair upholstery with swan- and goose-down feather stuffing; silk trim; iron tacks and gilt-brass nails, 39 × 37 x 30 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 88.DA.123

This large, extraordinary armchair has survived since the 1700s along with its original silk upholstery. Its sumptuously thick cushion is stuffed with over eight pounds of swan- and goose-down feathers. At the time it was made, these costly materials would have held the sitter in a plush embrace. While the chair itself is luxurious – from its elaborately carved wooden frame to its gilt-brass nails – it is also a symbol of its owner’s status.

The armchair was made in France during the 1700s when strict traditional courtly etiquette still prevailed across the upper echelons of society. The type is referred to as a bergère, the French term for a wide and deep armchair with a cushion and upholstered sides. This bergère is known to have come from the château de Chanteloup, a nobleman’s country residence in the Loire River valley approximately 140 miles away from the court at Versailles. There, the chair was placed against a wall in the grande galerie where it would have been one of many in a matching set lining the room. These pieces comprised a total of five bergères, including this one, as well as four settees, or small couches, and six smaller chairs.

This set – of which the Getty’s bergère is the only piece to retain its original upholstery – was potentially commissioned for one of two elite courtiers: the duc de Choiseul or the duc de Penthièvre. Both men held high positions at court and in the military (Penthièvre’s family descended from King Louis XIV himself). These aristocrats owned the château de Chanteloup, with Penthièvre purchasing the estate after the death of Choiseul in 1785, and used the country residence as a respite from politicking. As such, this chair reveals a growing emphasis on comfort and pleasure, two aspects that were in high demand with elite patrons who wanted to escape court ritual.

At the château de Versailles these courtiers attended the strict schedules of their monarch like celestial bodies orbiting the sun. Court etiquette was all-encompassing and, at times, crushing.

There was a rigid social hierarchy at the court and different types of seating furniture reflected the status of their sitters. Chairs with arms and a back were reserved for the most prominent individuals participating in a court function. From as early as the late 1600s, King Louis XIV was pictured in official portraits seated on, or having risen from, a chair of this type. For example, in this tapestry, the king is pictured on the right receiving an important Cardinal – while his chair has arms, his distinguished visitor’s does not.  

A chair with a back but no arms was typically afforded to junior members of the royal family, or particularly elite foreign nobles or emissaries visiting court. While the back of the chair afforded some degree of comfort, armless chairs necessitated that the sitter observe strict, up-right posture without the ability to lean on a padded armrest.

Antique folding stool with light blue cushion

Folding Stool (pliant), about 1786, Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené. Gessoed, painted, and gilded beech; modern upholstery, 16 1/4 × 28 1/2 x 21 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 71.DA.94.1

Producing these chairs– with arms or without– was remarkably costly for any household, including the royal family. Beyond even the price of commissioning these objects, the space necessary to store a large amount of furniture was equally a conundrum.

In order to save resources, the royal household relied on the use of numerous stools, like that pictured above. To have any place to sit at court, even on a stool, was a closely guarded privilege. To be entitled to a stool implied proximity and favor with the host of a courtly function as much as it allowed the sitter a respite from standing.

So where does this leave the bergère? How does the sumptuously soft armchair factor into the rigid and stiff hierarchy of seating at court, if at all? Rather than invoking the uncomfortable formality of court etiquette, this kind of armchair (with its thick cushion and upholstered sides) invites the privileged sitter to relax, lean back, and enjoy a moment of pleasure. The bergère type of chair grew in popularity in the 1720s, though it would not have been a common household seat until later in the century. It was not used for court ceremonies.

By the late 1700s, when the Getty’s bergère was commissioned, this type of seating furniture had become popular in elite private residences in Paris as well as in country châteaux like Chanteloup. These dwellings were important spaces in which very wealthy French citizens could escape from the formal routines of the court and the crowded cities to find respite in lush country estates.

Painting of a woman in a blue dress leaning back into an elegant chair

The expensive silk show fabric on this bergère is visible on the exterior side panel. The checkered fabric along the chair’s back has been pinned in place to protect the precious silk from damage or wear. Madame La Duchesse de Mortemart, Louis de Carrogis, called Carmontelle, c. 1765. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Open Content

The Getty’s bergère was placed in the primary reception space at Chanteloup – a large room with doors opening onto the elegant gardens. In this watercolor portrait, a fashionably attired duchess has positioned her bergère just outside such a residence to better enjoy the landscape. Her voluminous dress is easily accommodated by the set-back armrests and the plush upholstery invites the lady to linger.

Artifacts of material culture reveal a great deal about the eras that produced, used, and deemed them necessary. In this case, the Getty’s bergère gives insight into the elite world of the French aristocracy at the end of the 1700s.

Learn more about Silk & Swan Feathers: A Luxurious Eighteenth-Century Armchair.