Articles

French Colonial West Indian Armoires

17By Michael Connors,

The Magazine Antiques

There has been a disproportionate amount of study devoted to the early history of the French West Indian Islands and very little to their material culture. Aside from the political, social, economic and military history, early travelers to the islands wrote about geology, botany and zoology, but rarely, if ever, about architecture or decorative furnishings and interiors. The scant bits of early literature and research that mention the decorative arts, or, more specifically, the furniture of the French islands, lack any definitive or detailed descriptions, identifications or authentic evaluations.

The first French West Indian chronicle was written by the Jesuit priest Jacques Bouton in 1640 and describes how the colonists slept in cotton hammocks, which sometimes served as couches during the day. If there was any furniture, the only piece would have been a wooden chest, in which its owner kept his belongings.

Later comprehensive studies focus mainly on archaeological excavations, existing colonial architecture, the historiography of slavery or sugar production, and social and economic development. There are a few recent studies that concern the decorative arts and furniture of the French islands, but they fail in comparable analysis to differentiate the furniture from that of other Caribbean colonial styles.

 

There is also little written documentation pertaining to craftsmen of the colonial years. No cabinetmakers` journals have been discovered and none of the old inventories or wills examined differentiate between imported furniture and island-crafted pieces. The use of estate inventories, newspaper obituaries, advertisements or commercial directories is also problematic. There is no description of the furniture other than “one armoire” or, at most, “one mahogany armoire,” no accounting of its maker, origin, repairs, age, or, in most cases, even of its material. Historical inventories, public records, family names and dates are usually found to be incomplete and the application of this problematic historical data has proven often to be misinterpreted. Even oral history may be only third- or fourth-hand hearsay.

Most decorative arts scholars will agree that French culture and fashion dominated European taste from the late Renaissance until the mid-nineteenth century, and, because of this, the examination and discussion of French colonial West Indian furniture becomes most relevant.

France competed in the strategic world economy and polity through its aesthetic prowess. By creating a competitive world in the decorative arts, by encouraging the immigration of foreign artisans, by establishing workshops within its palaces, the crown hoped to push French furniture to new heights so as to reinforce its power abroad as well as at home.

Time has taken its toll on French Caribbean furniture, due to hurricanes, humidity, and the West Indian drywood termite (cryptotermes brevis). In addition, slave rebellions, during which entire plantations were burned to the ground, and the exporting of furniture through the years, have contributed to the scarcity of furniture. Miraculously, hundreds of pieces remain in collections on the islands but aside from the existing pieces, sources of primary and secondary information or documented provenances about these specific pieces does not exist. Research of the furniture in the French West Indies is hindered by this lack of information, but, in another sense, the furniture grows in importance because of it.

The French island colonial era began when Henry of Navarre came to the throne of France as Henry IV (1589-1610) and brought the country’s Wars of Religion to an end. He issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed religious rights to France’s Protestant Huguenots and began making France a colonizing nation. Although he was assassinated in 1610, the French government was not deterred from its determination to colonize the newly discovered world.

During the beginning phase of French colonization, Armand-Jean du Plessis Richelieu, superintendent-general of commerce and navigation and a strong advocate for making France a colonizating nation was made Chief Minister of France in 1624. He became known as the original founding father of the French colonial movement. In that same year, Cardinal Richelieu, who was determined to make France more powerful, not only in Europe but the New World as well, dispatched Pierre Belain d`Esnambuc, a former pirate from Normandy, to the Caribbean Sea. By 1627, Belain d`Esnambuc had formed a small colony on the shores of Saint Christopher (known as Saint Kitts today), which was shared with the English.

In 1635 the Compagnie des Isles d`Amérique (The Company of the Isles of America) was founded in Paris by François Fouguet and Liénard de l`Olive and sanctioned by Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu assigned Liénard de l`Olive to colonize Guadeloupe, and the indomitable Belain d`Esnambuc to proceed from Saint Christopher to Martinique. Both expeditions successfully established settlements by 1636. That same year, France took formal possession of Saint Bartholomew and Saint Martin, which was shared with the Dutch. Although it took the French many years to entirely conquer and clear Martinique and Guadeloupe, their efforts were rewarded with two of the larger islands in the West Indies with ideal harbors and extremely fertile soil. At the close of the century, and with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Spain confirmed France’s claim of their long-established settlement in the western third of Hispaniola (or Saint Domingue, as Haiti was called until its formal independence in 1804).

French Caribbean colonization depended more upon royal and governmental encouragement than that of other European colonizing countries. Many of the early French settlers and immigrants to the islands were of noble birth and their passage was paid by the Compagnie des Isles d`Amérique, which was established by French noblemen to administer the French colonies. In addition, the company offered privileges and financial aid to tradesmen who were needed in the colonies, such as carpenters and woodworkers, as an incentive to travel to the newly-discovered islands. They were obligated only to bring their own tools. “Most of these men, however, abandoned their role as craftsmen once they discovered the financial advantages of working with sugarcane and coffee.”

The French ‘Grand Manner’ made its first appearance in the West Indies in 1639. That year, Cardinal Richelieu appointed Philippe de Lonvilliers de Poincy as governor-general of Saint Christopher. De Poincy assumed the governorship of present-day Saint Kitts for Louis XIII and continued in the post until his death, never returning to France. De Poincy apparently felt he had earned the right to construct, on the French portion of Saint Christopher, an elegant mansion commensurate with his perceived lifestyle: a West Indian-château. Château La Fontaine is in ruins today, but is claimed by architectural scholars to have been the finest great house ever built in the West Indies. It was built in the early 1640`s of cut stone and red brick, and, when the three story square building was completed, it looked as if the Louis XIII style had invaded the West Indies.

One can only imagine the seventeenth century furniture and decorative arts de Poincy possessed, and, assuredly, the vast majority was imported, since all records show that the colonists at the time possessed only the simplest and plainest of furniture. The farms of the first colonists in the seventeenth century were anything but elaborate.

A bed, a table, a chest or two and some benches usually completed the equipment of a house, according to an observer who saw Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Christopher. Often the bed was a hammock, without pillows or coverings. Ordinary dwellings were thatched like those of the Caribs. Only the houses of the Governors had glass windows.

Similar to all of the first European West Indian settlements, seventeenth and the earliest eighteenth century furniture was rudimentary, made by shipwrights, housewrights and carpenters. Although there are records of woodworkers, carpenters, and other trade artisans (petits blancs) who immigrated to the islands, there is no documented or stylistic evidence that any ebéniste immigrated or worked in the French Caribbean colonies before the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

The term ébéniste is derived from menuisier en ébène or ‘joiner in ebony’ as the craftsmen were originally called in the seventeenth century when Henri IV sent cabinetmakers to Holland to study the work being done there in ebony. True ébénisterie or cabinetmaking techniques, (the use of dovetails, joining of large thinly cut boards, the creation of drawers and inlay and veneer work), did reach the islands by the mid eighteenth century.

Early French island plantation grandes maisons or great houses were much less pretentious than de Poincy`s seventeenth century Château La Fontaine. Architectural concessions to the tropical climate were made far more quickly on the French islands than on the Dutch, Danish or English Caribbean islands. Although well-suited to the tropical climate with shaded balconies, verandas and louvered shutters, the houses themselves were simply planned and were, above all, working houses. Built at ground level and not as large as those that would be built a century later, they did not have the overtly ostentatious classical architecture that was so typical in the English island plantation great houses during the same period.

 

In the mid 1660`s, Louis XIV charged Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his minister to the West Indian islands, to create the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales (The West Indian Company) to administer his dominion in the New World. It was at this time, with the advent of sugar cane cultivation on the islands, that the French colonies began to prosper. Sugar, often referred to as ‘white gold’ or ‘sweet gold’, was both the commodity of wealth and the economic miracle of the late seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries throughout the Caribbean.

It was during this time, Pierre Belain d`Esnambuc`s nephew, Jacques du Parquet, introduced sugarcane to Martinique and Jean Aubert of Rouen introduced its cultivation to Saint Christopher, thereby setting the French Caribbean agricultural development on course. Sugar production on the French Islands did not become significant until the early 1700`s as more French began to emigrate to the islands.

The Caribbean islands experienced an extraordinary rise in wealth during the eighteenth century. As French emigrants arrived in the islands, the lifestyle became one of conspicuous consumption, lavish excess and the latest in fashion. To be “si riche comme un Créole” (as rich as a West Indian) was not only a popular phrase in Paris during the colonial period, but also something to which many aspired. White plantation society was dominated by a small number of wealthy land- and slave-holding families (grands blancs), as well as by the men who held most of the important social and political offices in the colonies.

By the mid-eighteenth century, sugar and its by-products of rum and molasses became the French islands` most profitable commodities. As sugar drove commercial explorations and plantation agriculture, the international trade in the ‘sweet-white gold’ caused wars, claimed empires, created fortunes and fostered slavery. It is not surprising that the European countries capable of growing and importing sugar from their Caribbean colonies had an immeasurable commercial advantage over other nations.

The increasing prosperity of the islands attracted many young members of the French aristocratic families who, unlike the British, were not anxious to return to Europe. These grands blancs were resident planters on Martinique and Guadeloupe, not absentee owners. In a description of a French planter in the 1790`s the author states that he was:

…imperious, and voluptuous to a higher degree than in the other islands: this character also showed itself on every occasion; he was impatient of even the constraint of the laws, avaricious of wealth and honor, and a devotee to all the arts of indulgence.

The growth of the sugar trade stimulated the building not only of island plantations, but also of townhouses, warehouses, churches, shops and stores, thereby providing a demand for even more skilled housewrights and finish carpenters. With this era of prosperity came an increased demand for larger and more lavish homes and offices with furnishings to adorn them. As the demand for the town and plantation carpenters` work increased, their abilities expanded beyond the rudimentary skills of carpenters and many became fine turners, woodcarvers and cabinetmakers.

It was during the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries that the French plantation owner’s ‘habitation,’ or, more specifically, his ‘great house’ or grande maison, came to symbolize the plantocracy`s luxurious lifestyle on the French islands. One description of a life on a French Island plantation says;

They then settled in the parish of Artibonite, in La Rose, a sumptuous mansion built in the shadow of Mount Gros-Morne and bordered by the Ester River… La Rose life was sweet. Money was pouring in, and there were lavish parties. In a few years the king’s land grant had been cleared; sugarcane and cotton fields stretched from the great house to the horizon.

Anonymous craftsmen of the colonial period, whether immigrants or enslaved African West Indians, were part of the growth and development of the building trade, in which French government, military and habitation architects joined with housewrights, shipwrights, blacksmiths, carpenters and masons to build the forts, churches, government offices, habitations and great houses for the planters and merchants. There is secondary evidence that many of the first island furniture makers were slaves and/or descendants of slaves (‘free’ slaves, gens de couleur or free coloured), who subsequently passed their skills on to the next generation of their families and to apprentices.

On the big plantations, talented slaves would be taught the skills of joinery and fine woodcarving, and, as has been noted, sometimes they learned such arts from teaching missionaries.

The furnishing of the habitations’ great houses for the planters, and the townhouses for the wealthy merchants provided the impetus for the importation of furniture. Because France had led in the field of European interior decoration from the beginning of the West Indian colonial period, the vast majority of furniture imported during the colonial period was from France, as opposed to other European countries.

Little remains of the furniture used in the early island settlements before the 18th century. From the simple, crudely constructed joint-stools, plank-tables and forms that were constructed during the 16th century, the local craftsmen progressed to deft reproductions of European-made furniture, while the wealthy landowners continued to import large quantities of furniture in the popular styles of the day.

The majority of the imported furniture’s primary and secondary construction was of European softwoods and succumbed to the ravages of the tropical elements and island insects. This, in turn, created opportunities for the island craftsmen to craft replacements for the ruined furniture. The most important difference in construction materials found between the two types of furniture of the French West Indies – that which was imported and that which was crafted locally – is that the secondary woods used in locally manufactured pieces were all indigenous woods. As French furnishings and furniture were imported, the plantation woodworkers and carpenters were charged with the task of repairing and/or replacing the pieces with exotic island hardwoods. No evidence exists that French West Indian furniture craftsmen ever used imported woods in either primary or secondary wood construction during the colonial period. Using the imported furniture as models, the island cabinetmakers interpreted and fashioned the new expressions of form and embellished them with their own decorative motifs and innovative design changes to create distinctive pieces.

Anxious to bring their clients the latest fashion, the artisans closely followed everything that was launched in Europe. It is thus that one finds in the furniture created on the islands pieces which were authentic models of that which was in vogue during the 18th and 19th centuries. One is, however, not able to speak of literal copying because while all was in harmony with the European styles, each piece which was produced had a local character. Neither is one able to speak of a “Creole style” because nothing of that which was produced was a specific original creation, a style having the representative element of a period or a region.

On the French islands, local furniture design consisted of an amalgamation of different styles: French; the ‘down island’ furniture made on other islands (particularly Barbados); and the African West Indian craftsmen’s intuitive sense of design and use of African decorative motifs. Most of the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans imported to the French West Indies during the colonial period were from the middle stretches of coastal West Africa and they brought with them the many similarities and variations of their home cultures. “All were essentially agricultural but they possessed also a considerable range of handcraft industries and wide trade connections.” The new styles of furniture imported from France, other Caribbean islands, and in some instances North America influenced succeeding generations of craftsmen, while the influence of African decorative motifs was constantly being reinforced by the continued importation of enslaved West African woodworkers. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, these two traditions contributed to the creation of a unique French island colonial furniture style.

Surprisingly, the number of craftsmen continued to rise, but the development of furniture and style barely evolved under Louis XV and XVI in the islands. After this, as people became richer, there was more of a desire to embellish their homes. Woodworkers were sent from France. The French style was adopted to reveal techniques, thus the birth of a new style.

French West Indian furniture, particularly from the last decade of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, represents a vernacular style, displaying a variety of traditional African decorative motifs that include tropical flowers, shells, banana leaves, palm fronds, melons, nutmegs, sandbox fruit, pineapples and zoomorphic forms such as serpants. These motifs were stylistically consistent (refined a succinct identity) through time and remain a definitive source of identity for island furniture.

Also not to outrage the memory of the artisans, who by their culture, their ingenuity and their intelligence, were able to adapt the fashions to fit the climatic imperatives and the tropical woods, we will speak of Antilles furniture, that is to say of a furniture which has a certain parent of style compared to the furniture of another region of the same period, but that which has acquired an originality and its own personality.

The most popular and distinctive furniture form of French island cabinetmaking is the armoire. Unquestionably, more French colonial West Indian armoires have survived the vagaries of time in the islands than any other expression of form. A French invention, the armoire was used as early as the Gothic period during the thirteenth century as a domestic storage cupboard. By the eighteenth century, every prosperous French and Continental home included an armoire. Many French West Indian, as well as French-influenced Louisiana and lower Mississippi Valley (refer to The Magazine Antiques, “Early Louisiana Armoires,” by Jessie J. Poesch, 1968) armoires exist today for comparable study and research. In addition, numerous wills and estate inventories from the colonial period record such pieces. The 1778 inventory of habitation Anse à l`Ane in Martinique describes the contents of the maison de maitre, or master’s house, mentioning an “armoire from the islands.”

The relative large number of these colonial armoires and the presence of their indigenous tropical hardwood construction signify that they originated in the French islands. Although I have not scientifically tested the woods through microanalyses, wood identification by direct observation of both primary and secondary woods together with the island craftsmanship and stylistic criteria supportably identify the armoires as locally-made. The construction techniques employed in French island-made furniture differ consistently from the techniques of imported pieces. Although the basic method of construction on the armoires is the same mortise and tenon joints fixed with wooden pegs that was used in France, the level of craftsmanship is not the same. Owing to the dearth of factual documented records and documented provenances, tracing the work of the armoires` cabinetmakers in the French West Indies can only be done by researching the wood, the construction techniques and the stylistic interpretation of the pieces themselves.

The majority of the armoires examined in the French islands are stylistically Louis XV (1722-1774), but were actually crafted later, as the Louis XV style was the most popular in the French islands throughout both the last half of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “The Louis Quinze is the purest of all French styles.” Because Louis XV was considered the greatest of all periods for French furniture it was fashionable and copied in France through the mid-nineteenth century and, predictably, the same fashion spread to the French islands, where its impact “was profound and translated locally with a number of characteristics.”

In the case of the French West Indies, the furniture process of stylistic transfer does not seem to have occurred through eighteenth and nineteenth century pattern books as it did on the English, Dutch and Danish Caribbean islands. There is the possibility that locally made furniture was conceived from, or influenced by, printed pattern and design books of the colonial era like L`Art du Menuisier en Meubles, but no evidence or records exist, nor are there any cabinetmakers` journals confirming that such sources influenced them.

The Louis XV style armoire was the most popular and copied for more than a century on the islands because it symbolized an image congruent with the aspirations of the colonial French island aristocracy. It was the style imported and replicated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries during the most prosperous era for the island plantocracy.

Generally, French island-made armoires were made of solid wood, never veneered, and had no decorative fittings. They have frame and panel, jointed and pegged construction with adroitly carved, curvilinear frames and panel doors which were usually crafted in asymmetrical patterns typical of the Louis XV style. The corners of the case frames are always rounded or chamfered, many with incised carving as decorative accents.

In contrast to French furniture, the interpretation of Louis XV furniture concentrated on more simplicity and harmony of proportions, the beauty of the wood and the absence of metal ornaments. The most appreciated decorative elements are the acanthus leaf, the ‘roquillard’ feet… this style is especially found in armoires.

The island armoires’ door panels are recessed and have double- or triple-beaded or ridged moldings on the front, around the inside of the panels. Other French elements typically found in the island armoires are rounded cornice corners, scalloped skirts (arbalète) on the front and sides and short cabriole tapered legs, which terminate in scrolls resting on small pods, called‘roquillard’ feet. The rear feet were rectangular and uncarved because the armoires were always placed against a wall and the rear feet were never visible. Their sole metal ornaments were imported brass or iron fiches (elongated hinges with turned ends) and elaborate escutcheons that were sometimes with openwork.

The fiche hinge is a long, round-headed pin-type hinge that allows the doors to be lifted off for disassembly and slid down into place easily. The typical French island armoire was designed and constructed to be disassembled and can usually be broken down to a cornice, base, two doors, two side panels, three to six boards that comprise the back panels, and whatever interior configuration there was to make up the shelves and/or drawers. The typical interior of a French island armoire has three or four shelves and a belt containing one to three drawers. The purpose of this design was for easy transportation, either from room to room, house to house or from island to island. The survival of so many of these large armoires suggests that the form was popular among those who had large enough rooms and homes to accommodate such pieces, especially the wealthy planter class.

The most distinctive and unique feature of colonial French colonial island armoires is the use of contrasting woods. Usually, mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) or dark courbaril (Hymenaea courbaril) frames surrounded golden West Indian satinwood (Zanthoxylum flavum) or West Indian cypress (Cordia alliodora) interior panels. Only in the French Caribbean French islands is this combination of contrasting woods found, both in the large and smaller size armoires and although there are sources who attribute the two contrasting woods design to imports from Nantes and Bordeaux I have not secured any documented evidence to that claim and remain unconvinced.

Other woods that were used in combination are West Indian boxwood (Gossypiosperonum praecox), a light-colored yellowish-white wood; the West Indian variant of Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata), Fustic (Chlorophora tinctoria), a heavy golden or greenish-yellow wood and Samán (Samanea saman) known as French tamarind. Samán often called ‘raintree’ is interesting since the sapwood is light yellow and the heartwood yellowish to dark brown when freshly cut, becoming lighter to a golden brown with dark streaks. Other interesting woods used in the French colonial armoires are thibet (Alfizzia lebbeck), a dark brown with blondish striped wood, West Indian rosewood (Dalbergia fructescens), and Sabica (Lysiloma latisiligua) commonly known as ‘horse-flesh’ in the islands and is often mistaken for mahogany.

It was only during the nineteenth century that a true Caribbean style may be said to have emerged, utilizing the excellent local hardwoods available.

Mahogany was the French island furniture maker’s wood of choice. From the early eighteenth century it was not only the world’s premier cabinet wood, but also the most valuable timber in the West Indies. On the French islands, the majority of the locally crafted furniture was made of mahogany.

The botanical name for West Indian mahogany is Swietenia mahagoni, a designation that distinguishes it from Honduras and other mahoganies. Mahogany was introduced to French ébénisterie during the third quarter of the eighteenth century and was named acajou. The first use of acajou in French cabinetware was principally in veneers and was designated as acajou satiné. During the late eighteenth century, solid mahogany furniture came into fashion in France.

During this time the later Louis XVI, and Directoire designs were often executed in plum-pudding mahogany, acajou moucheté. Then, also, French joiners first turned their skills to the fashioning of seat furniture in mahogany, a use of the wood which was withheld as long as cabriole forms were featured in their work.

By making fine furniture of solid mahogany, French continental ébénistes in a sense imitated the work of their West Indian colony craftsmen in that the island furniture makers (menuisiers d`assemblage or makers of solid wooden furniture) had been crafting solid mahogany furniture from the mid-eighteenth century, but it wasn’t until the 1780`s that solid mahogany was adopted in France for fashionable furniture to any great extent.

Other than mahogany, various island hardwoods were used, especially the locust or courbaril.

The courbaril, yielding a fine-grained, heavy, chocolate-coloured timber; the balata, giving a wood even heavier, denser and darker; the acajou, producing a rich red wood, with a strong scent of cedar; the bois-de-fer; the bois d`Inde; the superb acomat,-all used to flourish by tens of thousands upon these volcanic slopes, whose productiveness is eighteen times greater than that of European soil. All Martinique furniture used to be made of native woods; and the colored cabinet-makers still produce work which would probably astonish New York or London manufacturers.

One of the most interesting and dangerous exotic tropical woods used to fashion armoires in the islands was manchineel (Hippomane mancinella), which Columbus’s men said “dripped poison”. The Carib Indians poisoned their arrows with the toxic sap, and, in 1733, a royal ordinance prescribed destruction of all manchineel trees in the French island of St. Barthélemy (St. Barths). The trees grow along the coast throughout the French islands and the wood was traditionally used for cabinetwork, interior finish, and furniture.

The useful and popular armoire form was also adapted in the French islands to a smaller size, the petite armoire, known locally, depending on the island, as a press or ‘salon press.’ These low petite armoires were often made in pairs and placed in the great houses’ larger salon areas, where they held napkins, tablecloths and other linen, or in the bedrooms for the storage of bed and bath linen. Thepetite armoire designs resemble those of Louis XV large armoires, have as precisely balanced symmetry, but smaller proportions, and feature the same stylistic elements. The height of these smaller armoires ranges from forty-two inches to approximately sixty inches.

Another feature of French West Indian craftsmanship was the use of inlay. Only the best cabinetmakers, menuisiers de placage et de marqueterie or veneerers and inlayers, attempted to work with inlay, and, in most examples, contrasting woods, such as dark mahogany with satinwood, would be used. The introduction, in the seventeenth century, of these highly-skilled crafts of veneering and inlay work in furniture, along with the detailed art of dovetailing, established the specialist craftsman as a maître ébéniste or master cabinetmaker. There are examples of French West Indian inlay work on the islands today but armoires with inlay work are rare.

From the turn of the nineteenth century, which was the period of maximum profitability and productivity, until the middle of that century, the sugar- and slave-based plantation economy slowly declined. By the 1860`s, it was apparent that the era of sugar prosperity had ended throughout the Caribbean, including in the French islands.

By the mid-nineteenth century, emancipation and a decreased demand for sugarcane brought the era of plantation opulence and prosperity to an end. After emancipation the decline of the sugar economy not only led to the quick dissolution of the plantocracy, but also to the end of the demand for opulent mahogany furniture. There still existed, however, a demand for island made furniture that resisted the climate and insects, but in simpler, less expensive forms. Talented African West Indian craftsmen took advantage of their new-found freedom, moved from the plantations into nearby villages and towns and started their own businesses. There are records from the third quarter of the nineteenth century of craftsmen, such as cabinetmakers, tailors, blacksmiths, shoemakers and even silversmiths who owned and operated their own businesses and shops.

From this period on, there was an increasing number of middle class families, merchants and professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, who replaced the plantation owners as the primary consumers of island made furniture. This new business-oriented bourgeoisie could not afford to import furniture from France and sought to commission furniture to be made locally by island craftsmen.

During this time the ever popular Louis XV style persisted.

The Louis XV armoire was the most successful one in Martinique. It was copied until the late nineteenth century. In fact, the cabinetmakers often contrasted different color woods on the front of the armoire such as the vivid yellow of satinwood or cypress from the islands against the dark brown finish of the courbaril wood. Copies that are found can always be disassembled. They were made without metal and the armoire design was secured by wooden pegs. The feet were generally carved in the form of scrolls or cross-bows…

Although they were generally conscious of fashionable stylistic elements, the islands` new middle class owned relatively small townhouses and country homes. The fact that there was less money to spend and smaller rooms to furnish led to a demand for less elaborate furniture.

Since the French West Indian cabinetmaker did not label, brand, date or sign his furniture it is the furniture that is the only source material for study. The island crafted armoires that remain on the French islands constitute three-dimensional records that are left to be discovered, examined, identified and researched. The French colonial island armoire itself is evidence of, and witness to, its own creation and history.

Over the last couple of decades, interest in the island furniture tradition has begun to revive. The various mixtures and blends of skills and traditions of French, African, and Caribbean cultures are still rich areas for additional research, awaiting further analysis. The significance of French island furniture, particularly the armoire, in the history of West Indian decorative art has heretofore not been appropriately recognized. As further study is suggested and more research is completed, decorative arts historians will come to appreciate more fully the far-reaching influences and contributions of French West Indian cabinetmakers, both those who were enslaved and those who were free, to the furniture-making tradition in the French islands and the world.

(1) Bouton, Jacques, Relation de l`etablissement des François depuis l`an 1635. Paris, 1640, pg. 273.

(2) Auslander, Leora, Taste and Power, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1996, pg. 31.

(3) Dussert-Vidalet, Bernadette, Le Meuble en Guadeloupe: Les Bois, Les Styles, Les Techniques, Parc Naturel de Guadeloupe, pg. 51.

(4) Roberts, W. Adolphe, The French in the West Indies, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1942, pg. 40.

(5) Rainsford, Marcus, Esq., An Historical Account of The Black Empire of Hayti, Albion Press, 1805, pg. 88.

(6) Guédé, Alain, Monsieur de Saint-George, New York: Picador, 2003, pgs. 39 & 40.

(7) Radcliffe, Virginia, The Caribbean Heritage, New York: Walker and Company, 1976, pg. 105

(8) Cummins, Alissandra, “§ II, 2 (ii): Western cultures: Painting, graphic arts and sculpture,” The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 5, Brugghen, ter-Casson, New York: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1996, pg. 752.

(9) Darmezin de Garlande, Fracoise and Poupon, Joseph, L`Art Mobilier de la Martinique aux XVIII et XIX siecles, Martinique: Departement de la Martinique Office National des Forets, pg. 12.

(10) Sherlock, J. H. Parry & P.M., A Short History of the West Indies, 2nd edition, London: Macmillan, 1963, pg. 71.

(11) Dussert-Vidalet, Bernadette, Le Meuble en Guadeloupe: Les Bois, Les Styles, Les Techniques, Parc Naturel de Guadeloupe, pg. 52.

(12) Darmezin de Garlande, Fracoise and Poupon, Joseph, L`Art Mobilier de la Martinique aux XVIII et XIX siecles, Martinique: Departement de la Martinique Office National des Forets, pg. 13.

(13) Chomereau-Lamotte, Marie, Les Cahiers du Patrimoine, No 15/16, Juillet 1997, II, L`art du meuble a la Martinique, Histoire du Mobilier Antillais, pg. 62

(14) Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Voltaire, New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1965, pg. 306.

(15) Darmezin de Garlande, Fracoise and Poupon, Joseph, L`Art Mobilier de la Martinique aux XVIII et XIX siecles, Martinique: Departement de la Martinique Office National des Forets, pg. 71

(16) Chomereau-Lamotte, Marie, Les Cahiers du Patrimoine, No 15/16, Juillet 1997, II, L`Art du meuble a la Martinique, Histoire du Mobilier Antillais, pg. 68

(17) Cummins, Alissandra, “§ II, 2 (ii): Western cultures: Painting, graphic arts and sculpture,” The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 5, Brugghen, ter-Casson, New York: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1996, pg. 752.

(18) Hinckley, F. Lewis, Directory of the Historic Cabinet Woods, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc, 1960, pg. 133.

(19) Hearn, Lafcadio, Two Years in the French West Indies, Oxford: Signal Books, 2001, p. 214.

(20) Chomereau-Lamotte, Marie, Les Cahiers du Patrimoine, No 15/16, Juillet 1997, II, L`art du meuble a la Martinique, Histoire du Mobilier Antillais, pg. 98