Monday, May 7, 2018

The Chaise Longue

Monday, May 7, 2018
Madame Recamier by David 1800
Loretta reports:

A reader recently commented:
"This is off topic, but yesterday my family visited the Breakers in Newport. I noticed a lot of chaise lounges in the bedroom and asked the docent how you sat in them. He asked a friend, and they said that napping in bed was considered feeble, or improper so they invented the lounges, but they were only briefly popular."
Let me start by staying that Docents/Tour Guides are not all historians, and not everything they say should be taken as gospel. In the course of our travels to historic sites, Susan and I have heard some interesting “explanations” of this and that, which range from Nonsense to Strange But Mostly True to Impeccably Researched.

First, let’s let the Merriam Webster site get the chaise longue vs. chaise lounge terminology out of the way—but please note that, generally, the English went with longue, while Americans leaned on lounge.

Second, the chaise longue was not an invention of the Gilded Age, but was around long before the Breakers was built in 1893. Madame Recamier reclines upon one in the image, upper left, from 1800. The chaise longue at right below appeared in the first volume of Ackermann’s Repository (January 1809). Depending on what you call it—daybed, fainting couch, etc., this type of furniture goes back to the time of the Egyptians, But for now I'm focusing on the 19th century chaise longue.

Third, this piece of furniture had, so far as I can ascertain, nothing to do with napping in bed being feeble or improper. (The Met offers its theory about daybeds, here.) It was often found in the boudoir (though that’s by no means the only place), and was rather more than “briefly popular.” Characters in numerous 19th century novels are lying on chaise longues* or swooning or sitting or dying on them or adding them to a room’s furnishing or throwing a pillow on them or some such.

Chaise Longue January 1809 Ackermann's Repository
The Craftsman, Vol. 29, 1915, offers a history, with illustrations, and refers to a “revival.” However, examples of chaise longues appear during the Victorian era as well as the Regency. It's possible, certainly, that one generation or group found them old-fashioned, and another decided they were cool again.

Here’s an 1805 image from A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration in the Most Approved and Elegant Taste. You can see many Victorian examples here at Carter’s Price Guide to Antiques.
Moving on to the 20th century: Here’s a 1914 image from Elsie de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste.  Here’s a May 1920 image from Illustrated World. And here's an interesting 3-piece version for 1921 from The House Beautiful.

*Chaises longues is also correct for the plural. Dictionaries differ on this. Take your pick.

Images: Jacques-Louis David  (1748–1825) Portrait of Madame Récamier (1800), Louvre Museum
Chaise longue from Ackermann’s Repository January 1809, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art via Internet Archive.

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Cynthia Lambert said...

Thank you, ladies, for calling it a chaise longue in the proper way. Chaise longue is a french name for this item of furniture (translated - long chair), so LOUNGE is a misspelling. One wouldn't call a bergere a berger or a fauteuil a fauxtoy, so why misspell longue?
Having been a docent for years and years at many museum sites, it slays me sometimes what comes out of the mouths of guides. One could write a book, and I've heard some doozies. One of the ongoing names, "fainting couch" really gets me going. The theory being that women kept them to faint on when their stays were laced, as though it were a daily occurrence. How silly.
The three piece "chaise longue" you mention is actually a duchesse brisée, a beautiful and versatile furniture form that can be used as a chaise or two chaises and a stool, depending upon the need.
Thanks again for focusing on this chair type, and clearing up a lot of misinformation. Love it!

Amelia said...

My French professor always said "pas de Mme. Recamier" if we put our feet on a chair in class

Unknown said...

In many ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Romans, only the nobility and well-to-do reclined while eating. That's why on Passover, one of the Four Questions, which are the key to the celebration, is, "On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?"

Loretta Chase said...


Melody said...

I like a short nap in the afternoons but I don’t want to do it on my bed where I’ll fall into a coma and sleep for hours. The chaise longue seems to be the perfect device for cat naps and I’ve always wondered if that was its original purpose. A napper could lay down on their side or back and have a quick refreshing nap without wrinkling their clothing.

Georgie said...

In 'Barchester Towers', one of the characters is a morally suspect beauty, Madame Neroni, who has a damaged hip.
" She was a basilisk from whom an ardent lover of beauty could make no escape. Her nose and mouth and teeth and chin and neck and bust were perfect, much more so at twenty-eight than they had been at eighteen. What wonder that with such charms still glowing in her face, and with such deformity destroying her figure, she should resolve to be seen, but only to be seen reclining on a sofa."

At one point, she attends a party, and "she...sent a servant beforehand to learn whether it was a right- or a left-hand sofa, for it required that she should dress accordingly, particularly as regarded her bracelets."

So it seems as if, at least indirectly, Trollope is suggesting a chaise longue is a slightly decadent piece of furniture. Is it the link with Mme Recamier that's caused that, I wonder?

Michaela said...

It seems funny that we should come up with a reason as to why they existed at all. Need I explain why a Lazy Boy reclining chair is in my house? It's comfortable, and if it happens to be leather, then it looks nicer. I wonder what the explanation of those will be in 200 years! Maybe they will be described as, "a chair for falling asleep, after one had an overindulgent snack in front of the television." A chaise longue is a comfortable type of furniture that is stylish. That seems to be the only explanation necessary. And let's face it, reclining in a slouchy way on a regular sofa is impossible in a corset.

Liz said...

Called a chaise longue here in Canada--must be the combination of British and French influence. My grandmother used to take a nap after lunch at our summer cottage on a chaise longue under the pines. It was a grand name for a piece of folding lawn furniture!

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