When you go hunting for furniture, you may see an antique day-bed or sofa, fall in love with it, and not care what it’s called. Or you may want to know which of the various French names for different designs suits it best. Is a récamier the same as a chaise longue? And what about a méridienne or a duchesse brisée?
A chaise longue, meaning long chair, is a day-bed with a raised head-rest at one end to support you as you recline. It’s a kind of couch with either no “back” running the length of it, or a low one. It’s designed for stretching out on, though it can seat two or three people sitting upright. Chaise longue is an appropriate name for any furniture of this general type.
It applies not only to antique chaises with carved legs and scrolling backs, but also to many modern styles descended from them, including sun loungers. And because it’s such a good shape for lounging on, the chaise longue is now often called a chaise lounge, especially in American English.
Some varieties of chaise longue have their own special names. Strictly speaking, a récamier has two raised ends, and nothing on the long sides. It’s named after French society hostess Madame Récamier, who posed elegantly on a couch of this kind to have her portrait painted in 1800, and is sometimes associated with French Empire (neo-classical) style. The shape is similar to a traditional lit bateau (boat bed) but made for the drawing room, not the bedroom. Other styles too are sometimes described as récamiers, and this is sanctioned by at least one major English dictionary. The word can also be used to describe the reclining pose, not just the furniture. You may sometimes see the expressions ‘recamier sofa’ or ‘recamier couch’.
The joyously colourful contemporary chaise in the photograph above looks like a méridienne, with a high head-rest, and a lower foot-rest, joined by a a sloping piece. Whether or not they have anything at the foot end, méridiennes are asymmetrical day-beds, and are defined that way in the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. They were popular in the grand houses of France around the same time as the recamier, in the early 19th century. The name tells you to rest on it in the middle of the day, when the sun is near the meridian.
The duchesse is a slightly older design with a more chair-like back that curves round the sitter before sloping down towards two arms. It has the look of an armchair that’s been extended to support the legs. Often it’s in the duchesse brisée form, divided into a chair plus long footstool, or two chairs with a stool in between. That makes sense since brisée means broken, but no-one knows if it’s called after any particular duchess.
One other name, more or less gone out of use, is dormeuse – a sleeper. Some of the names may be old-fashioned, or used only by enthusiasts, but the pieces they describe remain popular, and real antiques can fetch good prices at auction.