18th century: the Neoclassical style

France

The Neoclassical style, sometimes called Louis Seize, or Louis XVI, began in the 1750s. Tiring of the Rococo style, craftsmen of the 18th century turned for inspiration to Classical art. The movement was stimulated by archaeological discoveries, by travel in Italy, Greece, and the Middle East, and by the publication all over Europe of works on the Classical monuments. The Neoclassical style, based on straight lines and rectilinear forms and using a selection of Classical ornaments, was first applied to French furniture during the 1760s. Classical motifs at first were sparingly applied to furniture of unchanged form, but slowly the curved line of Rococo was replaced by a simpler and more severe rectilinear design: chair legs became straight, tapered, and fluted; commodes and other storage furniture were no longer of bombé form. Marquetry was still widely used for decoration, and some cabinets were made of ebony inset with panels of Japanese lacquer. Boulle, which had not been employed in Louis XV’s reign, returned to fashion. A greater number of pieces were signed during this period (signing had been made compulsory in Paris), and Jean-Henri Riesener, Martin Carlin, and Jean Saunier were a few of the leading cabinetmakers. Several German craftsmen migrated to France because of the royal patronage, among them Abraham and David Roentgen, Adam Weisweiler, and Guillaume Beneman.

These craftsmen were often directly under the patronage of the king, having their workshops in the cellars of the Louvre. Within the shop there was a division of labour, with one craftsman specializing in furniture construction, another in lacquering, and so forth. The craftsmen and the shop were licensed by the government.

England

The Neoclassical reaction, which set in shortly after 1760, reimposed a Classical discipline on design, though of a lighter and more delicate touch than that of the previous Classicists, the Palladians. Robert Adam, whose name is inseparably associated with this movement, had, like earlier architects, studied in Italy. There he sought inspiration in the monuments of both Classical times and the Renaissance. When given a free hand, he included interior decoration and furniture in his architectural schemes, one of the best examples being his alterations and redecorations at Osterley, Middlesex, where he provided harmonious designs for even the lock plates and chimney pieces. His furniture makes restrained use of Classical ornament; but paterae (disks with a design in relief or intaglio), husks (a drop ornament made of whorls of conventionalized foliage usually in a diminishing series), rams’ heads, and urns are less eloquent of the change than the symmetrical structural lines. Marquetry, ormolu mounts, and painting were employed as decoration. Adam’s furniture was copied and modified by contemporary cabinetmakers such as George Hepplewhite in his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788).

Early Neoclassical dining room at Saltram House, Devon, designed by Robert Adam, plasterwork and paintings by Antonio Zucchi, 1768.

In the last 20 years of the 18th century there was a tendency toward greater refinement, lightness, and delicacy in furniture design. Symmetry of form and excellence of proportion were retained for the most part. Heart- and shield-shaped backs on chairs and settees and tapered and fluted supports for tables and other pieces are characteristic; feathers, wheat ears, and shells are prominent in the painted or inlaid decoration. This refinement, strongly feminine in character, is represented in Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterers’ Drawing Book (1791).

The United States

The new Classicism of Robert and James Adam came into vogue in the new republic during the last years of the century. The shipowners and merchants of Salem, Boston, and New York equipped their mansions with the work of Samuel McIntire, John Seymour, and Duncan Phyfe, each of whom produced individual interpretations of the Hepplewhite-Sheraton mode. This early Federal style is characterized by small-scale rectangular design and by a preference for light-toned wood finishes. Surfaces are generally unbroken but decorated with bandings and inlays of contrasting woods, or in Phyfe’s case with low relief carvings in the Adam manner. The most typical pieces are the sideboard (a piece of dining room furniture with compartments and shelves for dishes) and the small secretary desk, both of which developed a peculiarly American form.

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