“The one way for us to become great, perhaps inimitable, is by imitating the ancients.” — Johann Joachim Wincklemann
As the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment spread throughout Europe in the 18th century, cultural changes centered around freedom, progress and knowledge developed. Furthermore, archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748 were met with a surge of renewed interest in the lives and arts of the ancients. A new era of academia and artistic development began. Curiosity about and study of ancient Rome and Greece expanded, and as a result, opulent and ornate rococo designs fell out of fashion in favor of a new movement called Neoclassicism.
Generally, neoclassical furniture is identifiable by its use of columns, gilt, classical reliefs, moderate ornamentation and satin upholstery. Woods such as oak and walnut were commonly used in the furniture as well as mahogany veneer. Elaborate marquetry inlay was often seen, showcasing impeccable attention to detail and delightful designs. Rectangular shapes and right angles replaced the circular and rounded parts of rococo and baroque styles. And while neoclassical furniture is all based on a fascination with antiquity, there are variances in neoclassical periods. Join us today as we walk through some of the most important neoclassical furniture and design movements.
Louis XVI (1760-1789)
There are three French neoclassical furniture periods: Louis XVI , Directoire and Empire. First, let’s dive into the Louis XVI period. While the furniture of this era does reflect some baroque fashions of the previous age, a greater value was based on symmetry, simplicity and luxurious classical details. The style was highly promoted and used by Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI’s wife, as she decorated the Cabinet of the Queen. Famous craftsmen of the era include George Jacobs, Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené and André-Louis Gilbert.
Following the fall of the French monarchy and the death of Louis XVI came the the Directoire period, which promoted a highly refined and understated style of furniture. Revolutionaries had revolted against the perceived overindulgences of the king, and thus fashions became far more stoic following the dissolution of the monarchy. Elegant lines and limited details are often found in furnishings of this period. Motifs were far more understated than Louis XVI-era furniture while still recalling classical designs. Leaders of the Directoire age were designers Charles Percier and Pier François Léonard Fontaine.
Late Georgian (1760-1810)
The English reaction to the opulence and extravagance of the baroque style resulted in a focus on classical antiquity. Popular designs during the Georgian period were often inspired by Roman antiquity; however, the reign of King George III brought in true neoclassical inspiration. Designs began to embrace symmetry, and common motifs included columns, pediments, busts, masks and shells. Thomas Chippendale, Robert Adams, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton were popular English designers known for their neoclassical works.
Thomas Chippendale is one of the most famed cabinet makers of English nationality, and he was a master of both rococo and neoclassical design. His final revisions of his book, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, in 1762 showed his preference for neoclassical designs.
Robert Adams was perhaps the most important designer in the development of English neoclassicism in furniture and the decorative arts. During a trip to Italy, Adams studied antique decoration, and upon his return, he designed entire rooms as well as furniture in designs influenced by his travels. Adams’ inspired many other designers of the time.
George Hepplewhite was another important designer of the period, and he was particularly known for his slender neoclassical designs. Motifs of graceful swags, feathers and ribbons often decorated his works. Straight, tapered legs and shield-shaped chair backs were a hallmark of Hepplewhite’s designs. His Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide included about 300 of his designs, which focused on furniture’s utility and elegance.
Regency Period (1800-1830)
Starting around 1800, a focus towards heavier decoration began in English neoclassical works. Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman motifs such a sphinxes, ancient gods, griffins and lions were often used as decoration. Brass accents on corners, legs, hinges and handles often featured these elaborate motifs and were juxtaposed with simplistic, yet beautiful wooden structures. Asian influences from India, Japan and China started to arise as bamboo and lacquered finishes began to mix with neoclassical designs.
American reached the Federal period after gaining independence. This period of governmental growth and development also welcomed a new period of design. Furniture was greatly inspired by the French Empire style and by British neoclassical designs. Especially influential were the English designers Adams, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. Motifs, however, reflected democracy and freedom, and depicted symbols like the eagle and stars instead of traditional neoclassical motifs. Dark woods like cherry and walnut were popular materials for American pieces; inlay was a common technique as well.
Neoclassical furniture spanned generations and saw numerous designers, trends and techniques over the years. To see more examples of exceptional neoclassical pieces from M. S. Rau, click here.
Bachhawat, Amitabh. 2010. "The Age Of Revivals: Neoclassical Furniture". Artnewsnviews.Com. http://www.artnewsnviews.com/view-article.php?article=the-age-of-revivals-neoclassical-furniture&iid=13&articleid=246.
Corrigan, Timothy. 2020. "Knowledge Center: Regency Classicism". Timothy Corrigan. https://www.timothy-corrigan.com/antiques/knowledge-center/history-of-british-furniture-styles-regency-classicism-gothic-revival-victorian-period.
Gontar, Cybele. 2003. "Neoclassicism". Metmuseum.Org. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/neoc_1/hd_neoc_1.htm.
"Neoclassical Style Furniture". 2012. Furniturestyles.Net. https://www.furniturestyles.net/european/english/late-georgian.html.
"Sheraton Furniture: History, Style & Characteristics". 2020. Study.Com. https://study.com/academy/lesson/sheraton-furniture-history-style-characteristics.html.
"The Federal Style: American Neoclassicism, 1780-1820". 2017. Baynebox.Com. https://baynebox.com/news/the-federal-style-american-neoclassicism-17801820/.