Henry and Aaron Arrowsmith, in The House Decorator and Painter’s Guide of 1840, observed that “the present age is distinguished from all others in having no style which can properly be called its own.” As such, the nineteenth century was marked by an array of revival styles ranging from the classicism of Greece and Rome to the Renaissance and the later Rococo and Neoclassical styles. Some revivals were ignited by the newfound interest in antiquarianism, which the architect Reginald Blomfield called “collector’s mania.” Other revival styles, such as the Gothic Revival, became linked to national identities. Coinciding with the Romantic movement in literature as seen in the works of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870), and Victor Hugo (1802–1885), revivalist designers in the decorative arts also looked romantically to the past to escape the modernity of their industrialized century.
While classical and Gothic styles and motifs were used for design sources in the decorative arts in the eighteenth century, both styles became popular, full-blown revivals in the nineteenth century, reflecting a growing interest in the archaeology of the ancient world as well as that of western Europe. Throughout the century, designers imitated classical forms and decoration as exemplified in a gold necklace (1987.252) that clearly takes its inspiration from ancient Greek gold jewelry. As countries throughout Europe sought to establish national identities, both England and France laid claim to the Gothic as its indigenous style, unlike the borrowed classical styles of ancient Greece and Rome. Although the Gothic style was used for architectural follies in the eighteenth century, the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century was adopted as an antidote to classicism and to reinforce a religious seriousness following the Enlightenment of the previous era. The style, which was deemed suitable as interior decoration for personal libraries and studies, was utilized for most disciplines, including architecture, furniture, ceramics, glass, silver, and textiles.
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852), an architect, designer, and leading proponent of the Gothic Revival in England, was inspired by the ruins of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Gothic architecture surviving in England. His work had far-reaching effects there and ushered in a new intensity of the Gothic style. Pugin believed that the Gothic was the only spiritually ordained style since it predated the rise of commerce and capitalism in England. He was perhaps the first theorist and designer to promote the idea that materials should be truthfully presented in furniture construction rather than disguised in imitation of another material. He also believed that this honesty in design and construction had a moralizing affect upon the user, as exemplified in his “Waste Not Want Not” bread plate of circa 1850 (1994.371). Pugin’s philosophies of design helped shape the Arts and Crafts movement in the second half of the century, which perpetuated the Gothic style through the end of the century, as can be seen in a chair designed in 1870 by Pugin’s son, Edward Welby Pugin (1993.134).
In France, the architect and scholar Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), a leading figure in the Gothic Revival, studied and restored Gothic cathedrals, including Notre Dame in Paris, stimulating an interest in Gothic design there. His comprehensive publications from the 1850s and 1860s on Gothic architecture, furniture, and ironwork influenced designers at home and abroad, particularly in England, where William Burges (1827–1881) acknowledged that he and his contemporary designers “cribbed from Viollet.” Viollet-le-Duc’s influence on the decorative arts extended to Sèvres, where he designed stained glass in the 1840s. His influence was also felt at Gobelins and Beauvais after 1849. Since very few examples of period Gothic furniture survived into the nineteenth century, designers quarried motifs from Gothic architecture and then applied those motifs to established forms, as seen on a chair made by the firm of Joseph-Pierre-François Jeanselme (1995.164).
As industrial manufacturing techniques increased and improved, more styles were employed, giving the growing middle-class population more consumer choices. Works of art evoking the Renaissance, from the Italian and French to the English and German, quickly became popular. Renaissance styles afforded an air of artificial lineage so desired by the newly moneyed, who aped the culture of their social superiors. In France, a pair of bronze candelabra (10.108.1a,b) by the sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye was inspired by Italian Renaissance bronzes. Other objects in the Museum’s collection include a Murano glass goblet (1988.403a, b) and an ornate woodwork casket (1998.19) that typify those crafts of the Renaissance which were much admired in the nineteenth century. Late Renaissance Mannerism was also revered and imitated, as exemplified by a standing cup from the last quarter of the nineteenth century (1988.403a, b).
While older historical styles were being reinterpreted throughout the nineteenth century, the taste for eighteenth-century French decorative arts never disappeared. Even after the French Revolution, royal furniture continued to be admired and collected. Around 1800, England’s George IV and the important collector William Beckford, whose extensive collection also helped to promote the Renaissance Revival, amassed many important pieces of French royal furniture. Even under the Second Empire, Eugénie (r. 1853–71), wife of Napoleon III, identified more closely with Marie Antoinette (r. 1774–93) and the Rococo style than with her predecessor Empress Joséphine (r. 1804–9) and the Empire style.
New methods for veneering and innovations in wood carving helped popularize the revival of the Rococo, the style associated with the reign of Louis XV (1715–74) and Madame de Pompadour, which is characterized by a profusion of C- and S-curves, shells, flowers, and ribbons. With the introduction of coil springs for more comfortable seating (1998.382), innovative manufacturing techniques such as the method of bending wood, new veneering methods of laminating thin sheets of wood, as practiced in America by the German immigrant John H. Belter (1804–1863), and the use of new materials like papier-mâché (1999.50.2), the Rococo Revival had found its way into the drawing rooms and boudoirs of middle-class homes by the second quarter of the century.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, any style could be purchased at various consumer levels, ranging from exceptionally well-made pieces intended for heads of state or international exhibitions to poorly made wares for the less affluent. Because stylistic choices abounded, a variety of unrelated motifs frequently, and confusingly, decorated a single object. As a result, the quality and integrity of design became a topic of debate among critics, prompting designers, artists, and theorists to create coherently conceived, affordable decorative arts, a mission that continues to influence design even today. Nevertheless, the revival styles of the nineteenth century are a testament to new consumer tastes and patterns of consumption as well as to an unprecedented spirit of innovation in industry.
Oshinsky, Sara J. “European Revivalism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eurv/hd_eurv.htm (October 2006)
Gere, Charlotte, and Michael Whiteway. Nineteenth-Century Design: From Pugin to Mackintosh. New York: Abrams, 1994.
Jackson, Anna. The V&A Guide to Period Styles: 400 Years of British Art and Design. See "Influences from beyond Europe" and "Influence of Japan." London: V&A Publications, 2002.