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- 18th C American Furniture Styles
- The Bauhaus School: Weimar 1919
- The Bauhaus School: Design & Architecture
- The End of a Century: Art Nouveau Style
- Biedermeier: The Comfortable Style
- The Souvenir Age
- A History of Ceramic Tiles
- Flow Blue China
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- An American Thanksgiving Through theYears
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- Louis Prang, Father of the American Christmas Card
- Thomas Cook and the Grand Tours
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Biedermeier: The Comfortable Style
Biedermeier, as a style, is as antithetical to Bauhaus as it is possible to get, yet it is a clear steppingstone on the path between 18th century and 20th century taste. Late eighteenth century and very early 19th century style was heavily dominated by the French Empire and Directoire periods in architecture, painting, sculpture and furniture. These are characterised by a Classicism drawn from Greek and Roman original works, newly discovered or re-discovered in the late 18th century, and spread by Napoleon's victorious sweep of Europe in the early 19th century.
In matters of style and taste, France had reigned supreme through most of the 18th century. However, the rather rigid Neo-Classicism that was so prevalent in France under Louis XVI changed in the latter part of the 18th century after the French Revolution.
The Revolution brought with it a reaction to Louis XVI taste and a growing fashion for the so-called "Archaeological" styles. With contemporary discoveries and the resulting publications of archaeological "finds" (such as Greek vases, Roman and Pompeii frescoes, Greek and Roman furniture) new designs taken directly from models from the ancient world began to influence the decorative arts throughout Europe. The Napoleonic campaigns brought further influences of Egyptian motifs into the decorative arts and added to the heady mix of fashionable styles at the beginning of the 19th century.
After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, following Napoleon's defeat, several factors came together: a rebellion against the Classical formalism of the Empire period, the rise of the middle-class and decline of the aristocracy, and the beginnings of the industrialization of Europe.
A simpler version of the French Empire and Directoire styles, Biedermeier got its name from a newspaper cartoon character known as "Papa Biedermeier," who was a symbol of the unsophisticated middle class. He expounded his conventional political views and was the essence of the happy, solid, ordinary citizen.
As a style it was excellently suited to the new middle class culture of living beginning its ascendency. The security of the home should be unostentatious, comfortable and intimate (everything "simple and smooth" as Goethe would say). Biedermeier art is true to reality, and the middle class created it as their own style. It developed its own formal stylistic characteristics in the music of Beethoven and Schubert, the literature of Goethe, in traditional crafts and in more natural and nationalistic clothing.
Where the aristocracy in an earlier period had spent lavishly on exotic woods, expensive metals and costly fabrics, the new middle-class looked for elegance that was cost-effective, used local materials, and reflected their conservative tastes. The formal vocabulary of the style may be read most clearly in furniture: weighty forms, reliable materials, smoothly polished surfaces, restrained decoration, the use of materials with characteristic patterns and great durability. In Biedermeier furniture, the choice of wood was of primary importance. Smooth, flat surfaces with little or no carving were typical, so that the grain of the wood became the most important element of decoration. The choice of fruitwood was partly a reaction to the Empire period's emphasis on dark mahogany wood and ormolu mounts.
Biedermeier furniture was devoted to comfort and simplicity. Most often constructed along classical lines, it was usually made of light colored, less expensive woods like elm or fruitwoods, but ash, walnut, maple, birch, beech, and even mahogany examples exist. Decorations were put on with black or gold paint. Popular motifs were wreaths and festoons. Chairs and sofas were upholstered with horsehair, calico and rep (a ribbed woven fabric). The Biedermeier style featured less expensive stamped brass rather than bronze for decorative effect and gilded wooden stars instead of the elaborate metal ornaments of the richer Empire style.
There was a scaling down of Baroque opulence that still lingered in some houses of the nobility. One historian, J. Matasoviae, wrote that a "conservation of culture" was to be found in some "houses not of the nobility," and that there was a general desire to foster "graciousness and bon ton, even though sometimes in a clumsy way." The rising standard of living in some town houses did not mean a lot of china from Vienna but plenty of stoneware and wax. Leisure time was filled with the music of the violin and flageolet (a type of violin) instead of the clavichord. Visiting was especially popular. The main rule for good manners was "to be considerate and gracious. If the aristocracy had inherited good manners the middle class were doing their best to learn them..."
This period between 1815 and 1850 coincided with the early years of Queen Victoria's reign in England. The great articles of faith of the mid-19th century were the importance of family, high moral standards, industriousness as well as vigorous leisure, and aspirations toward gentility. A rising discontent among the poor and working classes, imperialism, nascent social and political reform were the demons hiding in the wings in Britain and the Continent. One's home and family were havens of comfort and security, bulwarks against unrest, disorder and change. As a symbol of one's faith in family and hearth, Biedermeier furniture fulfilled all expectations for durability, for elegance without ostentation, and for functional usefulness.
Fine examples of the variety of woods used in Biedermeier furniture are shown at Rita Bucheit Ltd.
For further reading on Biedermeier style:
Antique Furniture of Biedermeier
"What is Biedermeier?"
The Antiques Almanac's "Biedermeier Furniture: Form Follows Function."
Art News n' Views "Biedermeier Style: Beidermeier Furniture"
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