What is Neoclassicism?
Neoclassicism is a style of decorative art inspired by the art and design tropes of classical Greece and ancient Rome popular between 1760 – 1790
As the French people grew tired of the excesses of the bourgeoisie in the years preceding the French Revolution, the style of design popular during this period reflected the mood of the nation. During the reign of Louis XVI (the last king of France), French intellectuals looked to bring about a sense of moral temperance. This subdued period was inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, as well as Rome’s republican era and the artists and intellectuals of ancient Greece. Associated with modesty and sobriety, Neoclassicism marked a departure from Rococo, the trend that had preceded it, which had been associated with pastel colors, fun, frivolity, and even flirtation, albeit limited to the wealthy classes.
The move towards the Neoclassical style was further influenced by excavations that were taking place during the same period. The buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had fallen victim to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, produced artifacts that helped to inform the new style in decorative art and furniture. It gave people the sense that they were creating something new, but based in the wisdom of the ancient.
The progression from Rococo to Neoclassicism took place gradually; rather than a stark rejection of the former style, many early Neoclassical pieces incorporated both the graceful curves of Rococo and the geometrical severity of the later neoclassical mode. Much of the furniture from Europe in the 1760s and 1770s is referred to as “transitional” in style.
Common Characteristics of Neoclassical Furniture
A far cry from Rococo’s undulating extravagance, this was a relatively minimal style. Neoclassical designers favored geometricity in the form of straight lines, sharp edges, triangles and circles, both for surface decoration (such as through the Greek Key pattern) and overall shapes (tables and chairs had straight legs, building entrances now featured columns).
Animals, both real and imaginary, appeared on furniture. These included dolphins, lions and ram heads, as well as sphinxes, griffins and styrs and more.
Often furniture would be decorated with an ornamental motif known as a “festoon”. A festoon usually flowers, fruit or foliage, and cloth, tied together with ribbons at either end. Often this would be carved from marble or wood, but would also be applied through paint from time to time.
Rows of small beads were often employed in Neoclassical decorative art, frequently in the form of chandeliers and wall sconces.
Much like the Greeks and Romans who inspired them, advocates of Neoclassical design favoured vases as ornaments, and many remain from this period.
Straight, Tapering Legs
The legs found on tables and chairs during the Rococo period would usually have a sense of curve or flow. Meanwhile straight, tapering legs for tables and chairs (albeit often adorned with animals or festoons) were indicative of the Neoclassical style.
Sideboards were a relatively new furniture feature that came about during this period. Sideboards are heavily associated with the Adam Brothers, who are often credited for their popularity (and many assume them to have been the original creators).
Pioneering Neoclassical Architects and Designers
Historically, architects would work on the interior and industrial design aspects of a building, integrating furniture and decorations with the building as a whole.
Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698-1782)
Gabriel was the French architect behind important public spaces in Paris, including the Ecole Militaire and the Place de la Concorde.
Jean Chalgrin (1739-1811)
The architect behind the buildings that represented France on the international stage (those created for the Exposition des produits de l’industrie française, the precursor to the Great Exhibition, which ran from 1798 to 1849). Most famously, Chalgrin was the designer behind one of France’s best-known landmarks, the Arc de Triomphe.
The Adam Brothers
Scottish brothers, Robert (1728 – 1792), James (1732 –1794) and John (1721 –1792) Adam, strongly argued for integration between architecture and interiors. Their interiors work can still be visited by the public in locations such as Syon House in London, which is popular for its Grand Neoclassical interior by Robert Adam.
Sir John Soane (1753 –1837)
One of British history’s best-loved architects, Sir John Soane famously designed the Bank of London following his Grand Tour, in which he was greatly influenced by a visit to Rome. Soane’s Houseis also open to the public in London: members of the public can learn about Soane’s approach to design and view his collections of antiquities from ancient Egypt and Rome that guided his work.