Skip to main content
Select Source:

Decorative Arts


DECORATIVE ARTS. Broadly understood, the decorative arts comprise objects that possess artistic qualities and were created by skilled makers, but do not belong to the general categories of painting, sculpture, or architecture. They include, but are not limited to, the decoration and furnishing of interiors, personal adornment (costume and jewelry), and, later, with the rise of industrialization, product design. From its origin in the mid-nineteenth century, methodology in decorative arts studies concentrated on connoisseurshipdating, attribution, establishment of formal and regional categorieswhich became increasingly specialized, usually divided by medium and country of origin (French porcelain, English furniture, German pewter, etc.). Since the 1970s, the field has been enriched by trends adapted from social and economic history (patronage and consumption) and anthropology (material culture and behavioral studies) to form a multifaceted investigation of the objects themselves within their context as part of the history of visual culture.


For the greater part of the early modern period, textiles, especially pictorial tapestries, were the most valuable and valued items of interior decoration. Made of wool, silk, cotton, and linen, patterned flat weaves, velvets, brocades, and damasks were used to cover walls, floors, and furniture, while other fabric was made into clothing. Due to wear and their fragile nature, however, a disproportionately small number of historical textiles survive, which has led to their relative underrepresentation in art historical studies. Related to textiles, costume history examines the development of forms and techniques of dress and body ornament, which from the beginning, but especially since the eighteenth century, focused increasingly on female dress.

Furniture, made of a variety of woods according to regional availability and preference, forms another basic category, with tables, chairs, beds, case furniture (chests, cupboards, commodes, etc.), and frames representing the major types. Plain, carved, or painted, frequently inlaid (intarsia) or veneered (marquetry) in patterns or pictures with a variety of materials, or at times gilt and embellished with metal mounts, furniture could range from the mundane to the highly sophisticated in design and manufacture.

Ceramics, one of the most ancient crafts, also experienced an increase in variety, artistic attention, and refinement. Continuing a medieval tradition, the German Rhineland (Cologne, Raeren, Siegburg) and, later, Staffordshire in England produced prized stoneware, often with elaborate allegoricalsometimes even politicalrelief decoration, while southern Europe (Spain, Italy, and France) excelled in earthenware (faience, majolica) using painting with metallic oxide pigments on tin glazes for colorful pictorial scenes (istoriato) or shimmering metallic effects (lusterware). Seeking to emulate costly imported Asian porcelain, technical experimentations led to a number of imitations of itfor example, Medici porcelain from Florence (c. 15751587), a highly vitreous substance, or the blue and white earthenware of Delft, Holland, from the mid-seventeenth century onculminating in the "invention" of soft- and, later, hard-paste porcelain at the manufactories of Meissen, Germany, in 1709 and Vincennes-Sèvres, France (established 1738).

Major categories of metalwork are associated with cooking and the table, arms and armor, liturgical objects, lighting and heating, and jewelry. Depending on the rarity and qualities of the materials used, such works comprised utilitarian objects (bronze, brass, iron, steel, pewter) as well as more decorative ones (gold, silver, gilt silver, gilt bronze), intended mainly, but not exclusively, for show and status. Because of their high value, works in gold and silver received particular artistic attention, leading to an extraordinary sophistication of all the related techniques: the raising of sheet through embossing and chasing; the successful casting of detailed models, large and small, as well as natural objects; the development of hollow lost wax casting to achieve series of identical pieces; and enameling in translucent and opaque colors on flat (champlevé, basse taille, painted enamel) and round (en ronde bosse) surfaces.

The art of glass, retained in Europe since the Roman Empire, flourished anew from the early sixteenth century in particular in Venice, where clear crystal glass was rediscovered and fashioned into vessels, stemware, and mirrors (backed with an amalgam of mercury and tin). Centers in northern and central Europe (Nuremberg, Munich, Potsdam, Prague, Dresden, Switzerland) continued to produce stained glass and hard crystal suitable for etching and engraving (the latter a specialty in Holland) while geometric cut glass decoration was developed in England in the mid-eighteenth century and widely manufactured in Ireland (Cork, Waterford), Germany, and Bohemia.


Among the works preserved today, those made for the wealthy elite far outnumber those made for less economically strong consumers. This situation (putting aside the question of artistic value) has resulted in a less intensive investigation of objects made for the middle and lower classes, especially those from the beginning of the early modern period. In the sixteenth century, monarchs, court society, and the church provided most of the advanced patronage, while civic groups in the mercantile city-states and humanist circles played a somewhat lesser role. As patrons and consumers, the absolutist rulers of the seventeenth century were role models for the aristocracy and the growing patrician and merchant classes, who imitated them as best they could. A greater diffusion of wealth, erudition, and interest in the course of the eighteenth century led to a broadening of the consumer base, but high quality decorative arts were still the focus of the luxury trade. Although production was tailored in an increasingly commercial way toward demand and changing fashion, consumption was massed in the upper social classes, which set the tone for others.

With the growing self-awareness of artists during the Renaissance, the medieval guild system, which guaranteed the quality of products and protected makers but also circumscribed their activities, was gradually weakened in favor of greater freedom of involvement by individuals in different crafts. In the course of the sixteenth century, court artists were exempted from guild rules by their royal or princely patrons. The first court workshops in Florence under the Medici and in Prague under Rudolf II inspired the development of better structured royal manufactories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the most famous were the Gobelins under Louis XIV and the porcelain factories of Meissen under August the Strong of Saxony and Sèvres under Louis XV. Concurrent with the rise of the mercantile middle class, independent entrepreneurs in the eighteenth century established the first commercial enterprises, for example the potteries of Josiah Wedgwood (17301795) in Staffordshire (established 1759), the furniture works of David Roentgen (17431807) near Coblenz (established 1750), or the luxury merchants (marchands merciers) of Paris, such as Lazare Duvaux (17091758) and Dominique Daguerre (fl. 17871795). The official abolition of the guilds and corporations in post-Revolutionary France in 1791 was a signal event; after the Napoleonic wars, European guilds never again regained their former power.


While certain regional preferences remained, the early modern period is generally characterized by increasing internationalism in terms of style and innovation. This development was promoted by two factors: traveling artists seeking their fortunes at different courts or mercantile centers, and the explosive rise of the print medium, which disseminated artistic ideas with precision and ease.

The humanist-influenced Renaissance brought a renewed and self-conscious review of the classical past. On objects it expressed itself in dense and colorful decoration with a multitude of figural and ornamental motifs derived from antiquity. Figures in classical drapery with well-defined anatomy, subject matter from mythology or Roman history, allegory, and personifications provided a rich canon to draw from. Other ornament was derived mainly from architecture: elaborate moldings, meanders, scrolling vines, acanthus leaves, rosettes, egg-and-dart and beaded bands, gadrooning, and grotesques, named after the excavations of grottos (most notably the Domus Aurea) in Rome in the early sixteenth century.

Architecture and sculpture also provided important impulses for baroque decorative arts: shapes of weightier proportions, massive S-scrolls, gilt ornament, and layered moldings; and energized, active, and emotionally expressive figures, animals, and mythological creatures. A particular development was the predilection for elaborate floral and vegetal ornament and patterns that can be found in almost all media of seventeenth-century decorative arts.

By the eighteenth century, France (and especially Paris) was the leading center for new taste and design. The essence of the rococo originated in French decorative arts, first apparent in the 1730s in silver and wood carvings (boiseries) and stucco decorations in interiors: swirling asymmetrical designs (opposed, irregular C-scrolls, shapes derived from rocks and shells, lines from water and waves), new naturalism (flowers, birds, and other realistic plants and animals), pastel colors, and fascination with the exotic Near and Far East. In a conscious backlash, the late 1750s brought back clearer, more rigid geometric principles derived from a new, more archaeologically based reception of antiquity. This neoclassicism evolved into more attenuated and richly ornamented forms in the 1770s and 1780s, and by the late 1810s resolved itself into an ever more rapid succession of revivals during the nineteenth century, from the neo-Gothic of the 1830s to the neo-Renaissance in the 1840s and 1850s, and the other historical styles that followed.


The number of anonymous masters in the decorative arts remains far greater than that of known artists, although recent research is uncovering more names of notable figures. Most textile weavers are unknown, while the designers, especially of tapestries, include many famous painters, such as Raphael (14831520), Bernard van Orley (14921542), and Peter Paul Rubens (15771640).

There are hardly any known furniture makers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, although Jacques Androuet du Cerceau the Elder (1510/15121585) and Hans Vredeman de Vries (15271606) must be mentioned for their influential prints of furniture designs. The first names and careers emerge in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: foremost among the group of Netherlandish and German émigrés working in France was André-Charles Boulle (16421732), who became famous for his delicate inlays of brass, tortoiseshell, and pewter (Boulle marquetry) and is credited with inventing the commode. The factories of Abraham Roentgen (17111793) and his son David produced furniture with the finest pictorial marquetry and ingenious mechanical features, pieces which they exported from Neuwied near Coblenz to all the major cities in Europe. Thomas Chippendale (17181779), whose name is synonymous with mahogany furniture carved in a late rococo or "Chinese" style, was the most influential maker, designer, and businessman for furniture in England. He published the first comprehensive book of designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director (1st edition, 1754), which cleverly addressed both his potential clients and fellow craftsmen.

In the field of ceramics, Johann Friedrich Böttger (16821719) stands out as the inventor of European hard-paste porcelain at Meissen, while Johann Joachim Kändler (17061775) was the factory's widely imitated modeler of animals and figures. In England, the great technical innovator and entrepreneur was Wedgwood, who revolutionized the manufacture, style, and marketing of his attractive pottery, especially his cameolike jasperware in muted opaque colors with applied delicate white reliefs.

It is remarkable how many of the great Renaissance sculptors began their careers as goldsmiths: the most famous is Benvenuto Cellini (15001571), whose renowned saltcellar, made for Francis I, perfectly combines sculpture and goldsmith's work, but the list also includes Filippo Brunelleschi (13771446), Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 13811455), Donatello (c. 13861466), and the painter Albrecht Dürer (14711528). Other innovative and noteworthy artists in gold and silver include Wenzel Jamnitzer (15081585, Nuremberg), Paulus van Vianen (c. 15701613, active in Utrecht, Munich, and Prague), and Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (16951750, Turin and Paris).

The seventeenth century saw the evolution of the designer as a distinct artist, a development that was instrumental for the gradually emerging notion of a stylistically unified interior. Most often trained as an architect or a painter, the designer worked mainly as a draftsman and often subcontracted or supervised other specialist craftsmen. Among the earliest are Gian Lorenzo Bernini (15981680) and Giovanni Paolo Schor (16151674) in Rome, who in turn inspired Charles Lebrun (16191690), the first and most important director of the French Gobelins, which furnished Versailles and the other palaces of Louis XIV. The outstanding architect-designer of England was undoubtedly Robert Adam (17281792), who gave his name to a whole class of neoclassical buildings, interiors, and furnishings. Charles Percier (17641838) and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (17621853) were jointly responsible for the enduring late neoclassical style of furniture and interiors, often referred to as the empire.


The early modern period lacked the hierarchical division of fine and decorative arts, which was only established in the mid-nineteenth century. Textiles, furniture, and gold and silver, for example, were seen as entirely equal in artistic value and were generally more expensive than paintings or sculpture. The decorative arts played an important role in the often scripted life of the higher echelons of society that was imitated by others. Records of objects' placement and meticulous descriptions illustrate their multifaceted functions. They articulated a space, defined the actors in it, and participated in the rituals and actions of daily life. Understood in this manner, decorative arts can provide a particularly immediate and detailed window into the past.

See also Artisans ; Baroque ; Ceramics, Pottery, and Porcelain ; Jewelry ; Prints and Popular Imagery ; Rococo ; Textile Industry .


Campbell, Thomas P. Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence. Exh. cat. New York, 2002.

Coutts, Howard. The Age of Ceramics: European Ceramic Design 15001830. New Haven and London, 2001.

Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. New Haven and London, 1978.

Hayward, Helena, ed. World Furniture: An Illustrated History from Earliest Times. London, 1965.

Hernmarck, Carl. The Art of the European Silversmith, 14301830. London, 1977.

Liefkes, J. Reino, ed. Glass. London, 1997.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 17151789. New Haven and London, 2002.

Thornton, Peter. Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland. New Haven and London, 1978.

Verlet, Pierre. French Furniture of the Eighteenth Century. Translated by Penelope Hunter-Stiebel. Charlottesville, Va., and London 1991.

Versailles et les tables royales en Europe: XVIIème-XIXème siècles. Exh. cat. Paris, 1993.

Walker, Stefanie, and Frederick Hammond, eds. Life and the Arts in the Baroque Palaces of Rome: Ambiente Barocco. Exh. cat. New Haven and London, 1999.

Stefanie Walker

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Decorative Arts." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Decorative Arts." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 15, 2017).

"Decorative Arts." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

decorative arts

decorative arts, term referring to a variety of applied visual arts, both two- and three-dimensional, including textiles, metalwork, ceramics, books, and woodwork, as well as to certain aspects of architecture (see ornament), public buildings, and private houses (see interior decoration). It is also applied to numerous household objects that have surfaces suitable for ornamental design; to ecclesiastical vestments and appurtenances; and to personal apparel and belongings, including costumes, jewelry, goldwork and silverware, arms and armor, tools, saddles, and automobiles.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"decorative arts." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"decorative arts." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 15, 2017).

"decorative arts." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from