The Decorative Arts in Eighteenth-Century Europe

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The Decorative Arts in Eighteenth-Century Europe

The Growth of Industry.

In the eighteenth century the decorative arts—here understood as the production of upholstered furniture, cabinetmaking, and such household items as porcelains—experienced profound transformations. At the time, rising standards of living as well as declining costs of production brought more consumer goods to a broader spectrum of the population than at any time previously in human history. While this rise in consumption was to continue unabated in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West, many of the design techniques and production methods that developed in the eighteenth-century world have continued to be followed in these industries until modern times. The modern assembly line has added a new dimension to the venerable techniques that cabinetmakers, porcelain manufacturers, and upholsterers pioneered during the course of the eighteenth century. Yet successful eighteenth-century producers might still recognize many of the processes that were pioneered and adopted in these industries in their own time. The rise in consumer goods was to affect tastes and habits in new and unexpected ways, insuring that the European gentry and middle classes were now able to emulate some of the refinement of aristocratic society. At the same time, the standards of consumption unleashed then have also continued to plague the West through the environmental damage that arises from a consumer society. However the rise of new consumer goods is assessed—as a positive element that brought with it rising standards of living, or as a negative phenomenon that bred a "keeping up with the Joneses mentality" and thus poisoned air and water—the ingenuity with which eighteenth-century decorative artists solved problems of production still ranks as a major development of the era. Consumer goods, often decorated with pictures and motifs from the hands of esteemed artists, brought elements of good design within the reach of broad strata of Europe's population.


In the later Renaissance, a fashion had developed in courts and wealthy urban society for maiolica dinnerware, a ceramic or earthenware product that was decorated with intricate patterns and then glazed with tin before being fired. Perfected in Italy, the process had soon been copied in many places in Europe. In the great houses of Europe, nobles had sometimes commissioned noted painters to design the patterns that decorated these dinner services, but as the new products became available at the end of the sixteenth century in many European cities, they were increasingly stamped with stock patterns hastily applied by workers in factories. At the dawn of the seventeenth century, Portuguese and then Dutch traders began to import Chinese porcelains into Europe. These wares were widely prized for their workmanship, and they were at first incredibly expensive because of their greater strength and durability than simple earthenware. They were soon copied in factories in the Netherlands, most notably at Delft, where the typical blue and white "Delftware" that imitated Chinese designs soon became a commercial success. Its popularity increased dramatically at mid-century because the outbreak of civil war in China temporarily cut off the flow of porcelains to Europe. At the same time, the dominant economic theory that reigned in much of Europe in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was mercantilism. Mercantilist theory taught that for a country to prosper it had to limit imports and foster its own native industries in order to be self-sufficient. In this way, a country's own reserves of gold and silver were preserved. By 1700, most European kings and princes worried that the dependence on foreign imports of items like Chinese porcelains, silks, and other decorative items might bankrupt their states, and a flurry of schemes appeared throughout the continent that were designed to increase native production of these materials. Louis XIV's purchase of the Gobelins manufactory in Paris was only the most visible of these attempts. Through the efforts of his chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the king purchased this key industry, which had long woven tapestries and other fabrics for French aristocrats and wealthy city dwellers. Acquired in 1662, the factory flourished for the next two decades, becoming a center for the development of the decorative arts in and around Paris. Its output was not limited to tapestries, but under Louis' chief painter, Charles Le Brun, it educated many French craftsmen in decorative techniques used in furniture production, upholstery, cabinetmaking, and stonecutting. By the end of the century, the scheme had foundered, and the Gobelins confined its aims only to the production of tapestries. It nevertheless had by this date played a key role in advancing the skills of many French craftsmen, who continued to ply the trades they had learned in the eighteenth century. Around 1700, Europeans were still importing lavish amounts of Chinese porcelains and other goods from Asia, all of which fed a taste for oriental decoration. But in the years that followed, new forms of porcelain manufacturing were to be developed in Europe that competed more effectively against imports from East Asia. Kings and princes founded most of the new schemes, while a few were privately financed.


It was in the Saxon town of Meissen, not far from Dresden, that many of the technical problems that had hindered the development of a native porcelain industry in Europe were to be solved. Between 1700 and about 1750, the Saxon princes supported the development of this industry with great enthusiasm, carefully guarding the advances they made in the craft as state secrets. Around 1700, the Saxon court employed two notable alchemists, specialists in chemical compounds who frequently worked in the mining industry, to assist their efforts. Because of their knowledge of smelting and refining techniques, these specialists conducted a number of experiments concerning the vitrification of different mixtures of clay. By 1710, they had perfected a process for creating "hard-paste" porcelain. In this process, the specific mixture of clay resists melting to a very high temperature, and as a result, the materials with which the work is glazed are fused and become one with the fired clay itself. By 1710, the new Meissen factory was producing porcelain that was the equal, and in some cases even superior to the East Asian variety. At first, the decorators at Meissen imitated designs that were available on silver and gold plate, but by 1720 a new designer at the factory was imitating Chinese designs, as well as developing the characteristic European flower patterns that have since figured on much porcelain. At Meissen, designs adapted from the works of such artists as Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and native German artists became common, too. Much of the porcelain produced at the Saxon factory was not intended for public consumption, but was intended for display in the household of the Saxon Duke Friedrich-Augustus. His collection was so extensive that in 1717 he acquired a palace in the city of Dresden just to display his porcelains. Significant innovation and experimentation followed; Meissen figurines were being produced by the 1730s, and by the end of that decade the characteristic pattern known as "Blue Onion" had been produced. Over the coming years, it would compete successfully against Chinese wares and inspire numerous European imitators.

Knowledge Spreads.

Duke Friedrich-Augustus had tried to keep his discovery of "hard-paste" porcelain secret, but knowledge of the innovations that developed in his factory quickly spread to many other European centers. Soon one of his scientists established his own manufactory near Venice with Italian backers. Other factories soon followed in the region, but by 1750 the secrets mastered at Meissen had given rise to porcelain manufactories in Paris, Hamburg, Naples, Vienna, and Munich. By 1775, the famous "Royal Copenhagen" factory, too, carried the techniques of "hard-paste" porcelain into Scandinavia. Many of these early industries were state supported, and some, like Nymphenburg, were not commercially successful, although they produced a high quality product that tended to affect design techniques elsewhere. Similarly, the Sèvres factory near Versailles was a royal workshop created when Louis XV purchased a previously private factory in the region. Between 1756 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the industry produced a number of stunning pieces, notable for their decorative Rococo qualities. The wares of the Sèvres factory relied on a "soft-paste" clay formula, in which the glazed objects were fired at lower temperatures than those executed using Meissen's techniques. As a result, "soft-paste" products were more porous than "hard-paste" varieties, but they were ivory colored, and presented more muted colors when decorated. Thus they came to be as prized as the wares produced at Meissen. Like Nymphenburg, the experiments undertaken at the royal factory at Sèvres were artistically and technically successful. Yet most of the wares produced there found their way into the royal collections or onto the tables of wealthy aristocrats. The factory, in other words, was not a commercial, but rather an artistic success.

Further Production Enhancements.

Most of the porcelains produced in continental European factories in the first half of the eighteenth century were high quality, hand-produced products, requiring a painstaking attention to detail on the part of decorators. In England, new techniques of creating "bone china" had been discovered by 1750. In this method, the burned ash of animal bones was added to the clay. The resulting porcelain was harder than "soft-paste" porcelain, but not as hard as Meissen or other "hard-paste" varieties. By contrast, the great advantage of this new "bone china" was that it was more translucent and delicate than many of the porcelains then in production. The English porcelain industry by and large prospered without royal support. During the 1750s, Josiah Wedgwood and his partner Thomas Whieldon conducted a series of experiments that greatly reduced the costs of producing porcelain, while preserving a high quality product. At this early stage in the company's development, the porcelain was created, fired, and then sent out to be stamped with a design. Soon, Wedgwood and Whieldon perfected a new brilliant green glaze, the likes of which had not been seen before, and which could serve its own decorative purposes. In the years that followed, Wedgwood separated from Whieldon, and developed a new kind of earthenware product that could be used for ornamental items as well as for dinnerware. It had a creamy color and was able to withstand sudden changes in temperature without breaking. When Queen Charlotte purchased a set of the new product, it quickly became known as "Queen's Ware." Several years later, when Josiah Wedgwood supplied the queen with a beautifully executed tea service, she granted the potter the right to advertise himself as a supplier to the crown. From this point, the industrialist's fortunes were secured, and his Queen's Ware became one of Britain's most successful exports. To satisfy the demand from his customers, Wedgwood had to mechanize and further refine his production techniques. New lines of china followed, the most successful of these being the Jasper Ware that began production in the 1770s. The designs of Jasper Ware remain synonymous in many modern people's minds with the Wedgwood Company. Its great possibilities for decoration arose from the fact that it was formed and covered with a white glaze and then bas-relief decoration was applied in a variety of colors. Using this technique, Wedgwood was able to produce high quality, imitation cameo patterns, vases, and other decorative items. The rise to popularity of Jasper Ware in England and throughout Europe coincided with the new Neoclassical fashions popular in the later eighteenth century. Wedgwood himself judged that his finest achievement was his successful copy of the Portland Vase, a beautiful Roman work from the first century C.E. that had found its way to England. Wedgwood executed his first copy around 1789, and one year later he began mass-producing the works and supplying them to those who had previously subscribed to the edition. In this way his production and marketing techniques anticipated the "limited editions" that were to become increasingly important among decorative arts collectors in the modern world. By this time Wedgwood's porcelain factory had already become highly mechanized. Engines now turned the lathes that produced the pottery, and sophisticated thermostats kept the temperature within the kilns constant to avoid over-or under-firing the pottery. In this way, Wedgwood's scientific experiments had laid the foundation for a product notable for its consistency. For these innovations, the potter was named a Fellow of Britain's Royal Society in 1783.

The Factory Model.

Although many of his works may not have been as beautiful or exquisitely crafted as those of the Sèvres or Meissen factories, Wedgwood's wares were more affordably priced, consistently produced, and appealed to contemporary tastes. His greatest achievements, like his Jasper Ware copies of ancient Roman vases, were eventually to be imitated by the great French and German porcelain factories. Elsewhere, the kinds of techniques that Josiah Wedgwood mastered to improve the production of porcelains were being adapted to other industries as well. Certainly, Britain was the leader in this industrialization of the decorative arts, and the country displayed an almost insatiable appetite to find ways of producing high quality consumer goods more cheaply and reliably than before. In the British Isles, new techniques allowed for the mass production of such items as flocked wallpapers, silverplate, and ormolu, a kind of decorative bronzework sometimes gilded to appear as if it was solid gold. These new items allowed the English gentry to decorate their homes in ways that imitated, albeit at considerably less cost, the costly brocades, damasks, and illusionary frescoes that had once lined aristocratic walls. These goods allowed merchants and members of the minor gentry to sip their tea in china cups, after filling them from imposing plated tea services, much like the aristocracy. And through the importing of cheaply gilded chair frames and other component parts from overseas, handsome furniture, too, came into the reach of these classes. While England stood at the forefront of this new "consumer revolution," everywhere in Europe a quickening appetite for goods was prompting producers to find ways to cheapen their costs, while retaining the generally high outward quality and appearance of goods. Mass production thus entered into the European economy to produce both monumental and subtle modulations in the ways in which people lived.


Anthony Burton, Josiah Wedgwood (New York: Stein and Day, 1976).

S. Eriksen and G. de Bellaigue, Sèvres Porcelain: Vincennes and Sèvres, 1740–1800 (London: Faber and Faber, 1987).

Janet Gleeson, The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain (New York: Bantam Books, 1998).

Willi Goder, et al., Johann Friedrich Böttger: Die Erfindung des europäischen Porzellans (Stuttgart, Germany: Kohlhammer, 1982).

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The Decorative Arts in Eighteenth-Century Europe

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