By: Fred Taylor
When young Victoria became queen of England in 1837 after the
death of her uncle, William IV, the furniture world was
energized by new possibilities. English furniture styling was
stale, suffering from the lingering effects of the Regency of
the Prince of Wales (George IV) and the benign neglect of
William IV. American furniture was struggling with late Empire
and Classicism and looking for the next thing to come along.
The next great thing, as it turned out, was a previously great
thing - or two or three. For inspiration, designers looked to
the past as they have so many times before and came up with an
entire series of historical revivals that carried furniture
making into the 20th century. Virtually all furniture produced
during America's greatest period of expansion in the mid to late
19th century, whether by hand or in the factory, was a revival
of one sort or another.
This chair by John Jellif features carved heads in addition
to normal Renaissance elements.
The first in the series of 19th century revivals was Gothic. The
Middle Ages was obviously such a fun time that it naturally
needed an encore. The second in the series of revivals was the
Rococo, showing up in America in the 1840's as the innovative
resurrection of the elaborate 18th century Rococo styling of the
courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV. The innovation apparent in
this revival can be seen in the original works of John Henry
Belter, Alexander Roux and the Meeks brothers, among others.
Its successor, the last in the line of revivals, was the
Renaissance Revival, an architectural form that easily made the
transition from the custom, one of a kind shops in New York and
Philadelphia to the factories of the mid West.
Introduced in the early 1850's as a counter balance to the
flowery Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival borrowed elements
from just about every furniture period since the 1400's. The
impetus for the revival originated in the French court of
Napoleon III and the form soon took on a life of its own. But
what exactly were they trying to revive and why?
There were actually several periods of what could be called a
renaissance or cultural reawakening but it is generally
acknowledged in the West that what is considered to be THE
Renaissance began in Italy in the early 14th century and crept
throughout Europe over the next three centuries.
Since Italy had
been the heart of the Roman Empire, there was a certain kinship
with the classical past. Historical evidence of the Roman period
was everywhere. The palaces of the ruling Italian families were
storehouses of new furniture, influenced by Greek and Roman
tradition. In addition to classical architectural elements such
as columns and pediments, the new furniture was often covered in
carvings depicting ancient mythological and historical themes.
But in western and northern Europe, when the Romans left, so did
the influence. Those parts of Europe continued under the Gothic
influence until late in the Renaissance. Francis I, king of
France from 1515 to 1547, brought Italian artisans to France to
remodel Fontainebleau and ended up with very Italian-like motifs
and furnishings with columns, carved human heads and scrolls.
His successor, Henry II, continued the style, refining the
scale. Henry VIII carried the torch in England, importing his
own Italian artisans who blended English tradition with Italian
Renaissance and produced English Renaissance furniture leading
to the development of the first "draw" table in Elizabethan
So why was Napoleon III trying to resurrect a 300 year old style
based on first century architecture? Returning to France in 1848
after his exile as part of the Bonaparte family in 1816, he was
elected to the Assembly of the Second Republic and then was
elected President the same year. He eventually concentrated all
power in himself and proclaimed himself Emperor in 1852. His
interest in the revival of the French and Italian Renaissance
was his bid to forever link his name to the classical past.
This architectural looking bed was typical of the signature
of Renaissance Revival furniture of the late 19th century. (Swedberg photo).
His revival of the style was greeted warmly in America. As the
straight line alternative to Rococo it was fresh and rich
looking without being frivolous. It was a welcome change and a
new challenge for the brilliant cabinetmakers of the day like
John Jelliff who worked in Newark from 1836 to 1860 and Thomas
Brooks who worked in New York from 1841 to 1876. Even one of the
great Rococo masters, Alexander Roux in Manhattan, was a player
in the Renaissance market. Coming into the business at the
beginning of the era was Gustave Herter, also in Manhattan who
opened his shop in 1851, later to be joined by his brother
Christian to form the firm of Herter Brothers, one of the great
names in Renaissance cabinet making. And Daniel Pabst was making
his excellent mark, working in Philadelphia from 1854 until his
retirement in 1882. George Hunzinger and the firm of Anthony
Kimbel and Joseph Cabus, all of Manhattan, rounded out the top
of the list of the masters of the period working in the new
style. There were others of course but you get the idea.
The furniture that these masters built was an eclectic mix of
14th century Renaissance, Neoclassical and 16th century French
derivation and was based essentially on the rectangle form with
myriad embellishments. Precious metals and semi precious stones
were used as decoration as was porcelain and bronze. Deep gold
lined incising and elegant ebonizing were regular features but
the decoration, no matter how elaborate, was always anchored by
the requisite architectural elements of the column and the
pediment, combined with the overall generally massive scale that
spoke of the classic periods.
But as elaborate and painstakingly detailed as these
masterpieces appeared to be, they still were based on geometric
forms with turned, cutout or incised decorative elements that
could be mass produced on a machine and installed in layers to
get the deep, complicated look.
Before 1870 virtually all fine Renaissance Revival furniture was
made in the East on a one by one, custom order basis but the mid
West was the next stop. The continuing advances in the third
quarter of the 19th century in furniture making technology and
machinery meant that high end, high quality production was
inevitable in the mid West and the Centennial Exposition in
Philadelphia in 1876 was the catalyst.
The marble top vanity completed the
Renaissance Revival "chamber suite". (Swedberg photo).
A few core companies in Grand Rapids made the commitment to the
application of the latest technology by the 1870's, among them
Berkey & Gay, Nelson Matter and Phoenix and the impact was
palpable in Philadelphia. Renaissance Revival was the style of
the Centennial Exposition and Grand Rapids was the star. The
overpowering bedroom sets presented by Berkey & Gay cemented the
reputation of the Grand Rapids factories as THE manufacturers of
bedroom sets or "chamber suites" as they were known.
By the 1880's most of the old line cabinetmakers in the East had
retired or died and for the last two decades of the 19th
century, the factories of the mid West had the middle and upper
end of the Renaissance Revival market to themselves.
The inevitable end came from two different directions, the
desire to return to simplicity, the antithesis of Renaissance
Revival, which embodied itself in the Arts and Crafts movement
of the late 19th and early 20th century and the resurgence of
interest in American heritage which presaged the coming, and
long running, Colonial Revival period.
Renaissance Revival furniture, while not the most favored by
many of today's collectors because of its size and obvious
statement, nevertheless played a pivotal role in American
furniture history. While furnishing the houses of the newly
wealthy industrial class, it provided the technical anchor that
proved instrumental in the development of the country's
industrial base in the 19th century - in preparation for the
About the author:
Fred and Gail Taylor's video, "IDENTIFICATION OF OLDER & ANTIQUE
FURNITURE" is available for $29.95 (includes S&H) from Fred
Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423-0215, phone
800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, e-mail email@example.com.
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